Suburban development has long been criticized for consuming open space and exacerbating air pollution caused by traffic congestion. Now health experts are blaming sprawl for the twin American health ills — obesity and heart disease.
For years, public-health officials have warned of a rising epidemic of obesity in the United States. By 2000, 64 percent of adults in the United States were either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Both conditions are implicated in the rising incidence of heart disease, adult-onset diabetes and certain cancers.
The trend is especially noticeable among children. Since the 1960s, the incidence of overweight and obesity among American children and adolescents has more than tripled, to about 15 percent. Obesity in children is especially alarming, experts say, because obese children are more likely to become obese adults, when the health consequences of overweight most often arise.
Although overeating and poor diet, including the consumption of fatty junk food and high-calorie sodas, are the primary causes of overweight, the lack of physical exercise is another crucial factor, experts say. More than half of American adults fail to meet the surgeon general's recommendation for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week. More than a quarter don't get any exercise at all, the CDC reports.
Experts say Americans' love affair with the automobile, encouraged by postwar suburban development, has contributed to the current obesity epidemic. A recent study found that counties with suburban sprawl have higher incidences of obesity and associated chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, than urban or rural counties. By isolating residential areas from other parts of communities, sprawl forces people to drive to stores, schools and work. Even when destinations aren't too far away to reach by walking or bicycle, the lack of sidewalks along noisy, barren roadways usually discourages suburbanites from leaving their cars at home.
Americans' sedentary lifestyle is costing states and businesses billions of dollars in higher health-care premiums, lost productivity and increased workers' compensation payments, according to the National Governors Association. In Michigan, for example, 55 percent of adults are inactive, resulting in diseases that cost the state nearly $9 billion a year.
To address the problem, in 2002 the association helped launch the Active Living Leadership initiative to help state and local governments advance more active lifestyles through zoning-law changes that encourage smart-growth — high-density, mixed-use communities with walkable streets, bike paths and public transit services. Thus far, the initiative has focused primarily on California, Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan and Washington.
Colorado boasts the lowest obesity rate in the country (17 percent of adults), but the state also has experienced the fastest increase in obesity over the past decade, prompting officials to look for ways to counter the trend by fighting sprawl. For example, a 4,700-acre community being developed on the site of the old Stapleton Airport near Denver entices residents out of their cars by incorporating walking and biking trails and public transit, built around a network of linked neighborhoods, each with retail and commercial sites within walking distance of schools and other amenities.
Simply changing land-use ordinances may go a long way toward improving Americans' health. For example, ordinances and school-board guidelines commonly discourage renovation of older, close-in schools and require that new schools be built on large sites, often 10 acres or more. As a result, schools are being shifted from established neighborhoods to the far edges of suburbia, too far for most pupils to walk or ride their bikes.
Americans' love affair with the automobile, encouraged by postwar suburban sprawl, has contributed to the obesity epidemic. (AFP Photo/Robyn Beck)
But some experts say the link between suburban development and obesity is less clear than the studies suggest. “Many nutritionists would argue that diet is much more important than exercise in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight,” says Samuel R. Staley, president of the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, organization that opposes strong government control over development. “If you're going to McDonald's every day, you probably aren't going to shave off those extra pounds, no matter where you live.”
In any case, Staley says, it's not the government's role to determine where people should live. “People should be allowed to make choices, even if they're poor choices,” he says. “In this country you're allowed to be fat.”