HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Health and the hood

Is the newfangled American dream (yes media room, no main street) hurting the very families it is designed to protect?

By Carol Lloyd

Every year nearly 12 million U.S. households pull up stakes and head for a new campsite. Although these moves may be primarily motivated by other reasons — foreclosure, job loss or transfer, desire for a better home — families with children usually think long and hard about how their move will affect their children. How will the kids deal with the change? Will they make new friends? And most of all, what school will they go to?

One question you probably won’t hear bandied over the kitchen table: “Honey, how will the neighborhood design affect the kids’ physical and mental health?”

Yet after chatting with Richard Jackson, chair of UCLA’s Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, one wonders why ever not. A pediatrician and former director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jackson has spent the better part of the past decade rethinking U.S. children’s most pressing health problems from a radically new perspective: through the lens of the neighborhoods they grow up in.

At the CDC, Jackson noticed that his agency wasn’t addressing the primary health risks most kids now face. “Most of the environmental health hazards that we focused on — toxic chemicals and climate change — were relatively remote and abstract,” he says. “On the other hand, a lot of our environmental threats come from polluted air, water, stress, which can be traced back to transportation. And our transportation [system] is a response to how we build our environment.”

Thus, one of the country’s foremost public health pediatricians began thinking like an urban planner.

Designing for couch potatoes

“In 1969 over 40% of children walked to school,” Jackson explains. “Now the numbers are less than 13%.” Subsequent studies have found that walking to school promotes higher levels of physical activity in boys and that the farther girls live from school, the less physical activity they get. Surveys also show that when asked why they drive their children to school, parents cite a range of reasons including traffic, crime, and weather — but the foremost concern is distance from school.

“There’s been an absolute decline in fitness and an absolute increase in obesity,” says Jackson. “We’re all burning fossil fuel instead of burning excess fat.” In other words, when he traces the root causes of the ills of modern childhood, Jackson’s studies lead him to a suburban cul-de-sac, a car ride away from any school, park, or store.

Too pat? Jackson’s the first one to admit that 32% of U.S. children are obese as a result of many factors. But a growing body of research suggests that neighborhood design does play a role in children’s physical well-being.

From asthma to apathy

Jackson points out that how we’ve built our cities may affect three other big health risks for children: asthma (typically blamed on air pollution, in part resulting from ubiquitous car travel), car fatalities (more common in un-walkable neighborhoods), and depression (sometimes linked with social isolation).

Should the far-flung burbs get all the blame for our kids’ morbidity and malaise? Hardly. Still, as any parent knows, when the school year hits the fan, convenience and safety trump all else. Whatever we believe about kids needing plenty of exercise, fresh air, and community may fade in the face of choosing between a walk that involves a highway crossing and another car commute.

