Obesity and Sprawl: The Connection Tightens
By Neal R. Peirce
An obesity epidemic has seized America. And the suspected villain is none
other than America's prized development icon -- suburbia.
So far there's no smoking gun, no irrefutable scientific evidence to prove
that our spread-out, overwhelmingly auto-dependent way of living is
expanding our paunches -- and imperiling our health.
"It's like global warming," says Robert Yaro, executive director of the
New York Regional Plan Assn. "There's no conclusive proof. But there's
enough strong circumstantial evidence that we better take it seriously."
What's indisputable is that we're getting heavier -- rapidly. Thirty
percent to 50 percent of Americans, depending on how severe the measure,
are now overweight. Obesity -- defined as roughly 30 pounds or more
overweight -- swelled 60 percent in the past decade, and now affects 22
percent of us.
One clear reason: almost a third of Americans are basically sedentary,
with little or no exercise. Almost three-quarters of adults aren't active
enough physically, according to the federal government's Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
And now kids are falling into the same trap. A quarter of American
children aged 6 to 17 are overweight, 11 percent seriously so, according
to CDC figures. Not only have school sports and gym programs declined, but
in today's spread-out suburbia of roaring freeways and highways, tiny
percentages walk to school.
The implications are serious. Six of every 10 overweight children 5 to 10
already have one associated biochemical or clinical cardiovascular risk
factor. Almost 80 percent of obese adults have diabetes, high cholesterol,
high blood pressure or coronary heart disease.
So why the soaring American Fat Factor? Some people blame couch potato tv-viewing,
which is surely a factor. Others finger Big Macs and diet in general.
But none of those, say the experts, explain the magnitude of increased
obesity in America. Something more pervasive -- and damaging -- is at
I like the simple explanation of Thomas Schmid, director of the CDC's
Active Community Environments working group: "We sit in cars. We don't
walk to the store on the corner. We ride the lawnmower instead of pushing
it. We've engineered almost any kind of work out of our lives. That's why
we're growing bigger."
Look behind most of those reasons and you find lurking an even more
persistent, effective culprit -- suburban development styles. America's
post-World War II streets and community layouts weren't designed for
people: they were designed for automobiles.
So what did we get? Residences on curvy, dead-end streets (often
cul-de-sacs) that feed into high-volume highways leading to segregated
uses -- shopping malls, office parks, government centers. Traditional
street grids encouraged walking and biking by facilitating
shortest-possible travels between two points. Contemporary suburban
development does just the opposite. Sidewalks are often missing. Roadways
are designed for vehicular "throughput" and make foot or bike traffic
William Dietz, the CDC's director of nutrition and physical activity, uses
his own suburban workplace as an example: "Some of our staff is in a
building 200 yards away. To get there, I have to cross five lanes of
traffic, plus hopping a guardrail and walking across an azalea patch.
That's how our environment is designed. It's not designed to promote
Small wonder government studies show that just between 1977 and 1995,
trips that Americans made by walking decreased from 25 to10 percent while
trips by auto rose from 84 percent to 90 percent.
There are disturbing international comparisons. In Italy, 54 percent of
trips are by walking or bicycling, in Sweden (where it's cold and dark
much of the year) 49 percent. In this gloriously hailed Land of the Free
and the Brave, we walk or cycle just 10 percent of the time.
Where's the cure? Maybe in reaching back over a century. In the late 1800s
and early 1900s, Yaro notes, modern American city planning was pioneered
by figures like Frederick Law Olmsted who pushed for major parks in our
cities on the theory that getting people out into the fresh air and
sunshine would combat tuberculosis and rickets then prevalent in the
tenements of industrial workers. The public health and city planning
movements developed at the same time.
Just maybe, there's a parallel today-- that getting more people out of
their cars, walking and biking and reengaging an active lifestyle, can cut
back on the wave of heart diseases, diabetes and associated diseases now
afflicting this nation's people.
As long as smoking was an aesthetic issue, notes Yaro, nothing changed.
But when it became a public health issue, the public reacted. He predicts
the same now: "The correlations are strong, the science will follow
shortly. Once the recognition sinks in -- that our patterns of mobility
and development are killing us and imperiling our kids -- we're quite
capable of forging a new public ethic about these issues."