Thursday, November 6, 2008

Urban Sprawl and Public Health. AKA, Suburbia Kills

In the past, the city would kill you with crowded situations, small spaces, poor ventilation, pathogens, and pollution. Suburbia was a place to “get away from it all”, be with nature, and take time at a more leisurely pace than in the city. However, do to poor planning and unforeseen consequences, suburbia might actually be killing its inhabitants.

A very accessible read, “Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities” by Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, and Richard Jackson, 2004, addresses this problem directly by outlining the ways in which sprawl (suburbia) negatively affects public health.

Physical Activity
The US has the fewest percentage of trips in developed areas taken by walking and bicycling which leads to a decline in public health. (1) Higher density neighborhoods are associated with more walking and bicycling. (2) Mixed land use, such as shops and jobs near housing, contributes to healthy commuting while mono-culture single family homes does not. (3) Enjoyable scenery, eradicated by endless development, is a lost reason for walking and bicycling.

Injuries and Death from Traffic
“Strategies which reduce the need for car travel or substitute car travel with safer forms of transport would substantially reduce population death rates.” –I. Roberts, 1993

Water Quantity and Quality
Sprawl interferes with recharging of groundwater. While sprawling residential and commercial lots may each have a smaller proportion of impervious surface than lots in dense cities, the total impervious area across a community is increased with lower density. Leaking septic tanks, fertilizers for lawns, and a larger road network’s oil, gasoline and antifreeze drips collectively contaminate the water.

Mental Health
“Most Americans live in suburban habitats that are isolating, disaggregated, and neurologically punishing…This pervasive situational loneliness, of being stuck alone in your car, alone in your work cubicle, alone in your apartment, alone at the supermarket, alone at the video rental shop – that’s how American daily life has come to be organized…” –James Howard Kustler, 2003
Sprawl not only reduces the opportunity of regular exercise, an important anti-depressant, it also limits opportunities of interpersonal contact, which aggravates social isolation.

Social Capital
Social networks, trust, & reciprocity are undermined by the isolated nature of suburban homes and car transportation. Leapfrog development, strip malls, and low density are blamed.