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Monday, September 27, 2004

Warning: Suburban Sprawl May be Hazardous to Your Health

A new study says residents of suburbs such as Westport with a high degree of sprawl are more likely to report chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, arthritis, headaches and breathing difficulties compared to residents in less sprawled-out areas.

The differences remained even when researchers accounted for factors such as age, economic status and race.

“People who live in more sprawling areas are more likely to have chronic health problems over time,” said Roland Sturm, co-author of the report by Rand Corp., a nonprofit research group. “People drive more in these areas, they walk less.”

Researchers said the findings suggest that an adult who lives in a sprawling city such as Atlanta will have health characteristics similar to someone four years older, but otherwise similar, who lives in a more compact city like Seattle.

A sprawling area is defined in the study as a place that has streets not well connected, lower population density and areas that are far from each other, such as schools and shopping malls.

Regions that had the worst suburban sprawl included Riverside-San Bernardino, Atlanta, Winston-Salem, N.C., West Palm Beach, Fla. and Bridgeport-Danbury-Stamford, Conn., the report said.

Regions with the least amount of sprawl included New York City, San Francisco, Boston and Portland.

The findings appear in the October edition of the journal, Public Health.

To improve our health the study suggests that we should build cities where people feel comfortable walking and are not so dependent on cars,Ӕ said Deborah Cohen, a RAND researcher and physician who co-authored the study.

This study gives the public a way to personalize the issue of sprawl in a way that hasnӒt happened before.

Researchers found the unhealthful impacts of suburban sprawl disproportionately affect the poor and the elderly, who often have fewer resources to make up for the limitations created by their environment.

In contrast, the study found no link between suburban sprawl and a greater incidence of mental health problems.

Many researchers have proposed that suburban sprawl results in social isolation that may lead to more mental health problems among suburbanites. But RAND researchers found no differences in the rate of depression, anxiety and psychological well-being among people who live in urban and suburban settings.

Researchers conducted their study by using information from Healthcare for Communities, a survey funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that queried a nationally representative group of adults about a variety of issues related to their physical and mental health in 1998 and 2001.

The study analyzed information from more than 8,600 people in 38 metropolitan areas across the nation.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Washington Post reported that critics dismissed the findings, saying the study was flawed and the link between sprawl and health was tenuous at best.

“I remain a skeptic of the research, in part because the results they find are weak,” said Samuel R. Staley, a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based libertarian group.

“This study seems particularly prone to spurious results—results that are statistically related but really don’t tell us much about causes.”

Peter Gordon, a professor in the school of policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles agreed, calling the study “junk science,” the newspaper said.

The areas studied, for example, are so large they could not distinguish important neighborhood differences, he said.

“Describing places this large via a simple ad hoc ‘sprawl’ index is nuts,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail to the Washington Post. “People have been suburbanizing for a very long time. Yet, life expectancy keeps getting longer.”

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Posted 09/27/04 at 07:49 PM  Permalink



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