Urban planning at the cost of health?

With urban design becoming more aggressive, people are deprived of walkability that finally affects their health and safety.
While most cities are being designed for the convenience of vehicles, residents are losing out on choosing more active ways to get around, such as walking or cycling.
Even where sidewalks exist, large intersections and speeding traffic may make walking unpleasant or even unsafe. It also cancels out the health benefits as walkers breathe a large amount of traffic fumes.
The first step while planning a city is to ensure that pedestrian-friendly streets are constructed for the convenience of the people.
Studies point out that roads built solely for the use of cars discourage people from making walking and cycling a part of their daily routine, depriving them of such health benefits as lower rates of obesity and diabetes.
An urban environment that promotes physical activity in all areas of life, including travel by foot or bicycle, can make physical activity a part of people’s daily lives.
According to statistics, physical inactivity in Oman stands at 37 per cent.
“Urban planning in Oman has taken little consideration in designing open spaces that belong to the public realm and support physical activity,” says a report by Ruth Mary, former National Professional Officer at the Country Office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Oman.
As the Muscat area continues to grow and develop, Oman is faced with a choice between car-dependent urban sprawl and a more deliberate planning approach that can (also) encourage walking and cycling.
“Promoting walkability is a key measure to bring people into the public space, reduce congestion and boost local economy and interactions,” she says in the report titled, ‘Are walkable neighbourhoods possible in urban Oman?’
A vibrant street life encourages people to walk or cycle around, while a rational street network enables necessary city administrative services to be offered within walking or cycling distance and ensures security. High density, mixed land use and a social mix make proximity to work, home and services.
The deliberate pursuit of this strategy in matters of urban design would go a long way toward meeting the WHO’s action plan for reducing non-communicable diseases and the UN’s sustainability goals.
In Oman, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) cause 68 per cent of total deaths and 18 per cent of these deaths occur among people between the ages of 30 and 70 years.
This means nearly one of every five adult dies from NCDs before they should.
Cardiovascular diseases are the main cause of most deaths resulting from NCDs, followed by cancers, then the respiratory diseases and diabetes.
Non-communicable diseases include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic pulmonary diseases and cancer, among others. These are the major causes of premature deaths worldwide, in both developed and developing countries.
Since active travel is the most common domain of activity in Oman, as opposed to occupational or leisure, appropriately designed public open spaces are absolutely essential.
A new study published in The Lancet says that doing at least one hour of physical activity per day, such as brisk walking or cycling for pleasure, may eliminate the increased risk of death associated with sitting for eight hours a day.
Physical inactivity is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers and is associated with more than five million deaths per year and, as the first global economic analysis of physical inactivity shows, costs the world economy over $67.5 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity.
In the article Ruth opines “If Oman is to meet the global goal of reducing physical inactivity by 10 per cent, urban planning and design must incorporate factors that have been found to increase walkability and other forms of active transport.”
A number of large-scale developments currently being planned, like the expansion of Muttrah’s waterfront, the development around Duqm port and the new city of Madinat Irfan, provide the opportunity for change.
“However, to really have an impact and meet this goal by 2025, existing communities, where a majority of Omanis live, need to be carefully (re)designed. Otherwise, the trend towards urban sprawl — fuelled by a car-dependent culture — will continue unabated,” she adds.