Health and Community Design: Applying Ecology to the Urban Environment

posted in: Articles, Publications | 187

This article by Michael Figura was first published in the New Life Journal.

 Ecology theory states that if an animal population is unhealthy, one of the main contributing factors to the species’ poor health is a damaged habitat.  Improvements in an animal’s habitat almost always lead to an improvement in the health of that species.

We humans tend to forget that we are animals too.  By applying the critical lens of ecology to humanity and sampling the health of our own population, we can learn much about the state of our habitat.

The health of our population is approaching disastrous.  Here are some sobering statistics on the health of our population (Source: Eat Smart, Move More):

  • Over half of American adults are overweight or obese
  • Nearly two out of every three North Carolina adults are either overweight or obese
  • 53% of buys and 48% of girls between the ages of 2-19 are overweight or obese in North Carolina
  • Being overweight or obese increases the risk of many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

If the stat’s above don’t shock you, consider (Source: Eat Smart, Move More):

  • Obesity among North Carolina adults has more than doubled between 1990-2006
  • For the first time in nearly two centuries, the current generation of American children may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Applying the theory in ecology that our habitat must be a contributing factor to our declining health, we need to collectively ask ourselves what has happened that caused this dire situation.

Eat Smart, Move More is a North Carolina movement that has asked this question.  Eat Smart, Move More is made up of a experts in the fields of medicine, urban planning, nutrition, fitness, and many more.  A summary of their conclusions to the problems and solutions to our current health crisis are listed below.

Our Community Design

In an attempt to make our lives easier, we have removed many of the daily opportunities to move our bodies.  Specifically, we have removed the activity that we get through walking and biking as a means of transportation.  This is evidenced by the fact that 10% of children walk to school today compared to 80% during their parent’s generation (Source: Eat Smart, Move More).

By and large, our neighborhoods and communities are built so that walking and biking are not safe alternatives to riding in a car.  Not only are walking and biking no longer safe, but they are long longer feasible because of the increased spatial separation between our destinations.  Traditional cities have a mix of uses within a tight proximity to each other, which allows for short trips that can be made on foot or with a bike.  Contemporary cities are spread out and have large distances between buildings and between residential, commercial, office and institutional uses.

Redesigning our cities to foster walkability and bikability will largely improve our health.  Eat Smart, Move More found that residents in highly walkable neighborhoods engage in 70 minutes more activity per week than residents in low walkable neighborhoods.  Consider that adults need at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily and children need at least 60 minutes of exercise per day.  Because most health benefits from exercise are cumulative and do not need to be done at one time, walking and biking are great ways to get physical activity during a person’s daily routine.

Our Food

The number of fast-food outlets has dramatically increased over the past two decades. Every day, one in four Americans eats a fast-food meal, which is not surprising since the number of fast-food establishments in the country has increased from 70,000 in 1970 to almost 200,000 today (Source: Eat Smart, Move More).

We are eating more meals away from home in general.  Eating away from home often means eating meals that are high in calories and fat.   In schools, high-fat, high-sugar foods are sold to children in competition with the healthy school lunch.

Americans’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages continues to rise. The calories from soda are substantially void of nutrition.  There are enough soft drinks produced in the U.S. to supply every citizen with 14 ounces of soda per day.

Focusing on healthy eating habits will largely improve our health.  Nutrition education in schools, in the work place, and at home is a crucial component to getting us on healthy diets.   Growing food in urban areas can also help put people in touch with real food (as opposed to manufactured food).  More restrictive tools to change eating habits are to place high taxes on unhealthy foods and to restrict unhealthy foods in schools and in public buildings.

Our Television

Americans now spend an average of four hours each day, inactive, sitting in front of the television (Source: Eat Smart, Move More).  There is significant advertising of high-fat, high-calorie foods on television. Many of these ads are aimed directly at children.

Weaning people from watching too much TV is a difficult task.  Offering safe and healthy active alternatives to TV can help to solve this dilemma.  Communities that create more indoor and outdoor public parks, promote after school activities, and promote adult activities can help get people out of their TV rooms.  Public campaigns to de-glamorize TV culture and instead promote active living can also help.

Conclusion

We each have a responsibility to help transform our cities into places where physical activity and a healthy connection to food are part of our daily routines.  I urge you to set a good example of how to live a healthy lifestyle with your everyday actions.  If you are an activist, consider focusing your work on collaborating with your local government to create and codify community designs that support healthy living.

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