Suburban sprawl called threat to public health

Reliance on cars causing inactivity and obesity, N.J. planners say

November 11, 2001|By Candy J. Cooper | Candy J. Cooper,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TRENTON, N.J. - Upscale Tammybrook, a newish Cresskill, N.J., neighborhood, offers a pleasing glimpse of modern suburban living: imposing million-dollar homes, designer landscaping, sweeping vistas across northern New Jersey. What it fails to offer resident John McCann is a sidewalk to anywhere.

So instead of hoofing it, the Cresskill councilman drives the 1.1 miles to the post office. That's after he has dropped his laundry at a drive-through dry cleaner and motored across town to deliver his daughter to a play date - after picking her up from school. Then he's on to the store. In his car.

What's wrong with this picture? Quite a lot, according to the federal government and the state of New Jersey.

Suburban sprawl, with its large-lot homes, mega-malls, and congested traffic, is making a walk to the post office about as easy as a stroll down the Garden State Parkway. The reliance on cars instead of shoe leather is causing a chain reaction of inactivity, obesity, and other chronic health ills, scientists and planners say."`Sprawl kills' ought to be the bumper sticker that comes out of this discussion," Bob Yaro, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a New York City research and advocacy group, said at a recent meeting of state planners in Trenton, N.J.

Praise for New Jersey

"Sprawling patterns of development are bad for public health," he said. "I want to commend New Jersey for being the first state in the country to say that."

The New Jersey State Planning Commission, which oversees the implementation of New Jersey's plan for development, is serious enough about the health effects of sprawl that it invited experts to roll out their evidence showing how urban design affects human activity.

"Environmental changes can provide a profound shift in human behavior," said the featured speaker, Dr. William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. smoking rates, for example, dropped after the practice was banned from workplaces and public buildings, Dietz told the group.

"I'd love to know how much more energy we used before we had remote controls for TV," Dietz said, offering an example of design dictating behavior.

Evidence that sprawl kills is hardly ironclad, but small studies are beginning to show the link. Newer communities have fewer sidewalks than older ones, and people walk less when there are no sidewalks. In communities where people walk less, there is more obesity. People in newer communities use their cars more than in older ones. Children are more likely to walk to older schools, Dietz said.

To take these studies a step further, the CDC is researching the role of suburban design in the spreading American paunch. Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Rutgers University, the CDC is attempting to identify the fittest and the fattest cities in the country.

And it is outfitting a thousand people around Atlanta with devices to measure how active they are.

`Sprawl Makes You Fat'

"Our working title is `Sprawl Makes You Fat,'" said Professor Reid Ewing of Rutgers, the study's principal investigator. "We want to see if people are heavier in sprawling Atlanta than they are in New York City. We are testing the idea that if you live in a place where you move naturally as part of your daily routine, you're probably not going to have as many chronic health problems."

Meanwhile, the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is choosing 25 communities across the country to help make them healthier, said Karen Gerlach, senior program officer. That could mean fixing sidewalks, building bike paths or nature trails, or opening schools to the community after hours. Some of those cities probably will be in New Jersey.

The foundation also hopes to make New Jersey "the most walkable, bikeable state in the country," Gerlach said.

The CDC, in conjunction with the Sierra Club, recently released a national report titled "Creating a Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health." The report tracks the relationship between sprawl and the problems of respiratory health, pedestrian injuries and deaths, quality of life for the elderly, and water quality.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the state rates among the highest in the nation in the number of roads and cars per square mile, in ground-level ozone from autos, and in rates of asthma - all potentially related to sprawl.

What prompted the CDC and researchers to begin looking at urban design? There is, first off, the bloating of America. The CDC has released figures showing an alarming 61 percent increase in the rate of obesity among adults in the past decade and a 49 percent increase in the rate of diabetes.

Weight problem

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