Though the new wave of “healthy neighborhood” research is mostly directed at pediatricians, planners, and other policymakers, Jackson’s ideas cast light on what kids really need from their neighborhoods and how parents on the verge of relocating can consider those needs.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"Comment regarding Health in the Hood suggestion about using website. I'm enjoying reading this site and liked this article, but have to comment on Richard Jackson's suggestion that is a reliable website. I disagree. Sure, the site looks pretty, but the scores are way off! The maps on the site randomly mark restaurants and stores that are often the furthest. At the same time the map/list ignores closer locations altogether. Plus, it marks home businesses as shopping locations. Lastly, they use block length as a major factor against a low score. The belief that a block length should bring down a score is not logical. So what if the street lengths are shorter, if the total length between the house and site is the same? I could go on, but will just end with a suggestion: use google maps instead. If you are going to make your decisions or be persuaded by a site, use one that is more reliable on the whole. While a score is not given - I imagine that you know how far you can walk. "
"Um...did you say 'skilled?'"
"yabba dabba doo i's lives in the hoods two, and the fact that the word hood is used in a school news letter causes me consternation. To the person who laughed instead of applauding that poor illiterate person. I say way to go buddy. You are adroit in your writing skills. NOT as skilled as i am however, nor will you ever be. In closing, all this who-ha can be avoided in the future by simply using good grammar. 'STAY AWAY FROM THE WORD HOOD. HE HATES THE WORD HOOD' Steve Martin "
"amen, amen, amen!!!!"
"To the person who is disappointed in those who find fault with the title. Please don't be. We are all adults, we can handle ourselves."
"There are many issues that have affected our health and the health of our children for many years. We are now seeing the results, just like we are seeing so many of our schools failing and our environments being polluted. We need to understand how it happened in order to change it. After WWII, many physicians abandoned their understanding of infant health by discouraging mothers from breastfeeding and promoting the use of (war surplus) infant formula, canned foods (Spam, Campbells Soup, etal), sugar and table salt. Physicians were a major part of that problem because mothers trusted them, and they claimed to be concerned about our health. The problem with doctors is that if you are healthy, you don't need them. They have no monetary incentive to keep you healthy. With the advent of television with tobacco advertisements on every channel, in every magazine, in every movie, plus McDonald's, Dairy Queen, Pepsi, Coca Cola and other major junk food companies populating practically every major city in the US ... and then linking all this junk food to young people's popular music icons ... well, it's very easy to see the affect on the minds of the impressionable. Blame Madison Avenue for promoting consumption of soda pop and junk foods as being 'all American. Schools were (still are) a huge part of the problem. How can schools teach biology and the fact that human beings are (also) mammals and then encourage children to drink COOKED milk every day from another mammal hundreds of pounds heavier than their own mothers? Couple that with the advent of daily soda pop ads, candy bars (cheaply and readily available), and you can see how easily it happened. Driving everywhere for the arts, sports, jobs, food causes huge problems not only with our air quality, but our sedentary lifestyles as well. In lower income, 'ghetto-ized' neighborhoods (remember the Jews during WWII and their hoods? -- the ghettos now have other minorities there and the Jews have moved on based on their economic advantages) you see neighborhood 'convenience' stores filled with all the junk foods, soda pop, plastic, packaging and cigarettes you need to slowly kill yourself. In Europe they have fresh food markets all over the place. Here we are in America, drowning in our own NYC ad-agency misleading 'packaging,' touting the benefits of 'foods' filled with synthetic vitamins, coal tar derivative poisons (artificial flavor and colors), etc. Furthermore, you have all the public (and private) schools for years pulling their kitchens and stocking the lunchrooms with every imaginable piece of junk you really don't want your kids to eat. The schools teach nutrition and a healthy lifestyle on one hand, and then they lie by offering junk to eat in their own cafeterias. Look at every teachers' lounge and you will find a pop machine there. School fundraising is another repeat of the same junk being sold to raise money for the schools to buy more books, etc. How is that good for our children to promote, through sales, the same junk they should avoid at all costs? Look at what we are really eating. Anyone can see that the commodities mostly eaten are bad for your health and well-being because they (have been for years) and continue to be too plentiful in our diets. The profit margin for these foods is ridiculous. Look at your parents and your own stock portfolios and ask yourself what is important for your investments. You, your relatives and friends are a huge part of the problem. We all know why synthetic vitamins, fat, salt and sugar are used: to improve the flavor and nutritional density of a deficient food that would not taste good without it because it was over-processed, picked too early, grown on poor soil, etc. In other words, it is deficient. Think Wonder Bread versus whole grain organically grown bread and it makes you wonder why we ever ate that crap in the first place. How did we get fooled? See the indie film, 'Food Inc.' Also read the book, 'The Hidden Persuaders' by Vance Packard, first published in 1957, which discusses the negative aspects of advertising in the post-war era. You will find their handiwork in every school, daycare, movie theater, indoor and outdoor stadium and every television channel on the air."
