October 2, 2003

Urban sprawl causes waistline sprawl

  • Communities need re-engineering to promote healthy lifestyles
    National Center for Bicycling & Walking

    Let’s talk about national security. The people of this country are truly threatened.

    As one health educator stated, “If we don’t do something now, something significant to change the direction we are headed, today’s generation of parents may live to bury their children.”

    That’s a pretty chilling idea, and so are the reports coming from the medical world: doctors are telling stories of seeing 12-year-olds with heart attacks and they don’t call it “adult on-set diabetes” any more because so many kids have it.

    But, it doesn’t take a scientist to convince us that we have an obesity epidemic on our hands, just a look around the mall or the eatery the next time you head out for lunch.

    Another health risk of growing concern is physical inactivity.

    These twin manifestations of contemporary living are associated with rising levels of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, among others.

    What happened?

    Our lives and lifestyles have changed. Most of us aren’t getting our activity on the farm or in the factory, or at the fitness center for that matter. Most of our children and grandchildren aren’t getting it running around their neighborhoods; they spend too much time in the family SUV waiting in traffic on the way to the soccer game where they may run around for only 5-10 minutes.

    Our communities have changed. Sprawling development patterns not only increased trip distances, they became a reason to eliminate sidewalks from new developments. Longer trips argue for higher motor vehicle speeds, making streets and highways less friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. Say what you will, but mall walking is no substitute for good sidewalks leading to and from every front door.

    The prescription?

    The public health experts have declared that we must, each and every one of us, be active: 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity on a regular, routine basis. What kind of “pill” gives you this benefit, one that is — or should be — available to virtually everyone? Walking and bicycling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a host of health-related journals.

    There are two big challenges to over come. First, it is essential that we remove the barriers that exist is our communities to walking and bicycling. We’ve got to make these choices safe, convenient and comfortable. Second, we’ve got to convince ourselves to change our ways.

    Right now, public health practitioners are focusing on the need to change the design of our communities to support active living. It is not going to work without the whole-hearted support of the people who determine the design of our communities: architects, planners, engineers, developers, and the various public agencies who guide and manage the process.

    Where are we?

    How did you get to school when you were in the sixth grade? If you’re like me, growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a small town, you probably biked or walked to school. Now, fast-forward. How comfortable are you with the notion of encouraging your children, or grandchildren, to bike or walk to school?

    With five grandchildren living in the suburbs of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., I will tell you that I am not excited about seeing any of them out there taking their chances. First, at least one of their schools is a long way from home, a school built to house over 1,300 elementary school children. That’s not a school, it is a factory, but it’s got lots of parking and is easy to drive to.

    Second, there are no sidewalks along much of their routes. And no crosswalks. And no bike parking at school. At least one school principal has declared that kids are not permitted to walk or bike to or from school.

    Third, the roads they have to walk along and cross are wide, multi-lane streets with high posted speeds and high traffic volumes. The roads also are populated by drivers with cell phones who think it is the kids’ fault if they get hit because they shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

    No way am I going to let my grandkids be exposed to that kind of risk. But then I reflect on the words of that public health educator and I realize that gated communities and SUVs are not the answer. We’ve got to make our neighborhoods places where kids rule, where community design and transportation are geared to the needs and behaviors of children, of all people. We need places where the big people take care of the little people.

    How does this relate to the business of development and community building?

    Each decision we make needs to consider the impact on public health. Will it make it easier and safer, or more difficult for people to be active? Where should we locate the new school (or should we refurbish the old neighborhood school)? If we’re planning a house for seniors, where do we locate it and how do we develop the site to insure easy access to the surrounding neighborhood? Are we putting park and recreation facilities close to where the intended users live and will the site be accessible to all? Are we using design guidelines that will ensure that the streets and highways we build work for people and not just function as the equivalent of moats filled with sharks?

    We can’t get where we need to go — communities where everyone is active every day — unless we provide safe, convenient and comfortable opportunities to walk and bicycle.

    Good news

    The Seattle region is recognized nationally as a leader in this campaign. Seattle recently won a grant from the Active Living by Design program, sponsored by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for a demonstration project to develop and test innovative approaches to increase physical activity through community design.

    We are all facing a huge challenge: to re-engineer our communities to bring them back to life as active places. We need healthy communities if we are to have healthy people.

    Bill Wilkinson, AICP, manages the Active Living Resource Center (sponsored by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) and is the executive director of the National Center for Bicycling & Walking in Washington, D.C. He is a certified planner and a member of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

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