Seven cancer killers in the built environment

Our current lifetime risk of developing cancer is 49%, and rising. The burden of this debilitating and deadly disease on our economy is at least $7.5 billion per year.

The Canadian Cancer Society doesn’t yet know what our lifetime risk will be by 2030, but in Spring 2019, they will be releasing the results of a major Canada-wide research effort investigating the number of preventable cancer cases and their main contributing factors, by cancer type, in each province. For a sneak preview of the results, Alberta acted as a pilot study, and the insights are striking: 45% of cancer cases are preventable.


See contributing factors by cancer type here.


Our built environment can be designed to entice more people to be physically active – and to get outside for more vitamin D, to make alcohol and unhealthy foods less enticing, and to provide respite from UV rays. If the numbers above hold for all of Canada, then a more thoughtfully built environment could play a strong part in eliminating 32,000 cancer cases every year. Here are seven built environment cancer killers:

  1. Facilities that make exercise enticing and implicit. Eighty-five per cent of Canadians don’t get the minimum recommended amount of exercise each week. Living closer to parks and in walkable neighbourhoods doubles our chances of getting enough physical activity. And when we’re connected to work and school through walking, cycling and transit facilities, exercise just becomes part of our daily routine. Providing green spaces, walking and cycling facilities, and transit could cut up to 27% of cancer cases.

  2. A dearth of food swamps. People often talk about food deserts, but the evidence shows that access to healthier food doesn’t necessarily lead to healthier eating. We also need unhealthy food to be out of sight to contribute to a reduction in cancer cases.

  3. Urban gardens. Urban gardens go a step further than ‘access to healthy food’; they increase a connection with, and appreciation of, how fresh fruits and vegetables grow, and that connection has been shown to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Eliminating food swamps and increasing interaction with fresh produce could cut up to 10% of cancer cases.

  4. A dearth of alcohol outlets. Each additional alcohol outlet within 1600m of the home is associated with a 2-11% increase in the number of harmful days of alcohol consumption in a month. Reducing the number of alcohol outlets could cut up to 9% of cancer cases.

  5. Canopies and moveable public furniture. Providing shade in places where people like to play and rest can provide respite from the sun. There are other ways too though; simply providing moveable public furniture that allows people to follow the shade could have a major impact on sun protection. Providing shade and the flexibility to follow it could cut 7% of cancer cases.

  6. Attractive outdoor spaces for all ages near home and work. People who are most at risk of vitamin D deficiency and could be helped by built environment changes include older adults, overweight people, and office workers and other people with limited sun exposure. Providing outdoor spaces where people can enjoy sunlight (in moderation of course) and activity near home and work could bring more people outside to get enough vitamin D to cut 3% of cancer cases.

  7. Transit and active transport options that are convenient and attractive. Canadian commuters produce almost 10% of this country’s CO2 emissions. Shifting to transit and active transport could not only cut up to 1% of cancer cases through reduced emissions, but could also do its part in cutting many more cases by providing additional physical activity and sunlight exposure.


Engineers, designers and planners can do their part to eliminate up to 32,000 cancer cases per year by introducing these seven cancer killers into our communities. By 2030, our investments could be preventing more than 44,000 cases per year – putting a stop to the expected 40% rise in new cases.

I went into engineering wanting to “save the world”. I didn’t realise my work could literally save the lives of tens of thousands of people in my own country.

Tell us about the cancer killers you’re designing.

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