Sprawling Cities, Sprawling Waistlines

  • Many sidewalks end abruptly and go nowhere. Health experts are saying sprawling urban areas need to be designed so that sidewalks and bike paths are connected to community destinations. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Public health officials are calling for changes in how we design communities. They say poorly designed development contributes to higher obesity rates, the early onset of diabetes, and other health problems. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Public health officials are calling for changes in how we design communities. They
say poorly
designed development contributes to higher obesity rates, the early onset of
diabetes, and other
health problems. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

For the past few decades most suburban developments have been about convenience.
should be just a short drive away…. parks, just a short drive away… school just a
short drive
away. Four-lane highways have replaced two lane streets to relieve congestion. If
you’re in a
car, other than dealing with the headaches of traffic, getting places isn’t that bad.

But… if you’re on a bike… or walking… crossing those multi-lane roads at busy
intersections is
daunting for adults… let alone children. And often, sidewalks are built, but
sometimes they just
end. A lot of times, sidewalks in a sprawling area never really go anywhere. So,
people don’t
ride their bicycles or walk to destinations. It’s just not convenient… and
sometimes it’s
downright hazardous.

Ellen Bassett is with the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Michigan State

“Because we’re building things further and further apart without connectivity that
doesn’t avail
people to walk or to use their bicycles; they have to drive everywhere. We’re
environments where people exercise less, are less and less active.”

And the result has contributed to a decline in the overall fitness of Americans.
That’s most
evident in children. Kids today are fatter. The rate of obesity is up. Early onset
of diabetes is up.
Part of that is due to kids watching too much television… sitting around playing
games… and so on. But… not being able to ride a bike to school… or being able to
walk to the
park to play soccer… contributes to health problems because kids don’t get enough
exercise in
their daily routines.

Richard Killingsworth is the director of Active Living by Design. The program works
incorporate physical activity into everyday lives through the way we design
Killingsworth says somewhere along the line we came to accept that it made sense to
walking places and instead drive to the health club.

“Now we’ve embraced the notion that we drive to destinations to do physical activity
as opposed
to having it as a part of our everyday lifestyle. So, we’ve essentially built an
environment that
accommodates something that is not physically active and accommodates one mode of
transportation, that’s the automobile.”

Killingsworth consults with urban designers, encouraging them to think about more
than whether
it’s a convenient drive… but to think about whether a neighborhood is designed to
make it a
convenient walk to school… or the park.

“We’ve built upon the notion that the car is king and it should be the only way and
we cannot sustain that for much longer. We need to look at other viable modes and as
we build, if
we build more compactly, a viable mode and a more efficient mode clearly would be
walking or

And, increasingly, urban planners are being urged by physical fitness experts to
think about
public health. They say making sure there’s a network of sidewalks and bike paths
that actually
connect the community’s destinations is worth the cost.

Risa Wilkerson is with the Michigan Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health
and Sports.
She’s taken an active interest in land use planning. She says it’s cheaper to design
that encourage physical activity than it is for society to pay the health care costs
caused by too
little exercise. She argues she’s not asking for that much.

“That children have sidewalks that are buffered between the road with a row of trees
and grass,
that the parks are connected to the schools and to homes and that people could walk
to get a
gallon of milk if they chose to or to go down and visit their neighbor at the local
coffee shop and
they wouldn’t have to get into their automobile for a quarter-of-a-mile trip.”

Wilkerson says health care costs are skyrocketing. Designing communities that
walking or bicycling are investments in prevention of the health problems caused by
too little
exercise. She adds the health care costs of poorly designed areas is just the

“And then you’ve got pollution costs from automobile emission. It goes on and on in
terms of,
you know, the savings if we get people out walking or biking — cleaner air. If you
put all of those
together, I mean there’s just — it’s a phenomenal case to make.”

Advocates of incorporating more sidewalks, bike paths, and safer intersections into
developments says local governments should also look at existing suburbs too… to see
if those
neighborhoods can’t be retro-fitted to include a few sidewalks and safe crossings
that can connect
shopping, schools, and parks to homes. That way the walk of the day can be a little
farther than
just from the front door to the car in the driveway.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.