Health experts are raising alarms about an obesity epidemic in the United States, where 65 percent of Americans are estimated to be overweight. Sedentary TV watching, heavy computer use, oversized meal portions, and a fondness for fast food are blamed for our widening girth. Also cited is the fact that the society is literally driven by the automobile, to the exclusion of much walking or bicycling. But a movement called "new urbanism" could help reverse that trend, by helping to make cities and towns more pedestrian-friendly.
It's easy to say Americans are lazy and gluttonous, but the fact is that many U.S. communities simply are not designed for walking.
"Sprawl, as we've measured it, is related to the probability that someone will be obese, and to high blood pressure," says Reid Ewing, an urban planning professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has just completed a study of the impact of urban sprawl on people's health. "What it seems to be worth, living in a compact environment where you walk as part of your daily routine is about six or seven pounds [about half a kilo of weight]."
By building car-friendly subdivisions with few sidewalks, far from stores and schools and workplaces, Professor Ewing says, Americans have literally engineered some of their own health problems. "About a third of American adults are getting absolutely no exercise at all," he says.
One solution, he says, is to once again build pleasant, interesting villages with active street life, even within existing cities. There, people can walk to work, stroll past shops, and get some exercise as a part of everyday life.
In Portland, Oregon, a walker-friendly city with a long downtown corridor that's off-limits to automobiles, Ellen Vanderslice heads "America Walks," a coalition of 50 advocacy groups from around the country. Just as other public-health campaigns have successfully targeted tobacco and food companies, she says, highway builders, home developers, and politicians have become ripe targets for public pressure. "We've seen a tremendous renaissance of our inner cities in the United States. People are finding that the city offers so much in terms of things to do, places to go, and a walkable environment in many cases," she says. "But now we have this sort of inner ring of suburbs that are wearing out. And we have a tremendous opportunity to take, say, an old shopping center, tremendous areas of land that you might say are land banks because they've been surface parking lots, and build housing there. So we can go back into these older areas that are of a very suburban design, and they can be transformed."
This was the route taken in Boca Raton, a city on the Atlantic Coast of South Florida, where a run-down, 1970s-vintage shopping mall was turned into a pedestrian-friendly complex of shops, restaurants, parks, apartments, a concert amphitheater, and even museums.
Marketing director Jo Ann Root says the twelve-hectare development, called Mizner Park, features 1920s-style architecture that gives the area a comfortable, old-timey feel. "We find that a lot of the residents who live to the east [between Mizner Park and the ocean] come out at night, and they'll stroll through Mizner Park," she says. "It's kind of a happening place. I'm a walker myself. There isn't a day that goes by that at lunchtime I'm not walking to the bank, getting my nails done or my hair cut. When you live here or you work here, you kind of have a big extended family. It's a nice feeling."
But the picture is less serene elsewhere in the American "Sun Belt," where cities mushroomed, almost overnight. The explosive growth of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, was so tied to the automobile that fewer people walk to work there than anywhere else in the country. Charlotte, where fewer than half of the streets have sidewalks, made Men's Fitness magazine's list of what it called "America's fattest cities."
But Danny Pleasant, Charlotte's deputy director of transportation, says things are changing. The city that is the nation's second-largest financial market now boasts not only gleaming skyscrapers but also ten thousand new downtown dwelling units, hundreds of newly planted shade trees, and a more pleasant walking environment.
Pleasant: "In the newer development that's occurring now, we've tightened the regulations over the past few years so that we require sidewalks along every street that's built. And we're starting to require bike paths, that sort of thing, what they call the 'new urbanism,' or traditional neighborhood development. Some folks call them, now, 'lifestyle centers' that look like traditional main streets of towns."
Landphair: "Have we sort of realized the errors of our ways? Is that what's going on?"
Pleasant: "I believe there's an awakening that says there's a limit to how many roads we can build and how much of our cities and communities we can pave over."
But two forces are holding back the trend toward walkable, Main Street-style neighborhoods. They are more costly to build than traditional subdivisions out in the cornfields, with widely spaced homes and lots of roads. As a result, the Urban Land Institute, an organization of developers and planners, rates fewer than 15 percent of new developments as "walkable."
The other barrier to change is that a single-family house of one's own, sometimes with the stereotypical white picket fence, has been the American ideal since the Second World War.
But those who tout the health benefits of compact, old-style neighborhoods point out that so-called "baby boomers" approaching retirement age, with no kids at home and less need for big homes and lawns in the suburbs, are starting to look fondly at the amenities and vibrant ambience of a village lifestyle, even if it means giving up their big homes and lawns, two-car garages, and picket fences.
Kate Kraft, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is donating more than $70 million to find ways to get more Americans walking, says a cooling of the driving passion is helping. "There's concern over the amount of time that people are spending in traffic, in congestion on not only the use of our time, but also on air quality and a whole host of other health connections," she says. "There's a group of people out there thinking more about having neighborhoods that are walkable, that have other amenities. It may not still be the mainstream. But I think there's a growing demand for that type of lifestyle."
But "new urbanism's" move back to, if not the city, then a vigorous city-type lifestyle, is a slow process. As Reid Ewing at Rutgers University told VOA, "It took 50 years to create the mess we're in, and it will take decades to build more compact communities where people are active as part of their daily routine."