Urban Sprawl = Fat City? Not So Fast

Urban sprawl has repeatedly been linked to obesity, but the link to causation remains tenuous. An article of faith in obesity prevention is that the physical, built environment is a key tool for reversing the obesity epidemic. The Institute of Medicine captured this thinking in Strategy 1-1 of their landmark 2012 report, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention:

Enhance the physical and built environment. Communities, organizations, community planners, and public health professionals should encourage physical activity by enhancing the physical and built environment, rethinking community design, and ensuring access to places for such activity.

No doubt, communities that encourage physical activity can provide a better quality of life. And studies continue to show a strong link between obesity and sprawling urban environments that get in the way of physical activity. But (surely you saw this coming) problems ensue when we get ahead of the evidence and claim that sprawl is what caused obesity to soar or that reducing sprawl will inevitably solve the problem.

The fact is that such efforts are experiments whose effects need to be studied — not interventions with documented effectiveness. An excellent report from the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism does well in walking the line between paralyzing nihilism and blind pursuit of unproven dogma. Its new Report on the State of Health + Urbanism provides a thoughtful consideration of the evidence behind some conventional thinking in urban design. It analyzes eight case studies and offers alternatives.

The time is now to acknowledge the limits of what we know and seize the opportunity to close the gaps in our knowledge while finding obesity interventions that will work by testing their merits. Presumptions are not good enough.

Click here to read more in The Atlantic Cities and here to read the MIT report. Click herehere, and here to read studies on the link between urban sprawl and obesity.

Urban Sprawl in Moonlight, photograph © Stewart Cutler / flickr

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