Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Getting Physical

Editor's Note: In this week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? we return to the Thriving chapter and a discussion of how healthy lifestyles are encouraged with the adoption of traditional design components found in Opportunity Areas. The introduction to the Thriving chapter, "The Push For Complete Communities," in online here.

The push for complete communities has gained real political muscle because of grave concerns about this country’s health. Take the problem of obesity, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers to be “epidemic” in the U.S., and which is linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes and chronic illness. A 2011 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in the last six years the rate of adult obesity nearly doubled in 17 states, and didn’t decrease in any. The CDC reported in 2012 that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, and that two-thirds of American adults and one-fifth of all children are now considered overweight or obese.

Clearly America has to lay off the fast food, but the problem is more complicated than that. Our love affair with the automobile has caused us to literally engineer routine physical activity out of our lives. While going to the gym and exercising is good, health experts argue that “incidental activities” such as a purposeful walk to the store, bus stop or school constitute an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

Studies have found correlations between obesity and driving, and between where you live and how much exercise you get. For example, while nearly half of all Americans do not meet the Surgeon General’s recommendation of 30 minutes or more of physical activity daily, a 2005 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that Americans who use transit get 19 minutes of exercise daily just walking to and from the train or bus. More than 30 percent of transit users get the recommended 30 minutes during their commute.

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2011 found that the body mass of residents of Charlotte, North Carolina, who started to ride a light rail line that opened in 2007 fell an average of 1.18 points compared to those who didn’t ride — which translates into a loss of about 6.5 pounds for a 5-foot 5-inch tall person. In addition, these light rail users were 81 percent less likely to become obese over time.

Most and least physically active regionsMoreover, Americans want to walk. A 2011 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that more than three-quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to walk a top priority. Six in 10 say they’d prefer a smaller house in a neighborhood with destinations to walk to rather than a bigger house in a less walkable neighborhood.

Having places to walk to is essential: A 2011 study from the University of California at Irvine shows that people walk more when their neighborhood is close to Main Street. The study found that residents of traditionally designed areas with main-street style shopping districts were three times more likely to travel on foot than those who live in newer, suburban-style neighborhoods with shops located along busily traveled roadways. The study also found that residents of walkable neighborhoods used their cars less.

Mark Holland, a former Vancouver, British Columbia, city planner and the founder of the Healing Cities Institute, says walking increases when homes are within 500 yards of a grocery store or an eating or drinking establishment, or within a half-mile of a park. “That’s why a person who lives in a suburban density is at least 10 pounds heavier than the average person who lives in an urban density — all other things being equal,” he tells Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council on NRDC’s Switchboard blog.

Opportunity areas embody these critical components of traditional design — a higher intensity of people and activity due to a higher density of stores, restaurants, parks, homes and jobs, all connected by walkable streets. See List at left: Most and least physically active regions.

Physical activity across the U.S.
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