Research Links Sprawl And Health: Study Finds Link Between Community Development Patterns And Level Of Active Living

Environment Colorado

DENVER – A new national study and special issues of two prestigious medical journals released today offer powerful indications that sprawling development has a hand the country’s obesity crisis. Together, they demonstrate the urgent need to invest in making America’s neighborhoods inviting and safe places to walk and bicycle. The peer-reviewed study, which used a county sprawl index developed in partnership with Smart Growth America, found that people living in automobile-dependent neighborhoods that suppress walking do indeed walk less, weigh more, and are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure.

The study, Relationship Between Urban Sprawl And Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity is being published in a special issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. Smart Growth America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project have issued a companion report, “Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl”, which gives county-level data illustrating the findings for the metropolitan areas studied. In most metropolitan areas, residents in more sprawling counties are heavier and face higher odds of being obese and having high blood pressure than those in less sprawling counties.

Colorado comments on the report and the issue of active living:

Richard L. Vogt, M.D., Executive Director, of Tri-County Health Department which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties issued the following statement — “We know that regular exercise plays an important role in preventing a variety of the top public health threats such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and being overweight. So it’s not surprising to see healthier profiles in communities where people can easily walk- to school, jobs or simply for recreation. Community design that encourages active living may well be one of the more cost-effective ways to promote a healthy population.”

Stacey McConlogue, program director for the City and County of Denver’s Denver Healthy People 2010 Initiative said, “People want to live healthier, more active lives in communities where they feel safe walking to the store or letting their children play outside. This report shows us a critical path for achieving real and lasting change in people’s health related behavior.”

Rich McClintock, program director of the Livable Communities Support Center, a program of the Center for Regional and Neighborhood Action, said “this report shows that more walking will lead to better health and that how we build our communities has a big impact on our health and the health of our kids. We need to give people more choices so they can walk out the door of their homes and offices and have more walkable destinations and other active living choices such as bike lanes that are safe and convenient.”

William Coyne, Land Use Advocate for Environment Colorado, stated that “For years we have known of the impact sprawl has on air quality and the environment. This study finds that that sprawling development may be hurting Coloradans’ health by making it more difficult for residents to be physically active as part of everyday life. Building smart growth communities with sidewalks and bike lanes may be important strategies in the fight against obesity and hypertension.”

National Legislation Pending regarding Transportation Funding Priorities
The findings should signal Congress to change course on an upcoming vote: the transportation appropriations bill now under consideration in the House would eliminate the main federal source of funding for local bicycling and walking facilities, while severely restricting public transit spending. Since 1991 the Transportation Enhancements program has built more than 8,000 locally-initiated bicycle and pedestrian facilities across the country.

“This study provides welcome information that suggests communities with a wider variety of transportation options including walking and bicycling are essentially healthier places to live,” said Anne Canby, President of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. “We urge Congress to remember this when voting on the FY04 Transportation Appropriations bill in September — a vote to restore critical funds for bicycle and pedestrian facilities is a vote for public health.”

Many communities around the country already have plans in the works to build more paths, bike lanes, and sidewalks, and are taking creative approaches to transit and development. But these plans may fall through if federal funds dry up.

The report outlines seven steps communities can take to respond to the findings of the research, including short-term projects such as:
• Investing in completing sidewalk networks, striping bike lanes, and making street crossings safer. 
• Instituting programs that focus on making it safe for children to walk and bike to school. A bill that would provide federal support for a national Safe Routes to School program is under consideration in the House of Representatives.
• Calming traffic with speed humps and bulb-outs.
• Educating and encouraging people to choose to walk, instead of drive.

Over the longer term, communities can: 
• Focus development around train and bus stations, so people can conveniently run errands and get to work by leaving their homes on foot.
• Retrofit sprawling communities with sidewalks, pedestrian cut-throughs, and small shops.
• Revitalize existing walkable neighborhoods.

The study is the first national research to find a direct link between sprawl and obesity. It is one of dozens of articles published in special issues of the American Journal of Health Promotion and the American Journal of Public Health on the built environment and health. The editors of the two journals released their results simultaneously to highlight the importance of the topic.

The report, “Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl,” and other materials can be downloaded from State fact sheets are available for metropolitan comparisons.

Smart Growth America is a coalition of nearly 100 advocacy organizations that have a stake in how metropolitan expansion affects our environment, quality of life and economic sustainability.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project is a diverse, nationwide coalition working to ensure safer communities and smarter transportation choices that enhance the economy, improve public health, promote social equity, and protect the environment.

The Livable Communities Support Center is a program of the Center for Regional and Neighborhood Action (CRNA). The mission of the Livable Communities Support Center is to provide information, analysis, technical assistance and strategic advice to citizen groups, nonprofit organizations and local governments working on growth and livability issues at the local and regional levels.

Additional contacts:
Rich McClintock, Livable Community Support Center 
(303) 477-9985
David Goldberg, Smart Growth America 
(202) 412-7930
Barbara McCann, SGA
(202) 207-3347 
James Corless, Surface Transportation Policy Project 
(415) 956-7795
Gary Sky, Public Information Officer, Tri-County Health 
Stacey McConlogue, Denver Healthy People 2010 
(720) 865-5407