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 work.

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 downright dangerous.

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 walking."

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."