Are suburban neighbourhoods bad for your health?

A growing body of research suggests that urban sprawl, in addition to being bad for cities, the environment and agriculture, may also take a toll on your health. For example, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, one article reported that higher levels of urban sprawl were associated with increased response time for emergency medical services and a higher probability of delayed ambulance arrival. Here’s what one of the authors of the article had to say:

Another article found that, in higher-density neighbourhoods, people walked more, both for exercise and to get from one place to another, than they did in lower-density neighbourhoods.

A bit of reflection will lead to the conclusion that there are no surprises in these findings. Obviously, people are likely to walk more if they live in neighbourhoods where they don’t have to get in their cars for a trip to the neighourhood pub, to pick up a DVD, or to go swimming at the community centre. Similarly, most of us know from experience that any visit or errand generally requires more miles of driving in the suburbs than downtown. If that’s true for us, it stands to reason that it holds true for ambulances.

But such points are worth proving, partly because science sometimes contradicts conventional wisdom, and partly because thinking about the implications of sprawl for health runs a reality check against another piece of conventional wisdom: the idea that suburbs are healthy, wholesome places for families. These findings, and others like them, suggest that there are two sides to that story.


Sources for this blog entry:
Trowbridge MJ, Gurka MJ, & O’Connor RE (2009). Urban sprawl and delayed ambulance arrival in the U.S. American journal of preventive medicine, 37 (5), 428-32 PMID: 19840697

Daniel A. Rodríguez, Kelly R. Evenson, Ana V. Diez Roux, and Shannon J. Brines. “Land use, residential density, and walking: The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis”, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 37(5), pp. 397–404.

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