Suburban Sprawl Linked to Certain Health Problems, Study Finds
U.S. residents who live in metropolitan areas with higher levels of suburban sprawl have more health problems -- such as diabetes, respiratory illnesses, migraine headaches and high blood pressure -- than those who live in areas with lower levels, according to a study in the current issue of Public Health, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. The study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, analyzed responses to phone surveys conducted in 38 metropolitan areas (Ritter, Chicago Sun-Times, 9/27). The surveys, collected by Healthcare for Communities, questioned 8,686 adults between 1998 and 2001 about 16 common health problems.
Researchers from Rand examined the results of the surveys to determine whether a link existed between the health problems and the level of suburban sprawl in the areas where participants lived. The study found that participants who lived in metropolitan areas with the highest level of suburban sprawl reported the most health problems, with low-income and elderly participants the most affected. According to the study, the link between health problems and suburban sprawl was most significant for arthritis, respiratory illnesses, stomach problems, headaches and urinary tract infections. In addition, the study found that metropolitan areas with higher levels of suburban sprawl, such as Atlanta, had about 100 more health problems per 1,000 residents than areas with lower levels, such as the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas in North Carolina. The study is the first to find a link between certain health problems and suburban sprawl, according to the Washington Post.
Lead study author Roland Sturm, a senior economist at Rand, attributed the link between health problems and higher levels of suburban sprawl in large part to higher rates of obesity and air pollution. "Suburban sprawl affects your health. That's really the take-home message," Sturm said (Stein, Washington Post, 9/27). Study co-author Deborah Cohen said, "To improve our health, the study suggests that we should build cities where people feel comfortable walking and are not so dependent on cars" (Chicago Sun-Times, 9/27). Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America, said, "This is still a very new field of research, but every significant study that has come out so far has reached a similar conclusion. This may be a promising way to begin addressing some of these chronic health issues."
However, Samuel Staley, a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation, said that the results of the study are "weak" and "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, added, "People have been suburbanizing for a very long time. Yet, life expectancy keeps getting longer" (Washington Post, 9/27).