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Sprawl Kills

Sendentary lifestyle can mean obesity and a shorter life in a land without sidewalks

Reprinted from the Times Union, 11/22/01

Upscale Tammybrook, a newish Cresskill, NJ., neighborhood, offers a pleasing glimpse of modern suburban living: imposing million-dollar homes, designer landscaping, sweeping vistas across northern New Jersey. What it fails to offer resident John McCann is a sidewalk to anywhere.

So instead of hoofing it, the Cresskill councilman drives the 1.1 miles to the post office. That’s after he has dropped his laundry at a drive-through dry cleaner and motored across town to deliver his daughter to a play date—after picking her up from school. Then he’s on to the store. In his car.

What’s wrong with this picture? Quite a lot, according to the federal government and the state of New Jersey.

Suburban sprawl, with its large lot homes, mega-malls, and congested traffic, is making a walk to the post office about as easy as a stroll down the Garden State Parkway. The reliance on cars instead of shoe leather is causing a chain reaction of inactivity, obesity, and other chronic health ills, scientists and planners say.

"Sprawl kills" ought to be the bumper sticker that comes out of this discussion," Bob Yaro, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a New York City research and advocacy group, said at a recent meeting of state planners in Trenton, NJ.

"Sprawling patterns of development are bad for public health," he said. "I want to commend New Jersey for being the first state in the country to say that."

The New Jersey State Planning Commission, which oversees the implementation of New Jersey’s plan for development, is serious enough about the health effects of sprawl that it invited experts to roll out their evidence showing how urban design affects human activity.

"Environmental changes can provide a profound shift in human behavior," said the featured speaker, Dr. William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. smoking rates, for example, dropped after the practice was banned from workplaces and public buildings, Dietz told the group.

"I’d love to know how much more energy we used before we had remote controls for TV," Dietz said, offering an example of design dictating behavior.

Evidence that sprawl kills is hardly ironclad, but small studies are beginning to show the link. Newer communities have fewer sidewalks than older ones, and people walk less when there are no sidewalks. In communities where people walk less, there is more obesity. People in newer communities use their cars more than in older ones. Children are more likely to walk to older schools, Dietz said.

To take these studies a step further, the CDC is researching the role of suburban design in the spreading American paunch. Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Rutgers University, the CDC is attempting to identify the fittest and the fattest cities in the country. And it is outfitting a thousand people around Atlanta with devices to measure how active they are.

“Our working title is ‘Sprawl Makes You Fat,’” said Professor Reid Ewing of Rutgers, the study’s principal investigator. "We want to see if people are heavier in sprawling Atlanta than they are in New York City. We are testing the idea that if you live in a place where you move naturally as part of your daily routine, you're probably not going to have as many chronic health problems."

Meanwhile, the New Jersey based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is choosing 25 communities across the country to help make them healthier, said Karen Gerlach, senior program officer. That could mean fixing sidewalks, building bike paths or nature trails, or opening schools to the community after hours. Some of those cities probably will be in New Jersey.

The foundation also hopes to make New Jersey "the most walkable, bikable state in the country," Gerlach said.

The CDC, in conjunction with the Sierra Club, recently released a national report titled "Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health" The report tracks the relationship between sprawl and the problems of respiratory health, pedestrian injuries and deaths, quality of life for the elderly, and water quality.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the state rates among the highest in the nation in the number of roads and cars per square mile, in ground level ozone from autos, and in rates of asthma — all potentially related to sprawl.

What prompted the CDC and researchers to begin looking at urban design? There is, first off, the bloating of America. The CDC last month released figures showing an alarming 61 percent increase in the rate of obesity among adults in the past decade and a 49 percent increase in the rate.

More than half of Garden State adults are overweight. Of those, 17 percent are obese, a figure that has doubled in the last decade. One-third of New Jersey adults never exercise, slightly more than the national average.

Last year, New Jersey health officials became so concerned about rising numbers of overweight youngsters with diabetes that they began advising teachers, and even bus drivers to be alert for signs of the disease.

Such data are prompting scientists to search for answers. The data on children and obesity, for example, have drawn a clear connection between too much television and extra pounds. But data show that adults are consuming only about 100 more calories a day than they were 20 years ago. And they are spending just as much of their leisure time on exercise.

Perhaps, scientists theorize, it is more moderate exercise that is making the difference—what used to be the 20-minute walk to the post office or the park. Dietz said just 30 minutes of moderate walking a day can provide health benefits, although studies show that trips on foot have dropped by 42 percent in the last 20 years and fewer children walk to school.

"There are social changes that occur with suburbanization and sprawl that we need to understand better," said Howard Frumkin, professor and chairman of environmental and occupational health at the Rollins School of Health at Emory University.

Not everyone agrees that sprawl equals fat. Stephanie Fein, president of Weight Watchers New Jersey, said people anywhere can and do exercise if motivated.

"I don’t think it has as much to do with the physical environment as just choice," said Fein. "We explain to people that they don’t need a walking path, a running trail, a bike trail, or a club. They don't even need a sidewalk. If they have stairs in their home, they can exercise."

But planners are looking for ways to motivate. They say even sidewalks or walking paths may not draw walkers if such walks lead nowhere. Walkways need to be tied to destinations—and that's where urban planning comes in. An office building or commercial district situated miles from houses, or even across a busy arterial road will discourage walking.

New Jersey's state plan, the blueprint for the state's development, recommends that communities be designed to “promote walking, bicycling, and active recreation near home, school and work.”

Printed in the December 2001, January 2002 Newsletter

This page last modified January 12, 2008
Contact Save the Pine Bush at pinebush@aol.com.