I have been hearing a lot of news coverage recently about the impact of urban sprawl on obesity so I thought I would take a closer look. As it turns out, it wasn't as straight forward as I assumed. It is true that, in general, people residing in suburban areas weigh more than those living in the city. What was not initially clear is why.
Early studies on this topic only looked at the facts - people in cities had lower Body Mass Index scores than those in the suburbs. Therefore, it was concluded that it must be because of the way these neighbourhoods are designed. I know that whenever I visit my sister in suburban Calgary we take the car everywhere. I was once left for a few days at her place on my own with my son and no car and felt totally isolated. Even riding her bike with the baby seat to the local strip mall took a good 15 minutes.
I, on the other hand, live in the city. I can walk to the high street and taking my car anywhere is actually more of a pain than anything else. We do groceries, run errands, shop for clothes, and go to the park all within a short walk from our home. It makes sense that I would burn more calories in my day-to-day.
However, what the initial studies hadn't considered was the why factor. Is it that people in suburban areas are less active because they are forced into this by the design of their neighbourhood or is it something more complex? A recent study by Oregon State University professors Andrew Plantinga and Stephanie Burnell suggest that it is more likely about our values and personal choice.
"When you select a residential location, you are really choosing a bundle of attributes," Plantinga said. "The house you choose may be near a shopping center or a park, or it may have a three-car garage and a bonus room. The market prices each of these attributes. It follows that individuals, given their income, will choose locations that provide the attributes of greatest value to them. People who value walking will tend to choose walkable neighborhoods. People who do not care for walking will tend not to."
This has significant implications for urban planners. Including more walking paths or reconfiguring communities to encourage an active lifestyle may simply attract people who are more predisposed to physical activity as opposed to addressing the higher level of obesity in this population. This study shows that people who value what urban living has to offer, tend to live in urban centres. Those who value what suburban neighbourhoods offer, tend to live in suburban neighbourhoods. It concludes that it is less about the design and more about personal choice.