How Your Suburb Can Make You Thinner

Inside the new movement to engineer healthier lives for Americans by rethinking the places they live

From my article in May 2017 in Politico

To appreciate the classic American town, go to Europe. The narrow streets of most European cities and towns meander past a parade of tightly packed homes, cafes, shops, markets and parks, all teeming with people on foot. Today, we think of this buzzing pedestrian existence as the kind of quaint thing you plan a vacation to experience. It used to be daily life for Americans too, says James Sallis, a public-health and behavioral medicine researcher at the University of California, San Diego—right up until the early middle of the 20th century, when we started rebuilding the American community around PoliticoSuburbthe automobile. “People liked riding in cars, and so we got the suburbs,” he says. “Now everybody has privacy, quiet and space.”

What they also got, Sallis adds, was fat and unhealthy. Suburban Americans came to build their lives around sitting—sitting on the sofa, sitting at an office desk and, most of all, sitting in the car. The car became essential, increasingly so as work shifted from the local factory to offices in the city; as the local butcher, baker and grocer were replaced by more distant supermarkets; as malls three towns over pulled business from local shops. Kids went from meeting up with friends at nearby playgrounds or soda shops to being shepherded in a car from school to math tutoring to tae kwon do to soccer practice. Lost along the way were the daily walking and biking that used to get people from place to place in their self-contained communities.

This loss might not be worth mourning as more than the march of progress, if it weren’t for the bonus it had quietly been delivering. We now have decades of ever-growing, nearly incontrovertible evidence that moving our bodies on a regular basis is a very healthy thing to do, and the loss of this habit in America has taken a horrific toll. Eight hours or more a day of sitting nearly doubles the risk of Type 2 diabetes and sharply increases risks for heart disease, cancer and earlier death, according to research from the University of Utah and the University of Colorado. The average American sits more than nine hours a day.

If people can’t be cajoled to walk for its own sake, is there another way to get them moving? In recent years, planners and policymakers have begun to pull back and consider another solution: If suburbs are the problem, maybe suburbs can be re-imagined as the solution. People drive because their neighborhoods encourage it—and sometimes even leave them with no choice. What, then, if their neighborhoods were built to foster walking? With the right layout and development, the notion goes, our suburban towns and sprawling new cities might become havens of human-powered rather than petroleum-fired motion. Along the way, health should soar. Read more

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