While perusing CNN.com this afternoon, I came across an article called “Walking hard for many exercisers“. My initial reaction was “that’s ridiculous… they’re just being lazy”. Upon opening the article, I realized that my first impression was very wrong. In fact, the article is about one of the more important tenets of good urbanism – sidewalks. The reason walking is hard for people is not because they are too lazy, but rather because it’s just not safe or there’s nothing to walk to.
The article concentrates on Atlanta, where 1 in 4 people who want to exercise live in neighborhoods that do not have sidewalks. It is unacceptable for any urban area to have any neighborhoods that lack sidewalks. Now, Atlanta is a large sprawling southern city. I imagine the neighborhoods being discussed in the article are in the outer sections of the city. However, Atlanta is a modern city and should have sidewalks in all its neighborhoods. In fact, the neighborhoods should have been planned so that they are all walkable areas with everything a resident could need within reasonable walking distance, generally defined as up to a 20 minute walk.
This article brings up a major issue. The United States has an obesity problem. Much of this problem is due to our automobile-centric lifestyle. If cities and towns were planned and developed in a more urban nature (urban meaning dense, walkable development; not necessarily tall skyscrapers and no grass), obesity would probably not be as much of an issue. In fact, it wasn’t until the 50’s and 60’s that suburban communities started to grow. During this time, the public transit options decreased greatly (in part because the street cars were bought up by General Motors and replaced with buses and eventually those started to dwindle as more people owned cars). If more communities and neighborhoods were planned and developed as walkable areas, the general health of the public would benefit greatly. In addition to the health benefits, the environmental benefits would be great as well. The less people use their cars to get everywhere, the less emissions and traffic there would be.
One of the issues of this is that many think of large highly populated urban areas when they think urban and walkable development. However, that is not the case. Some of the most walkable, most urban areas are small village centers in some of the smallest towns in the nation. Small towns in New England, especially, have these characteristics. Most of the older towns in the country were built so that the residents didn’t have to go very far to get what they needed and many of these communities still exist. They should be emulated in any new development that occurs. The suburban sprawl phenomenon is a big cause for the destruction of open space and for environmental issues. It also causes people to get less exercise.