An article by Jane Brody in Monday’s New York Times explores how some developers, urban planners and public health researchers are taking a different view of sprawl versus thoughtful urban infill development. Brody cites the work of UCLA researchers and others suggesting that in creating car-centric communities we may be fostering obesity, poor health, social isolation, excessive stress and depression.
Researchers with UCLA’s Designing Healthy Communities program believe that, if built right, cities can help develop and foster our mental and physical fitness. Take for example the statistic that in 1974, 66 percent of all children walked or biked to school versus 13 percent in 2000. Explains the program director, “People who walk more weigh less and live longer… People who are fit live longer. People who have friends and remain socially active live longer.”
Rates of obesity and diabetes in L.A. County are nothing to be proud of while the asthma rates among children living near LA’s freeways and industrial areas, often one and the same, remain considerably higher than those in most rural and suburban areas.
The UCLA researchers support their call for a new, healthier urbanism by pointing to the usual illustrations of forward thinking and health promoting urban planning including New York City’s aggressive push to expand its miles of bike lanes and improve the public’s access to parks, and Copenhagen’s transformation in a generation into a more livable and extremely bike-friendly city. They also point to promising efforts, which Brody describes in her piece, including:
- Metropolitan Atlanta which plans “to create an urban paradise from an abandoned railroad corridor over the next two decades, with light rail and 22 miles of walking and biking trails;”
- Lakewood, Colorado where “an abandoned shopping mall… was converted into housing, businesses and play areas;”
- Syracuse, New York which “is converting an old saltworks district into a mixed-income, energy-smart housing and business area, giving residents easy access to work and recreation;” and
- Elgin, Illinois “where an island park was created in the middle of the rejuvenated Fox River and a former Superfund site known as auto dealers’ row is now Festival Park… A Bikeway Master Plan will eventually connect all the neighborhoods, and easy access to the river has spurred investment.”
L.A. has similar “successes” to point to including CicLAvia, new rail and bus stations and transit-oriented development. But if we want to rebuild the city as envisioned by the UCLA program, it may not be enough to say urban living is better with these amenities. The improvements will need to be demonstrated through quantifiable research. The Designing Healthy Communities program which aims to offer best practice models to improve public health by re-designing and restoring the built environment is very much a companion piece to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Project RENEW with its focus on policy, systems, and environmental change to improve nutrition, increase physical activity, and reduce obesity. The UCLA researchers’ findings and recommendations, if supported by the data, are an advertisement for transit, transit-oriented development and the complete streets principals that encourage walking and biking rather than driving. Brody’s article and the UCLA research, even as a work in progress, are worth a read and consideration by the region’s policymakers and planners.