Region Forward Blog

Poor design can lead to poor health

Jan 26, 2012


The connection between land-use patterns and public health is increasingly evident. And troubling. The prevailing development model in much of the United States – sprawl – effectively mandates auto dependency and thus exacerbates the country’s ongoing problem with weight and its increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

And it’s not just our ever-expanding waist lines that cause problems. As noted this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education additional negative health consequences of sprawl include “asthma caused by particulates from cars and trucks water contamination from excessive runoff lead poisoning from contaminated houses and soil and depression exacerbated by stressful living conditions long commutes and a lack of access to fresh food.”

That’s quite a list; however there are a couple of points of good news. First this issue is starting to get more public attention – PBS is running a 4-hour series called “Designing Healthy Communities” to highlight the association between land-use and health. Secondly this is one health issue in which the solution is easy to identify: we simply need to design our cities and towns better. Good urban design can reduce the health disparities that exist in our region.

What does that design look like? Walkable bikeable communities in which folks can get to many of their daily destinations without having to sit in a car. It’s telling that the cities with the highest rates of walking and bicycling – the District of Columbia is now ranked second! – also tend to find themselves atop “healthiest cities” rankings.

The development of walkable and bikeable communities requires – in addition to the immediate on-the-ground improvements like bike lanes and sidewalks – transit mixed-use development and density. In other words they require urbanism. Seeing as suburban areas continue to grow throughout the region and the country it’s good news for health that urbanism is no longer the sole domain of central cities as DC’s neighbors are proving.

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