Health and the hood
Is the newfangled American dream (yes media room, no main street) hurting the very families it is designed to protect?
Obesity, asthma, depression, and car fatalities — what do they have in common? According to professor and pediatrician Richard Jackson, they’re U.S. kids' environmental health monsters, and where they live may affect their risks.
Jackson isn’t alone in linking neighborhood design and sprawl to children’s physical and mental well-being. In 2009 Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued a policy statement emphasizing the importance of walkable communities for children's health.
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.