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What’s Good for the Planet is Good for You

Your neighborhood could not only be making you unhealthy, it could be contributing to global warming.

We are all accustomed to seeing big box stores and track homes along the freeway, but we may not realize how this type of urban design has affected our health, and our planet’s health. Urban sprawl has placed schools, public transportation, and retail outlets far from homes, contributing to a greater dependence on the vehicle, and a more sedentary lifestyle. This has helped create an obese America, and a polluting one. About thirty percent of carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming, come from transportation.

The obesity epidemic and the earth’s rising temperature may seem like insurmountable problems, but public health researchers, urban designers, and environmentalists have teemed up to kill two big birds with one stone. The result: bike friendly paths connecting suburban residents to downtown shopping, safe routes for children to walk to school, and unused, blighted areas turned into parks and recreation areas. The movement is known as smart-growth, and it is helping create healthier communities and a healthier planet.

The idea is simple: living close to schools, shops, and public transportation, and designing communities so that it is easy to reach these places by walking or biking, reduces dependence on the automobile. More physical activity means better health, improved air quality, and fewer carbon emissions.

In many large cities, this mixed-use type of design is nothing new. In Manhattan, for instance, dense living puts people in close proximity to public transportation, shops, and restaurants. It is easier to walk or take public transportation than it is to use a private vehicle. More a matter of ease and efficiency than exercise, these New Yorkers are stretching their legs, reducing weight, and emitting less carbon than their rural or suburban counterparts. A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that New York City residents who live in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index levels compared to other New Yorkers.

Many cynics may claim that just because people can walk somewhere, does not mean they will. But researchers at Georgia Tech and the University of British Columbia recently finished a six-year study looking at automobile use and connectivity of roads. According to Smart Growth America, the study found that “people who live in more walkable neighborhoods—with a mix of housing types and streets that connect to shops, offices, and other destinations—drive thirty percent less than those in conventional auto-oriented settings, even when they own the same number of cars at the same rate.”

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of pedestrian friendly communities will be our kids. A program called Safe Routes to Schools, funded by the Department of Transportation, is helping make biking and walking to school safer, while reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality. In Starkville, Missouri the program is helping build multi-use paths linking schools, a university, a sportsplex, and nearby communities. Not only does this set the precedent for active lifestyles, it reduces the number of trips parents have to take by car.

Revitalizing blighted areas and brownfields—properties that were once used but are now abandoned—is also helping to reduce pollution and create active opportunities. Instead of building outwards, the National Trust for Historical Preservation works with communities to restore their Main Streets. This supports local businesses and decreases energy consumption by placing businesses within walking distance of existing homes.

The Active Living Network highlights towns across the nation that are turning deserted plots of land into recreational areas. One of these is the Millennium Park in Michigan, where 1500 acres of industrial land is being reclaimed and turned into an urban greenway for biking, hiking, and walking. The park will link the four cities of Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, and Grandville.

Not everyone wants to live in a dense urban area and not all of us can easily walk to the store or a park. But we can still make small changes that will add more steps to our day and less carbon dioxide to the air. This could be parents taking turns walking neighborhood kids to school, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or spending less time circling a parking lot for that space up front and walking from a space out back. As more and more communities find ways to incorporate activity with sustainable living, we are destined to make a huge impact on our global health.