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Battling the bulge in the burbs

A growing number of public health researchers blame our sprawling suburban landscapes for Americans’ bulging bellies.
A growing number of public health researchers blame our sprawling suburban landscapes for Americans' bulging bellies.
A growing number of public health researchers blame our sprawling suburban landscapes for Americans' bulging bellies.
/ Source: contributor

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Winston Churchill once said. Today, there’s new meaning to Churchill’s often cited quote: A growing number of public health researchers blame our sprawling suburban landscapes in part for Americans’ bulging bellies.

No doubt you’ve seen the statistics on obesity in America. Perhaps you’ve seen them on yourself.

Arlin Wasserman, an anti-sprawl advocate formerly with the Michigan Land Use Institute, says that when he moved from his native Philadelphia, where he biked everywhere, to suburban Traverse City, Mich., he put on 35 pounds.

“The move to Ann Arbor, where I logged 15,000 miles a year driving, gained me 15 pounds, even though I was still biking to work,” says Wasserman. “But the move to Traverse City gained me another 20.”

Americans are becoming less physically active, not so much out of laziness but because of changes in the “urban form” that are dictating more sedentary behavior, according to a new line of thinking in public health.

Advocates of anti-sprawl “smart growth,” like Wasserman, say the theory adds ammunition to the arguments against suburban development, which has been blamed for loss of farmland and open space, as well as increasing traffic congestion.

“It’s not just a matter of our having “super-sized” our meals or that we don’t exercise enough,” says Thomas Schmid, a public health researcher at the Centers for Disease Control. We’ve also drastically reduced the amount of regular walking, biking or getting around under our own steam as part of our daily activities, says Schmid.

Americans driving too much
Schmid recently presented startling statistics on the rise of obesity in America over the past 20 years — not to a group of health care professionals but to an audience interested in urban design, specifically architects, landscape designers, parks advocates and community planners convened for the National Association of Olmsted Parks in Seattle.

“We have in a short time become a nation in which 30 percent of adults are sedentary and more than half are overweight,” Schmid told the group.

Today, nearly 108 million adults (or 61 percent) are overweight and nearly a quarter of the U.S. population is obese. Lack of physical activity — particularly among young people — is a major cause of the obesity epidemic, which, among other things, threatens to reverse progress made in combating cardiovascular disease. It also contributes to diabetes, stroke and colorectal cancer, all of which add up to a colossal $93 billion health care bill for the nation each year.

The scale of the epidemic — and the speed with which it has grown — seem to challenge the idea that laziness or genetics alone can be blamed, argues Schmid and other researchers, including Lawrence Frank, co-author of the recently released “Health and Community Design: The Impact of the Built Environment on Physical Activity” (Island Press).

Schmid says a major reason why we’re so inactive is that we have built houses, streets, roads and schools too “spread out” to walk between, creating the type of low-density urban design known as “sprawl.”

“We know that if you look at all the factors that have come into play during the last two decades, one of the most significant is that people are driving more and more and have less time for discretionary, leisure activities,” says Frank.

Suburban design a health issue
“For years, we’ve forgotten about our environment as a public health issue,” says Schmid. But at the turn of the century, during the time of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park and many other urban parks across the nation, planners frequently used environmental design as a way to improve public health.

“Olmsted designed parks, opening up the cities with places for fresh air and sunlight, and outdoor recreation,” adds Schmid.

Today, problems that once only faced cities, such as congestion, are cropping up in suburbia, while some of the healthiest features of city living — their human scale, walkability and parks — have been engineered out.

In pursuit of progress, perhaps, “we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives,” says Schmid.

In order to address the issue, the CDC’s policies increasingly support “re-engineering activity back into our lives,” adds Schmid. To that end, the agency’s was started to promote walking, bicycling and greater accessibility between housing and transit options. The CDC is not trying to condemn suburban-style planning but find ways to improve community design by including health in the equation, says Schmid.

Meanwhile, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a premier supporter of health research, is pumping some $25 million over the next 5 years into studies that examine links between physical behavior and public health to “promote active and healthy communities and lifestyles,” says Kate Kraft, senior program officer at the RWJF.

The RWJF’s studies, part of the organization’s , are looking at ways to foster human-scale planning, beautification of streetscapes, traffic calming and a host of other measures that would get people out of their cars and onto their feet and bicycles.

Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council in San Francisco, who attended Seattle’s Olmsted conference, applauds the CDC and the RWJF for stressing prevention-oriented health “interventions” rather than the conventional medical approach.

“This is very pioneering of them to fund commonsensical prevention programs and educate through community conferences rather than medical gatherings or journals no one reads,” says Wade.

Not everyone agrees
Not everyone favors promoting more mixed-use, pedestrian planning or believes the rationale behind this new public health movement.

“Now, instead of parents blaming fast-food restaurants for their kids’ weight problems, ‘smart growth’ groups are blaming the suburbs for our nation’s obesity and health woes,” writes Chris Fiscelli of the free-market Reason Foundation. “Some of the anti-suburb sentiment is downright ridiculous, not to mention highly unscientific.”

But, although their studies are as yet unpublished, researchers on suburban sprawl say they’ve accrued compelling data. Frank is finishing a study of 17,000 residents in different neighborhoods of Atlanta and is so far proving the hypothesis “that people living in more physically dense places weigh less.”

And Reid Ewing, an urban planner at Rutgers University, has studied 200,000 people in 448 different counties across America and finds that, taking into account age, gender, race and diet, the “walkability” of the neighborhood is a significant factor when it comes to obesity.

At least one state is already acting to create new “active living” initiatives. In Michigan, home of Detroit — the Motor City — and a major obesity epidemic estimated to cost the state $8.89 billion a year, the state Department of Community Health recently held a conference called “Designing Healthy, Livable Communities.”

At the conference, Gov. Jennifer Granholm presented awards to Michigan communities for points earned toward better suburban planning, including “pedestrian and bicycle safety and facilities” and “accessible worksites.”

Wasserman, who attended the conference, hopes to log more bicycle miles in the future and says he continues to work on reducing sprawl — “at least on myself,” he adds.

Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and author of “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998). She recently finished a report on the health effects of the Sept. 11 attacks titled “Messages in the Dust,” which will be available online at