Urban design wiped out sanitation-borne diseases such as cholera in the 19th century, now city planners have to tackle the lack of activity and obesity that are crippling Canada’s healthcare system, say two urban planning experts.

“The design of our cities can either support or be hindrances to people’s healthy lifestyle choices that we know people are trying to make,” Dr. Karen Lee, CEO of Global Fit Cities told CTV’s Your Morning Friday.

It’s essential to build healthy cities since about 27 million Canadians, a full 81 per cent of the country’s population live in urban areas, according to 2011 data from Statistics Canada.

Lee said cities should be designed to prioritize walking, cycling and transit, offer neighbourhood parks and facilities, bring healthy food amenities close to home and work and build buildings that offer options for exercise and meditation.

She cited Bogota, Colombia as a city that is doing it right. It has a bus rapid transit system that is considered a world leader and the city closes about 120 km of streets every week to transform them into walking and biking routes.

She said many Latin American cities are showing that major changes don’t have to be expensive.

City planning expert Brent Toderian says many cities have bought into the “knee-jerk reaction” that the solution to congestion is building more roads and adding more lanes.

“The one thing we know about cities and mobility is that won’t solve congestion.”

He says new lanes fill up with cars as soon as they are built because they encourage more sprawling development along highway corridors. It’s an expensive, yet failing method, says Toderian, who has advised cities and agencies across Canada and around the world, including Auckland, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Medellin, and New York.

London, Ont., for instance, found over a 50-year period, that sprawling growth would cost $2.7 billion more in capital costs and $1.7 billion in operating costs than compact growth.

But the notion there is a war on the car is a “lazy and political narrative that isn’t even true,” Toderian said.

“Driving is always going to be part of this conversation but the irony is that if we design cities and regions for cars, they fail for everyone, including drivers, because everybody’s fighting for that finite amount of space and we can’t possibly build enough roads to accommodate it.”

Instead, investing more in walking, biking and transit infrastructure replaces car trips with healthier and more environmentally friendly trips that are more socially interactive and move more people at a lower cost using less space.

Combined with urban planning that adds density to cities and limits sprawl, using financial tools such as congestion-pricing and carbon taxes, people will reconsider how they move around, he says.

“Building more lanes is politically expedient so it often leads to that kind of ribbon-cutting that politicians like but we know it’s expensive and it doesn’t work.”