America’s metropolitan bellies are swelling from the inside out. The nation’s inner cities have higher rates of obesity and inactivity than their suburban neighbors. As America continues to fight obesity it is important to understand the built environment’s role in community health. Below I will show the ways past development failed these areas and how urban planning tactics like walkability and urban renewal can encourage healthy lifestyles.
Why are inner city communities so unhealthy when they offer many of the built features that promote walkability? These communities are supported by local parks, have short walkable blocks and are lined with sidewalks connecting mix-land use areas. The density of the area and access to public transit make the role of the car less significant. You would think that the inner-city is a physically active and fit community, a great example of a walkable environment; in comparison with the auto-dependent suburban population.
This is simply not the case. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are major health issues that plague inner cities. These diseases are directly related to inactivity and obesity.
Inner city areas generally consist of a minority, high poverty and less educated population. These areas are often victims of a part of society that is being left behind. The sprawling growth pattern of American cities in the last half century has abandoned the inner city, by moving jobs, resources and capital to the suburbs. This process has further hindered the poor inner city’s health.
Urban downtown no longer has the economic significance it used to. The de-industrialization of downtowns and the movement jobs to the outskirts of the cities, has created extended commutes for inner city workers. Low car ownership means that the majority of these workers are relying on public transport, a time intensive process that takes away personal time that could be used for exercise.
The diet of inner city dwellers is also effected by sprawl. The displacement of supermarkets away from the inner-city and again lack of transportation creates a dependency on small local stores. These corner stores often sell overpriced unhealthy foods. Lack of competition for affordable meals has resulted in fast food restaurants targeting low income communities. Although supermarkets may be far away, chances are there is a McDonald’s just around the corner.
Walking infrastructure, although widespread and accessible, is deteriorating. Insufficient lighting, crumbling sidewalks and other hazards discourage walking. All the sidewalks, walking paths and parks are useless if the public doesn’t feel safe while using them. The decaying infrastructure of inner cities also promotes criminal activity. Failed parks, abandoned buildings and empty lots create ideal locations to harbor criminal activity. If citizens feel insecure about the streetscape, they are far less likely to engage in outdoor recreation. This is a major problem particularly for the urban youth. Parents not allowing their children to go outside to play and restricting them to indoor stagnant activities puts them at risk for serious health issues later in life.
The health condition of the inner city is a perfect example of how sprawl has negatively affected those left in the urban core. This is an important development to review as urban renewal attempts to relocate people back to older urban neighborhoods. The concept of walkable communities is at the forefront of this movement. Small blocks and dense infrastructure in inner-cities are the foundation for walkability, yet lack some of the essential components. It is necessary to understand the relationship between walkability and density, although related, do not result in one another.
A walkable community can be defined through the five D’s: density, diversity, design, destination and distance to transit. Inner-cities communities are densely populated, have access to public transport, and are more likely to have mix residential and commercial land uses. However these areas lack the aesthetic values needed for walkability. Uninviting concrete slabs lined with abandoned buildings, broken windows and liquor stores is a far cry from walking down a planned walkable neighborhood. Creating a welcoming safe streetscape would be a great first step to promote walking in a community. An attractive clean walking path lined with trees, benches and proper lighting could change the way residences view their surroundings and spark a change in community values. Increasing pride and security in a community will serve as a catalyst to promote healthy activity.