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Feeling Sick? New Study Suggests Urban Sprawl Is Partly to Blame

A Rand researcher says that car-dominated, sedentary lifestyles may play a role in ailments.

September 28, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Fleeing the city for the suburbs may be hazardous to your health.

A study released Monday by the Rand Corp. found that people who live in sprawling areas, such as the Inland Empire or Atlanta, are more likely to report chronic health conditions than those in compact urban cores like Long Beach or New York.

"More sprawl is associated with more chronic health problems," said co-author Roland Sturm, an economist with the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research group. "It's not just that you spend more time in the car, but that [sprawl is] real bad for your health."

Researchers found increased reports of hypertension, arthritis, headaches and breathing difficulties, among other chronic health conditions. Sedentary, car-dominated lifestyles and air pollution appeared to be contributing factors, Sturm said.

The findings suggest that an adult who lives in a more sprawling urban area will have a health profile similar to someone four years older who lives in a more compact city.

But to their surprise, they found no increase in reported mental health issues for people living in sprawl areas.

"Based on the anecdotes, we thought we would see strong mental health effects," Sturm said. "More isolation from driving, the stress of driving."

He said people's contentment with where they lived appeared to be one factor that might balance out the mental stress of commuting long distances.

The study did not include rankings of worst to best, but used a prior study that found that western Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Atlanta, Winston-Salem, N.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., and Bridgeport-Danbury-Stamford, Conn., were among the worst for urban sprawl. Regions with the least amount of sprawl included New York, San Francisco, Boston and Portland, Ore.

"All of these are big cities," Sturm said. "We're not comparing nice, peaceful suburbs to inner cities."

A sprawl area was defined as having cul-de-sacs and other streets that are not well-connected, lower population density and widely separated schools, shopping malls, employment centers and other land uses.

Sturm said that although there were no immediate solutions, activities such as walking a child to school or bicycling to a corner market appeared to have cumulative positive health effects.

The study was based on lengthy telephone surveys that questioned adults about their physical and mental health in 1997 and 2000. The study analyzed data from more than 8,600 people in 38 metropolitan areas.

The differences remained even when researchers took into account factors such as age, race, income and weather. The poor and elderly in sprawling areas suffered more health problems than the same groups in centralized urban areas.

The full findings appear in the October edition of the journal Public Health.

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