Between 1980 and 2004, adult obesity in America doubled, and as a nation we now spend as much as $147 billion each year on health-care costs associated with obesity. This is a big problem. We know that Americans need to eat better and move more, but we need to look at why we aren’t eating well and moving enough in the first place. The moving-enough part? That has something to do with a little invention called the automobile. Which has a lot to do with how our communities are designed. Which both have to do with why we aren’t moving.
The rise of the automobile over the first half of the twentieth century encouraged suburban sprawl, or “conventional suburban development” (CSD) in urban-design speak. As access to cars increased, homes could be – and were – built farther and farther away schools, shops and other public-use facilities. Compact, mixed-use neighborhoods gave way to expansive suburban communities that could only be navigated and exited by car, and so we stopped walking. Dr. Richard Jackson, professor of environmental-health sciences at UCLA, summarizes the problem: “We have essentially engineered exercise and, to a degree, socialization out of American lives…We have spent decades building health-eroding communities in America…” He’s hopeful about the comeback of the healthy community, however: “…I think one of the big things we are going to see in the next ten years is a turnaround in that trajectory: we will build communities that are health-promoting.”
That’s a message of hope echoed by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), an organization that champions “walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.” The CNU advocates for streets arranged in compact and walkable blocks; diverse housing choices to accommodate people of different ages and financial means; schools, stores and other destinations accessible by foot, bicycle or public transit; and finally “an affirming, human-scaled public realm” with attractive, lively architecture.
Enter TOD and TND, here to right the wrongs committed by CSD. A transit-oriented development (TOD) is a mixed-use residential or commercial community designed to maximize access to public transport. Traditional neighborhood development (TND), meanwhile, refers to a community that features a center with public space and commercial enterprise; identifiable boundaries; a variety of available activities and building types; and open, interconnected streets, usually in a grid pattern. TODs and TNDs are designed to decrease automobile use, increase walking and use of public transit, and foster social activity – keeping people moving, interacting, and overall leading healthier and happier lives.
Urban design deserves a bigger role in the debate over the growing problem of American obesity. We know that compact, walkable, mixed-use communities translate directly to smaller waistlines and healthier, happier people, so let’s reclaim our communities and design them for us – not for our cars.