Non-Communicable Diseases, Poverty, Built Environment, Economic Development

The Role of the Built Environment in Reducing the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes

~Written by Joann Varickanickal (Contact:

Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects many people worldwide. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune deficiency that often develops in childhood and impacts about 10 percent of those with the disease (Canadian Diabetes Association, 2009). However, type 2 diabetes develops later in life, is influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors, and is prevalent among nearly 90 percent of those with diabetes.  While Type 2 diabetes used to be considered a “disease of the West”, it has now spread to more countries; thus, more efforts need to be made to reduce the incidence of this disease. As healthy diets and regular physical activity are key components to reducing the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, the built environment needs to be taken into consideration. The built environment includes all of the aspects of an environment created by humans, such as neighborhoods and cities, and consequently plays an important role in ensuring that people can access healthy food, and increase physical activity.

The Importance of Community Gardens

The accessibility of healthy foods can increase with the implementation of community gardens. Preliminary studies reveal several benefits of community gardens, including the associated increased intake of produce. One study examined the benefits of community gardens in South-East Toronto, concluding that those who participated in the maintenance of the garden increased their intake of vegetables and fruits and bought fewer produce from grocery stores (Wakefield, Yeudall, Taron, Reynolds, & Skinner, 2007). While these community gardens were established by non-governmental organizations, city planning officials still have a large role to play, as they could ensure that there is land in urban areas specifically designated for community gardens.   

Gardens could also be incorporated into schoolyards. One example of this was in California where the “Garden in Every School” program was implemented, and vegetables and fruits were grown on school property.  The kids helped to maintain the garden and this promoted healthy eating and an overall increase in the local food supply (San Mateo County Food System Alliance, 2010; Dannenberg, Frumkin, & Jackson, 2011).

The Role of Active Transportation

Encouraging physical activity is also a key component in reducing diabetes prevalence and this can be done through changes in the built environment by encouraging active transportaiton. This would involve increasing the walkability of communities through the implementation of pedestrian infrastructure, such as sidewalks and safe crossings, to ensure that these places are easily accessible.  

Encouraging “Smart Growth” would also be important. This concept was developed in the 1990s by initiatives that were being implemented by various organizations, including the American Planning Association (Dannenberg et al., 2011). “Smart Growth” policies encourage the preservation of open space, and making communities more walkable. This could be done through the implementation of mixed-land use development, which would ensure that employment, schools and shops were within close proximity and walking became one of the main methods of transportation.

Another key component of Smart Growth is developing a variety of transportation methods through the implementation of Transit-Oriented Development, which also became prominent in the 1990’s. This would be another way to encourage physical activity and reduce reliance on cars. Implementing bike lanes also encourages biking as a means of transportation. In Portland, Oregon there was an increase in biking after several miles of bike lanes were added, as a quadrupling in bikeway miles resulted in a quadrupling of bicycle bridge traffic (refer to Figure 1).


Figure 1: An increase in bikeway miles in Portland, Oregon was led to an increase in bicycle traffic (Dannenberg et al., 2011).

There are other factors to consider when examining type 2 diabetes, such as biological factors among certain ethnic groups, and the difficulties associated with trying to make behavioural changes. However, by making sustainable changes to the built environment to increase accessibility to healthy foods and encourage active transportation, government officials and non-governmental organizations can begin to greatly reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.  



Canadian Diabetes Association. (2009). An economic tsunami of the cost of diabetes in Canada. Retrieved March 28, 2015, from 

Dannenberg, A. L., Frumkin, H., & Jackson, R. J. (2011). Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability. Washington: Island Press.

Hu, F. B. (2011). Globalization of Diabetes: The role of diet, lifestyle, and genes. Diabetes Care , 34 (6), 1249-1257.

San Mateo County Food System Alliance. (2010). A Garden in Every School. Retrieved March 25, 2015, from Ag Innovations Network: 

Wakefield, S., Yeudall, F., Taron, C., Reynolds, J., & Skinner, A. (2007). Growing urban health: Community gardening in South-East Toronto. Health Promotion Internationl , 22 (2), 92-101.