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Fat Suburbs, Skinny City




A wave of new research on sprawl’s effect on health emerged last Thursday when two journals, the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion, jointly released special issues on the subject that indicate a significant connection between sprawl and obesity and between sprawl and hypertension.

The number of miles Americans travel on the roads has doubled since 1963, according to Richard J. Jackson, an environmental epidemiologist and the director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (He was also the guest editor of the special issue of the American Journal of Public Health.) The number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has doubled in the last 25 years — the average 11-year-old today weighs 11 pounds more than in 1973. Nearly 65 percent of American adults are now overweight, and the incidence of diabetes doubled between 1980 and 2000, to 12 million cases.

James Robins, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health, has read news reports of the sprawl research. ”This seems so far from what people would take as strong scientific evidence or a direct causal link,” he said

”I doubt that these are going to be considered earth-shaking articles in the profession,” he said. ”But they’re very useful for generating interesting hypotheses.”

While urban planners tend to discuss the suburbs in quality-of-life terms, researchers increasingly use clinical measures like anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The number of prescriptions for antidepressants has increased remarkably, a point Dr. Jackson makes to suggest that although the suburbs were built for convenience, they may also have wrought their share of frustration by placing life’s staples a long drive from home.

People in many suburban neighborhoods find that the streets they live on practically invite them to stay in their cars. There is often simply no sidewalk, forcing some suburbanites to put on their running shoes and pedometers inside giant malls, clocking miles as they pass the various cookie stands, ice cream shops and bagel makers.

A vocal group of urban planners, especially those known as New Urbanists, have embraced the new studies as proof of their longstanding contention that small-town life is the best. Among other imperatives, the New Urbanists and their followers have cited beauty, nature and money as reasons to face down suburban sprawl, with its dependence on cars, and once again build old-fashioned neighborhoods with streets laid in tight grids. ”Now we can say there are physiological issues, too,” said Peter Calthorpe, a New Urbanist architect and urban designer in Berkeley, Calif.

Suburba&Obesity Right Click