"very important article, I liked it, very helpful."
"I appreciate the this article, but what I don't appreciate when thoes in authority use slang when there is something our kids may read."
"Great, informative article. I see no problems with the title, but I am disappointed with those who do. We're all adults, we can handle ourselves. Great Schools has used slang before, and there was no problem then as there isn't now."
"This was an interesting article, and it had some valid points, but suggesting that children playing at the “hardened� versus the “green end� of the projects were not as well socialized might be missing the boat. Perhaps it's not the green vs. asphalt that makes the difference, but the fact that the kids growing up in neighborhoods with lawns and trees are also growing up with a different socio-economic background, and perhaps a stay-at-home parent. I be willing to bet think it's the green lawn and trees that are helping them. It's also important to note that, at least where we live in the suburbs of Boston, most of the communities with excellent schools seem to be the communities with twisting, heavily treed roads, and very little in the way of sidewalks on main roads. It would be a death sentence to expect a child to walk to school during the hours that many people are zipping along those roads in their cars while sipping a coffee, eating their breakfast, and talking on their mobile phone. My daughter either takes the bus (that picks her up across the street from our house) or gets a ride if she has a lot to carry because we live more than 2 miles from the school. She's very much in shape and healthy. We don't allow video games in our house, and limit TV and computer time to a couple hours per MONTH. Instead, we've taught our daughter to spend her free time wisely. She enjoys participating in sports (golf, competitive swimming, and softball), and when she has free time she spends a lot of ! it outside riding her bike, riding a scooter (not motorized), jumping rope or jumping on a pogo stick. We never allowed her to have one of those motorized cars that are so popular among the little kids. So, if you don't live in a place where your kids can walk to school there are plenty of other ways they can stay fit and healthy! Oh, and a big thank you to Great Schools for bringing us down to the 'gansta' level. I don't live in a 'hood' and I would venture to guess that most of your readers don't refer to their neighborhoods that way either!"
"To the person who wrote: 'i live in a neighborhood not a hood. dont we see slang and hear slang enough these days? please dont include bad grammar in your articles.' I completely agree with the spirit of your comment, but practice what you preach. A little proper capitalization and a couple of apostrophes would have made me applaud your comment rather than laugh at it! "
"I loved this article, too! It isn't blaming anybody for obesity but rather offering a different perspective on how we parents can improve the quality of our children's lives. I grew up walking a quarter-mile for the bus... my parents wouldn't have dreamed of driving me (or my brother). In middle school, we walked -- carrying books, instruments (yes, they had band back then!), and only getting a ride if the weather was really inclement (not drizzling or a bit cold). Perhaps because of this, we walk our son to/from school (about 6 blocks) every day. We love the time we have to talk about school, life, and dreams rather than listening to the radio or frustrated with rush-hour drivers. So quality, all round, improves when one lives close enough to school, work, etc. Thanks for the article!"
"I grew up in Germany and walked to school pretty much from 1 st grade until I graduated. Being driven was a real treat. BUT, we lived never more than 20-30 minutes walk from any of the schools. The distances in the States are far. Commuting 2 hours a day by car seems normal. I believe it's prioity to get your child to school safely. After school we go to the park, beach, run around the backyard,... Homework goes wherever we go. I don't believe in excessive homework, but maybe outdoor exploring homework would an option. Sometimes we just sit in our and learn. You'd be suprised what you can discover."
"I am appalled that a website which promotes the value of education, would choose to utilize slang (the hood) in the title of an article. Judging from the letters received on your site and elswhere on the web, it is obvious that many Americans need a better educational foundation. I hope that in the future you will think twice before lowering your standards, in order to appeal to the latest fashion."
"i live in a neighborhood not a hood. dont we see slang and hear slang enough these days? please dont include bad grammar in your articles."
"I found this article to be a refreshing way to look at how to improve my child's quality of life. To often quality of life is confused with affluence when infact affluence may be degrading our quality of life. Thank you for the thinking. "
"What a great article! These points validate our decision to walk our kids to school."
"I love how they put the blame on the parents driving the kids Could the fact that kids have 2 hours of home work as early as first grade have anything to do with the lack of exercise thay get? Maybe if they did not have so much homework they would have time to walk home! "