The Grave Health Risks of Unwalkable Communities

Our car-dependent lifestyle has led to a dramatic rise in obesity-related illnesses. But we can do something about it.

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America is facing an alarming epidemic. In 1960, fewer than one in 10 American children were overweight or obese, but today, that number is one in four. Formerly very rare (and very serious) childhood diseases like Type 2 diabetes have become increasingly common.  

It's not just kids who are being affected: a quarter of adults are now obese, way up from one in 10 in 1990. That's contributing to soaring health costs – over $190 billion a year, or 20 percent of all health care spending, according to a recent Cornell University study. 

What's the cause? Some analysts point to the growing consumption of junk food and sedentary lifestyles, and they're certainly right. But there's also evidence of a close correspondence between obesity and unwalkable, car-dependent neighborhoods. People in these neighborhoods are likely to be more sedentary, heavier and less fit, a deadly combination that begins when we are young.

For those over 40, a little experiment is telling. In our talks, we often ask our audiences how many of them walked or biked to school. Most hands usually go up. Then we ask them how many of their kids, grandkids or friends' kids now walk or bike to school. Almost no hands go up. We have wrought a huge change in the lifestyles of our children, one that is taking a tragic toll. We chose to do it when we created unwalkable (and unbikable) suburban environments. No wonder our kids stay indoors, or worse, get lured into a drive-through lifestyle, with rafts of fast food and little activity.

Safe, walkable neighborhoods are not just an amenity, they're a matter of life or death. They create environments where we can live active, engaged lives. And more walking brings more social interaction, more time outdoors, more recreation, more smiles and more "life" in every sense. 

But in modern times, aren't we stuck with these car-dependent neighborhoods? No, we aren't. As the PBS series Designing Healthy Communities showed, there are plenty of good examples of neighborhoods that point the way. More walkable, transit-oriented suburban neighborhoods such as Oregon's Orenco Station prove that it's possible to offer places where people will choose to walk more. (At Orenco Station in 2002, 17 percent of residents reported walking to shopping 5 or more times a week. By 2007, that number was up to an amazing 50 percent.)

We argue that it's time to "retrofit the suburbs," adding living streets and centers for humanity – young and old, rich and poor – to formerly sprawling areas. These places are not just healthier, they offer a better quality of life, and if they have a mix of services and public transit, monthly transportation costs can be lower, too.

The idea is not to "take away people's yards," or any other choice. The idea is to provide more choices, in how to get around and what to do outdoors, and especially, more healthy choices. You might still live in your current suburban house, if you want, but find that you can now walk to a small town center nearby that has a bus or streetcar stop, a little park, and a market. As a result you can get a quart of milk without burning up a quart of gasoline. Along the way, you might see a neighbor, exchange some news, or bring the kids for a nice walk. And you might not just be improving your life: you could be saving it.

Photo credit: Condor 36/Shutterstock

About the Authors

  • Michael Mehaffy is Academic Chair of the Future of Places conference, a partnership of UN-Habitat, Project for Public Spaces, and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation. He is also Executive Director of Portland, Oregon based Sustasis Foundation, an urban research and development center.
  • Richard J. Jackson is the Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, and former Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.