Documenting the New Generation of Health Problems Caused by Sprawl

In a new documentary, a trio of doctors examine why diseases like diabetes and obesity have sky-rocketed

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A provocative new 4-hour series soon to air on public television, Designing Healthy Communities, examines the impact of our built environment on key public health indices, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer and depression. The series documents the connection between bad community design and burgeoning health consequences, and discusses the remedies available to fix what has become an urgent crisis.

The narrator and host of the series, Dr. Richard Jackson, MD, MPH, has become an icon in the field of public health, and for good reason. A pediatrician by original training and experience, he is now Chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA. In between he built an unmatched curriculum vitae of distinguished accomplishment in the field of environmental health, and he certainly is a long way from finishing.  I am honored that Dick and I have gotten to know each other in the past few years.

Long in the making, the series looks well produced, immensely enlightening and even captivating.  The four parts will include:

  • Retrofitting Suburbia, which will address health problems like obesity and diabetes
  • Rebuilding Places of the Heart, on reviving our older downtowns
  • Social Policy in Concrete, addressing the particular risks faced by low-income communities
  • Searching for Shangri-La, exploring whether there are "ideal" healthy communities

A companion book, also called Designing Healthy Communities, is available as well. It comes on the heels of the excellent compendium of essays, Making Healthy Places, that Dick co-edited with Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumkin and that was published last year. All three editors are veterans of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

I hope that Designing Healthy Communities gets lots of attention, particularly from leaders and funders of national environmental groups. One of my pet peeves is that obesity and diabetes – and their connection to community design – are virtually ignored by health scientists in the world of environmental advocacy, who remain almost exclusively focused on harms caused by traditional sources of pollution.

Those remain real problems deserving of attention, of course. But as Dick points out in the series, serious cases of type II diabetes have doubled in the last 15 years, in part because of the effects of suburban sprawl. This is not just an aesthetic problem but also a serious public health problem.

There are a number of very good video excerpts on the website for Designing Healthy Communities.  The one below explores the first episode and the series as a whole:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.