Peril in Suburbia

Will Urban Planning Put a Dent in Obesity?

Urban sprawl is more than just a traffic problem, say urban planners. It’s a trigger for obesity and a hazard to human health. Certainly, many elements of sprawl are on the list of suspects that might be contributing to the obesity epidemic. Pollution, impediments to physical activity, social isolation, and stressful congestion are all factors. Urban Ventures President Susan Powers summed up the thinking recently:

People really are beginning to understand what went wrong in how we designed our cities and suburbs over the past 50 years with the dependence on cars. Instead, you can create communities where healthy choices are the default, easy thing to do.

So we wonder, will urban planning actually put a dent in obesity?

Many correlations link the bad elements of urban sprawl to obesity. But the track record for reducing obesity has not been so great. For example, efforts targeting food deserts have produced relatively disappointing results. Efforts to promote physical activity through urban planning yield better results. Smart urban design can lead to more walking and routine physical activity.

However, promising to cut obesity rates might not be so smart. Economists Charles Baum and Shin-Yi Chou show us why in a recent paper. Certainly they say, “urban sprawl significantly increases weight.” But since the direct effects are small, the effects of policy changes (like urban planning) are “likely to be small, too.”

Above all else, urban planning can make communities more livable. That means that some sources of daily stress – like traffic congestion – are less. Pollution can be less. Moving around can be easier and more routine. These are the outcomes that wise urban planning can deliver. But health outcomes might be a stretch.

Click here for more perspective from the Washington Post.

Peril in Suburbia, photograph © michael / flickr

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December 31, 2016