Older cities are generally healthier than many newer cities because compact street networks promote more walking and biking, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Connecticut.
The study’s co-authors looked at 24 medium-sized California cities with populations between 30,000 and just over 100,000, examining street network density, connectivity, and configuration. They studied how street design correlates with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and asthma rates collected by the California Health Interview Survey since 2003.
The report concluded that more intersections in a city leads to a reduction in obesity at the neighborhood level, as well as a reduction of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the city level. The study also found a correlation between wider streets with more lanes and increased obesity and diabetes rates.
“Over the course of the 20th century, we did a great job of engineering utilitarian active transportation out of our daily lives,” said Wesley Marshall, study co-author and assistant professor of engineering at CU Denver. “While they were well-intentioned design decisions, they effectively forced people to make an effort to seek out exercise and we are now seeing the health implications of these designs.”
Researchers also looked at each city’s “food environment,” and found that more fast food restaurants were associated with higher diabetes rates and more convenience-type stores correlated with higher obesity and diabetes rates.
“While it is possible to lead an active, healthy lifestyle in most any type of neighborhood,” Marshall said. “Our findings suggest that people living in more compact cities do tend to have better health outcomes.”
Additionally, the study found that the presence of a “big box” store tends to be indicative of poor walkability in a neighborhood, and was associated with a 13.7 percent rise in obesity rates and a 24.9 percent increase in diabetes rates.
“Taken together, these findings suggest a need to radically re-think how we design and build the streets and street networks that form the backbone of our cities, towns, and villages,” said Norman Garrick, co-author and associate professor of engineering at the University of Connecticut. “This research is one more in a long line that demonstrates the myriad advantages of fostering walkable places.”