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Home > Research Articles > Researchers Blame Suburban Sprawl for U.S. Obesity

The Boston Globe

Monday, June 23, 2003

The Boston Globe

Jun. 20--WASHINGTON--Researchers presented more evidence yesterday blaming spread-out suburban development for America's obesity epidemic and for a variety of other public and mental health woes, allowing antisprawl activists to argue that new, compact forms of development would be better for the environment and also healthier for individuals.

People who live in the suburbs tend to drive everywhere and do not get exercise by walking, said Lawrence Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who has tracked the weight, height, and home location of 12,000 people in the Atlanta area. Fewer men and women were overweight or obese in dense neighborhoods -- defined as eight dwelling units per acre, about the same as Watertown -- than in places with one home per acre.

Suburban culture and monotonous landscapes can also make people depressed, Richard Jackson, director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control, told a gathering of planners and architects last night in Washington. Jackson's research was described as "quantifying the malaise of sprawl," and links spread-out development with a parallel epidemic of several ills -- including poor nutrition, diabetes, and environmental illnesses.

The work of the two researchers was presented at the 11th annual Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that pushes for all new development in the United States to be more compact and walkable. In promoting zoning changes to allow for such development, the "new urbanists" have begun to tout the health benefits of tightly knit neighborhoods and even incorporated "access to healthy food" into their planning principles.

"I predict what you'll see is 800 numbers on late-night TV, saying, 'Do you want to lose weight? All you need to do is move to this new urbanist community. You don't even have to go to the gym,' " said Harriet Tregoning, director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute based in Washington.

The researchers' assertions drew immediate criticism from home builders and others who decried the studies as scare tactics based on sketchy science.

"Pick your cause, pick a problem, and try to match it up -- that's what they're doing," said Duane Desiderio, a vice president at the National Association of Home Builders. "It's got the shock value, but obesity is more a problem of nutrition than where you live. There are plenty of suburban developments with miles and miles of hiking and jogging trails. And people in high-density [developments] could still eat potato chips."

There is also some unease within the burgeoning antisprawl movement about criticizing the suburban lifestyle. Some draw lessons from the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when activists made dire warnings about the planet's future if pollution continued unchecked, but also worried about turning off the public with too much scolding.

"It's probably necessary to point out the negative impacts of sprawl, but it's equally -- if not more important -- to talk about the virtues of different forms of development," said David Goldberg, communications director for Smart Growth America, a national group that promotes concentrated development on urban land near transit.

Frank said that respondents in his survey -- 8,000 families, 18,000 men and women, black and white, whittled down to 12,000 who were honest about their height and weight -- indicated they would like to live in places where they could walk more, and were unsatisfied with having to climb in a car to go everywhere.

Peter Katz, a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said that the studies confirm a reality: "In cities, you see a lot of thin people. In the Midwest or in suburban or small-town America, you see more obese people. Now we have data to back that up."

Health is viewed by many planners at the conference as an ideal way to get citizens and politicians thinking about new styles of development. Millions are being spent this year on research on development patterns, neighborhood design, and health, funded by the CDC and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Results of two more studies linking sprawl and health are expected in September.

To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.boston.com/globe

(c) 2003, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------