Bad Urban Planning Is Why You’re Fat

What you put in your mouth can make you fat. But so can the way your neighborhood is designed.

Bad Urban Planning Is Why You’re Fat
[Image: Walking via Shutterstock]

The race for an obesity cure is on. More than one-third of all U.S. adults are obese, despite an onslaught of public health messaging. Meanwhile, the proportion of obese children has doubled in the last 30 years, and only 8% of 12- to 19-year-olds get the recommended hour of physical activity each day. Research has shown that some factors are genetic, or habit-related, but one of the less-explored areas of obesity research has to do with what surrounds your body, not necessarily what you put in it.


A group of University of California, Berkeley, researchers wanted to see if neighborhood design, or smart growth planning principles–like mixed land use, walkable neighborhoods, compact housing, and green space–could shape activity and health. So they measured the activity levels of children in a smart growth community (called the Preserve) compared to activity levels of children in conventional suburban communities in Chino, California. Hooking up GPS and accelerometer devices to the belt loops of 386 kids, they took in activity readings every 30 seconds–120 times an hour–over the course of a week.

After analyzing the results, researchers noted one significant difference: Kids in the smart growth neighborhood showed local activity levels that were 46% higher than those of kids who resided in the ticky-tacky Chino suburbs’ rows upon rows of post-war housing. Just by living in a smart growth community, researchers estimated that kids were likely to gain 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity around their homes.

Still, overall activity levels between the two communities were roughly the same. “That means that the parents and the children that live in these [conventional] communities must be engaging in physical activity that’s well outside their neighborhood,” notes Michael Jerrett, lead author of the paper.

The findings support the idea that neighborhood design can play an important role in health. If parents weren’t carting their kids to distant soccer practice or ballet lessons, which cost fuel emissions and cash, their activity levels would likely significantly decrease. Jerrett tells Co.Exist that physical activity in smart growth neighborhoods, on the other hand, is more equitable. “By maintaining physical activity that’s local, free of charge, people aren’t going to be economically restricted from participating,” he says.

The Preserve, he adds, had an affordable housing mandate–and his study controlled for socio-economic factors. Jerrett and his colleagues began looking at families inside and outside of the Preserve four years ago, when the new development required a lottery to get in. By looking at the change in health outcomes over time, and comparing them to the outcomes of those who lost the lottery, Jerrett’s team will hopefully be able to analyze a fuller impact of neighborhood design.

But that’s not without major challenges. As a result of funding cuts from the federal government, the Berkeley team’s cash has run out, and they’re wrapping up the larger study on public health outcomes in October. “When we think of how many times the federal government has cut funding in the sequestration, this is going to be one of the hidden costs,” Jerrett notes, sadly. “We’re not going to have the knowledge to protect public health in the future.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.