Sprawl and Health

A number of studies and articles from important organizations are coming out saying the same thing, that sprawl is bad for our health.  Major news organizations including Newsweek, NY Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, AP, Reuters, NPR and others are all reporting these recent findings.  Well respected organizations including Smart Growth America, The Sierra Club, The Surface Transportation Policy Project, Environmental Defense, Active Living Network, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are all speaking out about the serious health epidemic sprawl is creating. 

The American Journal of Public Health just published their most recent issue devoted almost entirely to this topic with studies and articles entitled:  The Impact of the Built Environment on Health: An Emerging Field; The Built Environment and Its Relationship to the Public’s Health: The Legal Framework; Smart Growth: A Prescription for Livable Cities; Promoting Safe Walking and Biking to School: The Marin County Success Story; The Intersection of Urban Planning, Art, and Public Health: The Sunnyside Piazza; Walking, Bicycling, and Urban Landscapes: Evidence From the San Francisco Bay Area; Breathless in Los Angeles: The Exhausting Search for Clean Air; Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons From The Netherlands and Germany; Places to Walk: Convenience and Regular Physical Activity; Reestablishing Public Health and Land Use Planning to Protect Public Water Supplies; Conventional Development Versus Managed Growth: The Costs of Sprawl; Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods” and more, all written by top researchers and scientists, this is a very important issue.

The American Journal of Health Promotion also devoted their recent special issue to ‘Health Promoting Community Design’ with the publication of a number of important studies.  They say that, “the vast majority of the American public is sedentary, despite two decades of programs to encourage them to exercise. This special issue provides a conceptual, methodological and research base for the emerging field of "health promoting community design," and "active living by design".....a strategy of designing workplaces and whole communities to engineer activity BACK INTO people's lives."  The studies include:  “Supporting Health Through Design: Challenges and Opportunities; Increasing the Health Promotive Capacity of Human Environments;  Opportunities for Integrating Public Health and Urban Planning Approaches to Promote Active Community Environments; Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity; The Relationship Between Convenience of Destinations and Walking Levels in Older Women; Environmental and Lifestyle Factors Associated With Overweight and Obesity in Perth, Australia; Integrating Public Health Objectives in Transportation Decision-Making; Policy Prescriptions for Healthier Communities; Recreating Communities to Support Active Living: A New Role for Social Marketing”; and more.  This is also a very important issue, and is the first such concentrated focus on community physical design and its health implications.  The transportation article points to implications that show “conventional transportation planning tends to overlook negative health impacts resulting from increased motor vehicle travel and potential health benefits from shifts to alternative modes.  Raising the priority of health objectives supports planning reforms that result in a more balanced transportation system. The author explores how transportation decision-making can better support public health objectives, including reduced crashes and pollution emissions, and more physical activity.”

Our Toxic Environment

According to Newsweek, “Fleeing the crowded, polluted city to the bucolic suburbs was supposed to be good for your health.  New research is showing that’s not necessarily true. According to studies from the United States to Belgium, a major factor contributing to the worldwide obesity epidemic is a lack of natural exercise—i.e., walking—which has been exacerbated as populations spread out from city centers. Suburbs, it seems, can make you swell.  Call it the sprawl effect.  A strip mall here, a housing development there, an industrial park yonder, all connected by roads, leave little room for pedestrians."

According to USA Today, “People living in sprawling American neighborhoods walk less, weigh more and are more likely to be hit by a car if they do venture out on foot or bicycle, suggests a series of studies” just out.  “The studies are among the first reports to link shopping centers, a lack of sidewalks and bike trails and other features of suburban sprawl to deadly health problems.  These reports come as more and more Americans are moving out to the suburbs — and walking less and less. Studies by the Federal Highway Administration show that Americans make fewer than 6% of daily trips on foot.  One report also shows that people living in sprawling suburban areas were more likely to suffer from obesity, which can put people at higher risk of cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases. Suburban sprawl also put residents at a slightly higher risk of developing high blood pressure.  A second study by John Pucher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., suggests that suburban sprawl poses another health hazard: It's dangerous to walk or bike in areas where cars rule the road.  He found that American cyclists and pedestrians were two to six times more likely to be killed on the road than their German or Dutch counterparts.  He says American cities could remedy that hazard by putting in more car-free zones, sidewalks and bike paths."

Read more about Sprawl and Health:

American Journal of Public Health

American Journal of Health Promotion

Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl

Active Living Network

Health Effects of Sprawl

Sierra Club Report How Sprawl Harms Our Health

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Less Sprawl, Less Fat, Less Frenzy

NPR Report

Environmental Defense Report on Transportation, Sprawl, and Health

The US Transportation Crisis

More Links From Transact

"Virtual Is No Refuge From Reality" by James Kunstler

Transit Oriented Development

Transportation for Livable Communities

Envision Utah Smart Growth

Read about Global Warming

Principles of New Urbanism


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