2 Studies: SubUrban Sprawl Adds Pounds, Pollution

by Eric Pryne

Seattle Times

January 26, 2006



Residents of King County’s less-walkable neighborhoods – can you say sprawl? – are more likely to be overweight, a recently completed study concludes.

Another related study has found, perhaps not surprisingly, that people who live and work in those neighborhoods generate more auto-related air pollution, another potential threat to health.

The two studies’ findings are summarized in the winter edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Planning Association. The authors, who collaborated in their research, say their work constitutes the most comprehensive look yet at the link between urban-development patterns and human health in a single metropolitan area.

Earlier research has raised the possibility of a connection between sprawl, obesity and other health problems. The King County results suggest “current laws and regulations are producing negative health outcomes,” the authors warn.

“None of this is saying suburbia is bad,” said Lawrence Frank, an urban-planning professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of both studies. “It just says these are the relationships you get … and they should be taken into account.”

A top aide to King County Executive Ron Sims said the county already has adopted some changes as a result of the studies and is planning more.

The research isn’t likely to end the debate over sprawl and health.

“If you’re listing things that impact obesity, neighborhood design would be maybe 10th on my list,” said Tim Attebury, King County manager for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. “I would put McDonald’s and too much TV way in front of neighborhood design.”

But Frank and co-author James Sallis, a health psychologist at San Diego State University, said the two new studies go beyond previous work in showing that development patterns can have a significant impact on health even when taking into account other variables such as age, income, education and ethnicity.

The walkability factor

For both studies, researchers ranked neighborhoods using a “walkability index” that included such factors as residential density, the number of street connections, and the mix of homes, stores, parks and schools. All are believed to influence how much people walk.

In one study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers surveyed and monitored about 75 adults in each of 16 King County neighborhoods. Eight neighborhoods, including Upper Queen Anne and White Center, scored high on the walkability index; the other eight, including Kent’s East Hill and part of Sammamish, scored low.

Each group of eight included four wealthier and four lower-income neighborhoods.

On average, researchers found, the Body Mass Index – a measure of height and weight – of residents of the more walkable neighborhoods was lower, and they were more likely to get the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise.

In the second study, funded by the Federal Transit Administration, King County and other local governments, researchers estimated the auto-related pollution generated by about 6,000 King County residents who kept detailed records of their travel for two days in 1999 as part of another study.

Again, people who lived and worked in more walkable neighborhoods produced fewer pollutants associated with smog, the study found.

Surprising finding

After subjecting the data to statistical analysis, Frank said, researchers were surprised to learn that even small changes in neighborhood design can make a difference.

A 5 percent increase in a neighborhood’s walkability index, for instance, was associated with a 0.23-point drop in Body Mass Index. For someone 6 feet tall, that’s a difference of less than 2 pounds, but Frank said bigger changes in a neighborhood’s walkability would be expected to produce greater differences in weight.

The presence or absence of stores, parks, schools and other destinations within a quarter- to a half-mile of home appears to be the most important factor in how much people walk, he said.

Karen Wolf, a senior policy analyst in Sims’ office, said that as a result of the studies, the county already has amended the policies that guide its planning to make health a priority.

County officials also are working on a checklist to rate development projects’ impact on health, she said.

In White Center, one of three neighborhoods that Frank and other researchers studied in detail, Wolf said the county has rezoned property to encourage “mixed-use” development that allows both housing and shops, and is seeking a grant to develop an inviting walkway between a redeveloped housing project and the community’s business district.

“The whole idea is to make walking something you don’t even think about,” she said. “It’s part of your everyday life.”


Good Community Design is Good for You

by Neal Kaufman


December 5, 2004 Los Angeles Times

Are our cities making us sick? Will children born today die fatter, more sugar-saturated and at a younger age than their parents?

Cities were sickly places 150 years ago. Dysentery, typhoid, measles, influenza and other diseases thrived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. It took heroic and creative leadership by city planners, architects and health advocates to create healthier cities.

Political will and professional expertise helped drive improvements in housing codes, sanitation ordinances and work-site conditions. Locating cemeteries on the outskirts of cities and placing green space in the center minimized pollution and encouraged outdoor physical activity. Such changes fueled the health advances in the first half of the 20th century. Life expectancy rose from 39 years in 1850 to 50 years in 1900 and to 68 years in 1950.

Today’s cities are plagued with traffic, violence and overcrowding. People are isolated from each other, spending too much time indoors and bombarded with unhealthy food, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Homicide and fatal car crashes may be the swiftest urban killers, but bad living conditions and unhealthy choices contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, depression and violence-related injuries.

Sound urban design and smart architecture create bustling streets and people-filled parks where young and old safely walk and talk, see old friends and feel confident they will not be attacked. Well-planned cities create communities where neighbors can meet in the local cafe, talk about their concerns, say hi to the other patrons and feel connected to the shared public spaces filled with old and new friends.

Homes close to businesses allow people to shuttle back and forth easily, running out to get what they need, while still having leisure time to mow the lawn or read a book.

Neighborhoods where services are located close to each other make it easier for a mother with four children to see the doctor, the teacher and the counselor and still have time to go grocery shopping to get nutritious, fresh food for her family. Communities where residents are actively involved create spaces where a group of seniors can play cards, where grandmothers can walk their grandchildren to the store, and where fathers can teach their children to ride a bike or throw a


When health-oriented approaches to planning and design are embraced, such as the Health Impact Assessment used in Europe, Australia and Canada, health planners can guide development by predicting and measuring the health effects of a policy or a proposed construction project. When developers, builders and school boards guided by appropriate zoning regulations, building codes and performance standards work with residents, they create vibrant and health-promoting

neighborhoods. When we cluster a useful mix of schools, parks, libraries, mixed-income housing, healthcare, adult education and social services, neighborhoods become more vital, people more healthy and fit. That’s good for waistlines and the civic bottom line.


Dr. Neal Kaufman is co-director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families & Communities, a member of the First 5 LA commission and director of primary care pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Med