Make up your mind

These days many people are anxious to establish a link between low density sprawl and bad health. Kind of interesting that at the turn of the 20th Century, officials were worried about the health impacts of high density areas where infectious diseases had an easier time of infecting lots of people. Officials thought America would be healthier if we lowered densities (and separated houses from environmentally suspect commercial and industrial operations). So should we listen to those who tell us that high density living is better for us after all? It sure seems like the case is closed, that everybody agrees sprawl makes us lazy, soft, and sickly. Yet this Transportation Research Board/Institute of Medicine study is probably the most exhaustive analysis on the subject and it finds that evidence supporting a relationship between the built environment and physical activity is “currently sparse.” It’s easy to see how high density living can make it easier to incorporate walking into everyday activities. On the other hand, traveling the suburban way (by car) is much faster. You can get to work and back, run all your errands, and still have much more time left over than if you tried to accomplish the same tasks on foot or by transit. The TRB/IOM study notes that the lack of time is a factor in why people don’t get enough exercise, yet:

The role of time has not been well accounted for in examining the relationship between the built environment and physical activity.”

How nice it would be if some of the researchers who have suburbia in their crosshairs would turn their attention to this under-studied issue.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.