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Traditional Urban Designs Encourage Healthier Lifestyles

April 1, 2003 - The cul de sacs and strip malls of today's suburbs may be feeding into the nation's obesity epidemic by promoting a lazier, car-dependent lifestyle than conventional urban layouts. A new study shows that people who live in traditionally designed urban areas walk about 15 to 30 minutes more per week than those who live in less walkable communities.

Researchers say that difference may seem small, but that extra physical activity translates to an extra energy expenditure of about 3,000 to 6,000 calories per year, which could counter the 1 to 2 pounds the average American currently gains per year.

The study, published in the current issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, suggests that the layout of a neighborhood can play an important role in fostering or discouraging a healthy, more active lifestyle among its residents.

Researchers say walking and biking can be done for multiple purposes, which makes them highly dependent on sidewalks, bike paths, and street design. Unlike other forms of exercise, walking and biking can be done for leisure and recreation as well as for basic transportation, such as running errands and going to work.

"Because large proportions of people live in the sprawling and exclusively residential environments associated with low levels of walking for transport, land use and design may already be having a substantial, although generally undocumented, impact on public health," write researcher Brian E. Saelens, PhD, of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and colleagues.

In their study, researchers reviewed several studies to determine how transportation, land use, and urban design characteristics affected levels of walking and cycling in various areas.

They found traditional neighborhoods that were considered highly walkable and bikeable generally had:

  • High population density
  • Good mix of land uses (a mixture of residential or business properties)
  • Highly connective grid-like street design
  • Continuous sidewalks

Neighborhoods that scored poorly on this walkability and bikeability scale tended to have the following factors:

  • Fewer residents
  • Barriers to direct travel (cul de sacs)
  • Purely residential or business land uses
  • A lack of adequate bike or pedestrian facilities (sidewalks, bike lanes or stop signs at intersections)

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