Health and the hood
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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
Walk it out
“It’s important for parents to realize they only have a preschooler for a very short time,” Jackson says. “It may be fine to drive them around when they are 4 or 5, but when the kids get to be teenagers, it’s a different story. So parents need to think about the best environment for their children across different ages.”
Before families move to a new community, Jackson recommends checking out places on walkscore.com. Will they be able to assess the public transit system? Can children walk to school, a library, or a park? “Look into whether you’re going to have to pick up your 14-year-old son from soccer practice every night because the last bus leaves too early,” he says.
The civilizing power of green space
Research suggests that access to natural areas promotes children’s play and socialization, so looking for backyards and nearby parks isn’t frivolous. In one famous study of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing development in the world, researcher Bill Sullivan looked at children playing at the “hardened” versus the “green end” of the projects and found that those with access to trees and grass socialized better than those playing on asphalt. (Even adults seemed to fare better: A far smaller percentage of parents who spent time in green space reported hitting their kids than those who did not.)
Your commute, their mental health
“The best place for kids is where they’ve got loving adults,” says Jackson. How might this be relevant to the neighborhood you choose? Consider the long-term costs of commuting on your children. “If Mom or Dad’s exhausted from a long commute and dinner is from the fast-food restaurant because no one has time to cook, then it takes away from time with the kids,” he explains. “A lot of family life is a rat race.”
Jackson knows this from experience. While working at the CDC in Atlanta (a city known for its sprawl), Jackson and his wife had three boys at three schools and two careers. “Every afternoon we had to decide which of our careers was less important when trying to figure out who would pick up the kids,” he says. His advice? Rethink the long commute. “In our zeal to give our kids so much, we’ve made [life] pretty lonely for a lot of them.”
In the end, it may make better financial sense to live without a car or commuter expenses, to the tune of $10,000 a year, but pay $150,000 on your mortgage. “It may be a foolish economy to buy cheaper farther away from work,” says Jackson.