In the land where the car is king, Acquanetta Warren has learned a thing or two about body fat and upward mobility. A transplant from South-Central Los Angeles to Fontana, one of the Inland Empire's fastest-growing cities, Warren has achieved the dream of suburbia -- a big house with a three-car garage and a sweeping plot of green.
But for several years, moving up meant barely moving under her own power. And over a few short years, that contributed to some serious upward movement on her bathroom scale.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Counteracting obesity -- An article in Monday's Health section about land use planning aimed at getting people to become more active misspelled the San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont as Claremont.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 21, 2005 Home Edition Health Part F Page 7 Features Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Obesity and environment -- The San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont was misspelled as Claremont in last week's Health section article on new efforts to get people moving.
Now 50 pounds lighter than her heaviest weight, Warren -- a City Council member in Fontana -- has become a foot soldier in an emerging movement. Spurred by evidence that 60% of Americans are too sedentary and 61% are overweight or obese, assorted academic experts and public officials have joined forces. They aim to fight the nation's epidemic of obesity with more sidewalks and bike paths, schools that kids can walk to, devices that slow traffic and zoning changes that would create an appealing mix of homes, stores, schools and recreation in blighted downtowns and far-flung suburbia.
Simply put, they want to shape and retool communities to encourage walking and cycling -- not as a spandex-clad, feel-the-burn obligation, but as a healthful activity that is a normal part of everyday life.
The focus on what experts call the "built environment" is the latest attempt to grasp the social and environmental factors that influence Americans' decisions about eating and exercise.
"If you want to get rid of fat America, then you have to change your built environment," says Ron Sims, county executive of Washington state's King County, which includes Seattle and many of its inner suburbs.
"You are what your neighborhood is," he says. "If your neighborhood is designed to get you home and into your house, you're going to be a couch potato. But if your neighborhood is designed to get you out of your house, then you'll get out and get active."
Across the nation, the "active living by design" movement is plotting changes designed to coax Americans out of their cars.
* In at least 18 states, including California, a grass-roots movement called Safe Routes to School has won public funding to improve sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths that link children and their families to school.
* In Denver, on the massive site of what was once Stapleton Airport, developers are working with city planners and public health officials to build a community that promotes everyday walking and biking.
* On the Winnebago Indian reservation in Nebraska, where obesity rates are high and diabetes affects roughly one in three residents, tribal leaders and local authorities have set out to bridge a busy state highway that separates reservation housing from shops, schools and recreation facilities. In addition to creating bicycling and walking clubs, reservation authorities plan to create pedestrian-friendly crossings that would make it possible for tribal members to hike or cycle to do errands.
* In King County, Sims and his administration have redrawn local transit routes and redrafted zoning regulations to make White Center -- a sprawling public housing complex now being rebuilt -- a model of walkability for neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal.
* Local government leaders in the fast-growing city of Nashville, Tenn., are organizing teams that will walk every public inch of 25 downtown neighborhoods, searching for improvements that would encourage walking. These "walkability surveys" have become a first step for many cities and neighborhoods, including Sacramento and Riverside, to encourage changes.
* Riverside County public health officials were key players in drafting the fast-growing county's most recent "general plan," which lays out broad guidelines for how land will be used, where public facilities will be sited and how population growth will be accommodated.
But even those intent on paving Americans' way to more exercise acknowledge that research is still underway on what works. Small changes such as sidewalk improvements can be made easily. Other features that have discouraged everyday exercise will be harder -- and will take longer -- to alter.
A startling comparison
James D. Sallis, a psychologist at San Diego State University, conducted one of the first studies that made a connection between a neighborhood's structure and its residents' fitness, comparing the exercise patterns and body-mass indexes of residents living in two San Diego neighborhoods.
Although residents were similar in age, education and income, their neighborhoods had very different structures. Normal Heights is, by many measures used by urban planners, considered to be a walkable neighborhood, with varied types of housing near retail stores and services, all linked by good sidewalks with safe crossing points. Claremont is newer and, by the same measures, considered much less walkable.