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Walking Away From Sprawl

January 13, 2002

The theory that sprawl is bad for health has landed in some Orange County business and development camps with about as much welcome as a gnatcatcher settling down on a graded hillside.

Environmental theory has been battled over down the line as Orange County has built out in recent decades. But in fact, whatever the merits of this latest argument, redevelopment more friendly to walking has been springing up around the county. It's a trend that should be encouraged.

Now, after years of fights over environmental review, contests over endangered species and uneasy truces over habitat preservation, comes a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Preservation.

The finding from top environmental health experts is that people who live in suburbs don't walk or bike enough because of poor design. Orange County has spread south and east after early postwar development in North County and the early population of prime coastal areas that were attractive initially as getaway or retirement places for people of means.

For all the talk about planned communities, many aren't laid out in a way that encourages foot or bicycle traffic. Today, sprawling subdivisions have extended beyond Mission Viejo to Rancho Santa Margarita, Foothill Ranch and Ladera Ranch, with more new subdivisions on the drawing boards for former agricultural and ranching land from Irvine south and east.

If this theory is true, many of the arguments for the benefits of suburban life, with its promise of mobility, clean air and space, would be challenged even for upscale communities like Coto de Caza. We hear a lot about empty-nesters returning to cities from the suburbs to enjoy cultural life, restaurants and shops, but the notion that suburbia has a cardiovascular downside is something new.

Two researchers came up with the theory unapologetically, dismissing the advertised health appeal of planned communities. One author notes a study that shows that the average person living in Washington D.C. walks 10,000 steps a day going from one place to another, something that cannot be done in much of Orange County, where people are more likely to go from garage to office parking structure to distant mall or school. Another study cited in the report suggests that students are four times more likely to be able to walk to schools that were built before 1983, an indictment of recent sprawl.

The report is dismissed as "junk" by Laer Pearce, the Laguna Hills-based spokesman for the Southern California Building Industry Assn. It probably won't be possible to establish the truth of the theory one way or the other, at least not immediately, although most residents who spend too much time in car traffic no doubt will have strong anecdotal opinions. Yet there are also many things people do to stay fit in the suburbs, with a flock of health clubs, parks, beaches and trails.

Moreover, the suburbs aren't necessarily as suburban as they used to be. In recent years, there has been a trend toward neighborhood redevelopment, with downtown districts getting spruced up in Orange and Fullerton. Not everybody can walk to these areas even if they live nearby, but they do foster a sense of place that is an antidote to the sprawl culture. Areas like the intersection of 17th Street and Irvine Boulevard in Newport Beach have a neighborhood feel that, except for the height of buildings, is very much like one of the many neighborhoods of New York. By the way, this urban versus suburban distinction isn't always as sharp as it seems. New York City since the mid-1980s has seen an influx of franchise stores that make it in some places feel like a condensed suburb, and you can't always get there on foot.

A commuter campus like Cal State Fullerton unavoidably has students driving instead of living and working in a university community, which no doubt is quite different from a place like Washington's Georgetown. But the UC Irvine area is sprucing up its local business and restaurant centers. As the county's land has built out, people are talking about living in apartment buildings and walking to stores and restaurants.

It may be too late to rectify much of what has happened with the planting of wide boulevards and great distances between communities that force people to be stuck in traffic. But even as a sprawl has afflicted Orange County, there are other dynamics at work.

Orange County ought to continue this trend of creating neighborhoods, even if people do get their pedestrian work on treadmills. A people-friendly community environment, where people can walk and bicycle places, is good for the soul as well as the heart.

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