Suburban Sprawl Contributes to Poor Health

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 6, 2001 (ENS) - Research compiled by an environmental group has, for the first time, linked land use changes with negative effects on public health. The comprehensive report by the group Sprawl Watch spotlights the connections between suburban sprawl and rising rates of asthma, obesity, and other health problems.


Suburban sprawl in California's congested Santa Clarita Valley (Three photos courtesy Sierra Club)
"Every person has a stake in environmental public health, and as environments deteriorate, so does the physical and mental health of the people who live in them," said Dr. Richard Jackson, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health. "There is a connection, for example, between the fact that the urban sprawl we live with daily makes no room for sidewalks or bike paths and the fact that we are an overweight, heart disease ridden society."

The report, "Creating A Healthy Environment: The Impact of the Built Environment on Public Health," compiled data from across disciplines and multiple sources into a single comprehensive report that examines the public health effects of the broad physical and social environment, which includes housing, urban development, land use and transportation, industry and agriculture.

Doctors and researchers with the CDC found several primary connections between suburban sprawl and public health.

For example, increases in vehicle miles traveled have boosted air pollution and led to a rise in the incidence of respiratory diseases like asthma.


Traffic jams caused by poor road planning and thousands of suburban commuters emit tons of air pollution
Results of a study by the CDC during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, at which time vehicular traffic was kept at artificially low levels by city authorities, showed that the peak daily ozone concentrations decreased 27.9 percent and peak weekday morning traffic counts dropped 22.5 percent. At the same time the number of asthma emergency medical events dropped 41.6 percent.

Residential development can pose unique health and quality of life hazards, noted Dr. Jackson. Suburban sprawl promotes sedentary living habits, the researchers found, by requiring residents to use their cars to run most errands, rather than walking or riding a bicycle.

These habits lead to a rise in overweight and obesity. Researchers have estimated that as many as 300,000 premature chronic disease deaths each year are due to obesity.

Lack of pedestrian friendly features in a community becomes a factor leading to illness and even death, the researchers found. In 1997 and 1998, 13 percent of all traffic fatalities - 10,696 people - were pedestrians.


Fort Mill, South Carolina, is building neighborhoods where residents can walk to shops
"It is dishonest to tell our citizens to walk, jog, or bicycle when there is no safe or welcoming place to pursue these 'life saving' activities," said Dr. Jackson.

Dr. Jackson and the other researchers recommend that lawmakers form coalitions between health professionals, architects, builders, planners and transportation officials, "so that we are all 'at the table' when environmental decisions are made."

"Local health officials need to be at the table to advocate for development activities that promote healthy communities and healthy behaviors," agreed Thomas Milne, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

These decisions could include whether sidewalks should be installed in new housing developments, providing green space, and promoting public transportation, he said.

Milne also called for a cooperative effort among local agencies to address these issues. "We encourage an interdisciplinary approach that integrates the public health perspective into the land use planning process."


Attached row housing under construction in Montgomery County, suburban Washington, DC (Photo courtesy Multiple Listing Service)
NACCHO represents over three thousand local public health agencies, county, city, and tribal across the country.

"Land use decisions are just as much public health decisions as are decisions about food preparation," concluded Dr. Jackson. "What, for example, are the implications for children with asthma of building yet another expressway?"

"This groundbreaking report gives us a new vantage point to see more closely the inter-relationship between the built environment and our public health," said Allison Smiley, executive director at Sprawl Watch, a national clearinghouse on sprawl related issues. "For the past three years we have studied the connections between sprawl and the environment, transportation and agriculture. With this report we can see that there is a connection between sprawl and public health and clearly this is now an important new area of research."