The design of your city may be killing you

Poor urban development isn't just an inconvenience -- it's deadly, according to a new study.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Quite a sensational headline, I know. But Grist's Sarah Goodyear highlights a new article and study that claim that poor urban development isn't just an inconvenience -- it's deadly.

First up: Canada's Globe and Mail, which suggests that your life expectancy as an urban dweller has a direct connection to your health.

Lisa Rochon writes:

If, as a newly arrived immigrant, poverty has driven you to the inner or outer suburbs, where you live in a basement apartment or high above the concrete ground in a residential tower, you are far more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and its related consequences such as blindness and amputation. Most of Canada's growth comes from immigrants, but the troubling fact is that Hispanics, blacks and South Asians are genetically predisposed to diabetes. Because of the compounding of these forces, you and your neighbours can expect a lower life expectancy.

A poor diet, high in saturated fat and low on fruits and vegetables, causes excess weight. Once obesity sets in, especially if it develops at a young age, type 2 diabetes usually follows. A sedentary lifestyle fuels the problem. That’s why some medical researchers and health offices are joining forces with urban planners to design neighbourhoods that are more conducive to activity.

Walkability and accessibility no doubt stimulates a resident to get moving. But is this causation, or merely correlation?

Goodyear also unearths a new study (.pdf) by Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois that looks at just that: the connection between automobile use and obesity.

An excerpt from it:

If a causal link could be established, the association between driving and obesity may provide opportunities to reverse their rise. Achieving such a goal would require transportation and public health experts to look at these problems through a collaborative lens and recognize that problems in one field may be best addressed through the skills from another, just as Gawande (2007) notes several medical problems that arise out of non-medical issues and have non-medical solutions.

The time may be ripe to recognize that it may be impossible to treat one problem without considering the other. Government agencies and private foundations in the United States are making substantial investments to reduce obesity rates by promoting healthy food choices and more physical activity. While personal choices—such as replacing the choices to drive to nearby locations and using elevators with healthier activities such as walking and cycling, and climbing stairs—certainly play a part, realizing a meaningful impact on both obesity and energy consumption will require a societal shift in how we arrange and operate our lives.

A better strategy to curb both energy consumption and obesity rates may be to carve out a national energy policy, a national transportation strategy, an urban planning strategy, and a national public health obesity strategy using the same stroke of the pen.

But it may not be as simple as that.

Anecdotally, the streetcar suburb neighborhood I call home in Philadelphia has wonderful transit access to the center of the city -- but few folks take it, instead using personal vehicles to get around. Despite a brisk 15-minute ride into town, most residents of my neighborhood -- many of which are very low-income -- stay put. In this scenario, the main driver may not be urban planning, but the economy. (And the City of Brotherly Love is not alone in this.)

If there's little reason to leave home, why would you?

Photo: Ad Council

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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