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The Skinny on the Environment

The very structure of our communities may predispose us to inactivity and obesity. Now researchers are remodeling cities for healthier kids



Jim Vecchi Corbis

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When Susan Handy moved to Davis, Calif., in 2002, she immediately bought a commuting vehicle: a wheeled trailer, for toting her kids behind her bike. Handy, an environmental policy analyst at the University of California, and her husband frequently pedal to work, with two preschoolers in tow. Among locals, their commute is common. Fifty miles of bike lanes ribbon Davis, which is only about 10.5 square miles in area. Handy calls Davis a small town that really works.

City planners, health researchers and local leaders want more U.S. communities to really work--and to that end, they have begun retrofitting the country, from Atlanta to Sacramento. Inspired by a new urbanism that celebrates neighborhoods and alarmed by health problems--particularly childhood obesity--these trailblazers are building paths, sidewalks and other architectural features while promoting policies and behaviors that get people moving.

They have plenty to do. America's metropolitan landscape is a fractured network of residential and industrial buildings, haphazardly decorated with green space. To get around in their built environment, or human-made surroundings, members of the average American household collectively logged more than 32,000 miles of car travel in 2001. According to National Household Travel Survey data, only 15 percent of children in the U.S. walk or bike to school--a 35 percent drop from three decades ago. At the same time, kids now spend an average of 44 hours a week sitting in front of a television, computer screen or other video monitor, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Over the past five years, the study concludes, this Generation M (for media) has increased its total exposure by more than an hour each day, mostly by multitasking with different forms at once.

Our built environment is a recipe for health problems, from obesity to asthma to depression, says Richard Jackson, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley. Poor urban design has a distinct impact. Childhood obesity, in particular, has become epidemic. Nearly a fifth of all children and adolescents in the U.S.--more than 12 million--are now overweight, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. Can the U.S. redesign itself for a healthier future?

Trails to Fitness

Today's built environments reflect decades of urban planning with a few consistent themes--cars and zoning, among them. The advent of America's car culture in the 1950s inspired suburbs that sprawl, Handy points out. Reinforcing this trend, urban zoning requirements have frequently separated industrial or commercial settings and residential neighborhoods--partly in the interest of public health, to ensure that most homeowners do not live near polluting factories.

But this blueprint currently looks less benign. Pollution from nonfactory sources, such as smog from car tailpipes and lawn equipment, still fouls the air and contributes to asthma. Idle hours in the car spent traveling between residential and commercial destinations add up to inactivity. Even those who prefer to bike or walk often confront crowded roads and hectic intersections.

Rather than simply accepting this modern metropolis, early built-environment mavericks pushed for local change. On a sunny day in 1991, for instance, three cycling buddies in sprawling Atlanta together lamented the city's polluted air and lack of bike trails. Then they got busy. The trio created the PATH foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to develop a system of linked trails throughout metropolitan Atlanta.

Sixteen years later the PATH foundation has built 110 miles of trails in and around the city, through wetlands and nature preserves, along highways and across neighborhoods. The longest trail, dubbed the Silver Comet, stretches 57 miles from Atlanta to the Alabama state line. Built with a plan that combines public and private financing, all the trails are 12 feet wide, made of concrete and lined with maintained green space. PATH's executive director, Ed McBrayer, calls the trails linear parks.

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