The Underbelly of Sprawl May be our Own

by Ann Marie Maloney

Admit it. If you saw the ad where someone is "walking the dog" by slowly driving a car and holding a leash, you'd think it was funny. The ultimate in laziness, perhaps, but very creative. Richard E. Killingsworth, a physical activity interventionist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says the joke is on us. (You know it's bad when a federal agency creates a title like "physical activity interventionist.")

While most effects of sprawl are well known -- longer commutes, loss of community, greater cost in delivering services -- CDC and some local activists are tackling one that gets us in the gut. The way our neighborhoods are designed often discourages us from walking or biking the shortest of distances, which can make us fat and unhealthy. It can even kill us. "We have a huge public health problem," Killingsworth remarked at a recent American Planning Association conference.

Sedentary lifestyle is a primary factor in over 200,000 deaths a year. And obesity, a growing trend across the nation, can lead to heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes.

The way we live now is not helping. Americans watch, on average, about 7 hours of TV a day. Walking has declined by 40% over the last decade and cycling even more so.

Age, race, and gender can play critical roles. Approximately 25 percent of U.S. adults are not active at all, according to a CDC survey , and inactivity is more likely in: women than men, African American and Hispanic adults than whites, and less affluent than more affluent people.

The CDC is finding what planners and activists already know -- it will take a lot of education, Killingsworth said, particularly among developers and local governments, to build smarter communities that don't isolate its residents and force them to use cars. Mike McLaughlin with the San Diego Association of Governments knows too well since the city is struggling with the same problems as the rest of the country -- highways that divide communities and shopping or work centers that pit car against pedestrian.

Buses and subways can offer some relief, but lack the convenience people crave. "Everybody supports public transportation…he said, and paused. "For the other person."

The audience laughed at a slide that depicted a man standing on a pedestrian island trying to cross two busy lanes of traffic. It was true slapstick as he ran across the street, changed his mind, and came back. "Who wants to walk on something that ugly?" Killingsworth asked. "He's probably still waiting."

"It becomes almost unmanageable," McLaughlin said. "People like to walk, in an atmosphere that is safe and pleasant," he pointed out. Otherwise, they retreat to their cars.

But underneath the slapstick is a situation that has far less humor -- pedestrian injuries and death. For those without the luxury of a car to battle the other gladiators on the highways or even the side streets, it's a miserable and dangerous challenge to get to work, shop, or pick up a child at school.

Removing the hostility from the traditional suburban or urban areas won't happen right away. Jean Lamming, land use manager for the Sacramento-based Local Government Commission, told The Progress Report, "People are afraid to change. Their lifestyle and community is built around the car," she observed. "It takes a shift in thinking and policy at many different levels." That shift is likely to happen starting from a groundswell of frustration. "A lot of different voices are looking for a change, " Lamming remarked. "They're kind of crying out for that. They're tired of traffic zooming by their house."

While retrofitting a 30-year-old or even 10-year-old subdivision seems daunting, Lamming notes that many solutions are not complicated. They do need signoff from city or county councils. For example, some areas are painting stripes to make roads appear narrower and encourage slower driving. Mixed use zoning that rejects the "houses here, businesses over there" approach is also becoming more common.

The PR Battle is Ready to Launch

Ideally, public health advocates would like to do for inactivity what it did to smoking and the tobacco industry -- pulverize it through a high-profile media campaign. Sprawl, in many ways, is a much tougher adversary than R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. because it is a shadowy target. No one can picket the headquarters of Sprawl, Inc. and no one has claimed a direct link (not yet, anyway) between poor urban design and a terminal disease.

But supporters of "traffic calming" and walkable communities are not giving up. CDC is launching a national "Walk your Child to School" program to encourage parents and kids to use their legs, rather than four wheels, and to raise awareness about the risks some children face in walking to school.

California, arguably the mecca of healthy living, has also started to take the problem seriously. The state's health services department created the Physical Activity and Health Initiative to prod its citizens and local governments off the couch and on the bike trail. The agency is partnering with community organizations and planners to promote bike and walk-friendly areas


The Local Government Commission publishes and sells books such as the Citizens Guide to Traffic Calming, videos and other materials for people who want to bring sanity to their communities.

The Congress for the New Urbanism, a group founded by prominent architects and planners, is dedicated to restoring urban centers and reconfiguring suburbs.

Walkable Communities, founded by Dan Burden, is a nonprofit corporation that helps communities ranging from big cities to small towns become more walkable.


This article appears courtesy of The Progress Report.


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