Friday, June 8, 2007

My field of study

I know that people have visited this site for my insight on nutrition. I'm currently working on my doctoral degree in Exercise Science with an emphasis in Health Promotion. Upon starting my program I wanted to study the influence of nutrition on health. I changed my mind. Now I'm leaning toward how the built environment influences physical activity and health.

The thing is that people don't have a clue what it means when I tell them that I want to investigate the relationship between the built environment and physical activity. I will explain. The built environment is the stuff that we build, both material and non-material. Architects have studied how the built environment affects physical activity based on where they put elevators and stairs in a building. If a person can't find the stairs, they won't use them. If the stairs are the most prominent feature as you enter the building, people are more likely to use them. Really it's simple, but they have conducted quite a bit of research on how building design influences behavior.

I'm not interested in architecture. I want to know how city design and zoning influences physical activity. Old cities built with a grid street network and zoning that allowed businesses on the street side with apartments or other high density housing above the businesses tend to have a greater proportion of residents that walk to the places they need to go. Sprawling neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs that don't go anywhere that are distinctly separated from places where you could buy the goods that you need tend to have more people who drive. Sprawling areas also tend to have more obesity, and diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

I went to New Orleans a couple weeks ago for a conference. All of the sessions that I attended at the conference were about the built environment. New Orleans is actually a wonderful example of a "walkable community" because the streets are easy to navigate, the stores are attractive (except those that are obscene) and right next to the sidewalk. Notice in the picture all of the cars... Actually they close many of the streets in the French District to cars because they get in the way!

Now think of the neighborhood that you live in, or the neighborhood that they are about to put in. Does it look like this?

While I can see where all of the cars live, and how they get around, where do the people live and how do they get around? People have a hard enough time getting out to exercise without building barriers to prevent exercise into neighborhoods.

I realize that it's a cartoon, but I really like this cartoon in a sad, too close to reality sort of way.

I know someone who recently visited China. He expected to see bikes everywhere, because that is what you think of when you think of China. That wasn't the case. This friend said that as many people as could were buying cars so that they could be "industrialized". like the Americans. At the same time, Americans are trying to deal with an overabundance of automobiles by looking at the example of third world countries. OK, that was far too optimistic. Americans as a whole don't seem to see a problem, but a few who are looking into the future see major problems with the way things are. Take the cartoon for example, about half of the stores are gas stations... There's a reason for that. We put oil into our cars, we put oil into our streets, we put oil based pesticides onto 99.5% of the corn that we are producing to reduce our reliance on oil. This isn't going to work.

Interestingly, countries where the average person makes more money than in the US, they make 33% of their trips by bike. They have made bicycles a valid form of transportation and it the people generally like it. It is more inconvenient in those cities to drive, and that encourages cycling or walking. Although I haven't looked for the stats, I would bet that they are healthier than Americans too. I wonder if they are happier? Having seen some stats on American happiness, it wouldn't surprise me.


Phil said...

I think you hit on it Sans... The design of cities and communities has such a large effect on behavioral patterns. Many communities didn't even have sidewalks built in the past few decades, let alone any thoughts of bikes and public transportation.

Group think is very important in changing behavior, and people still think of Bicycles are recreational because they don't see them being used as transportation. Here in Maryland, which is one giant urban sprawl, there are no bike lanes anywhere (officially many shoulders littered with debris are designated bike lanes), so the best option for bike commuting is often using the pre-made bike trails. This reinforces the notion that bikes are for recreation. Add to that public transportation that isn't bike friendly.

Compare that to a city like Chicago or Portland. You're stuck in traffic and 50 commuters to work whizz by you on bikes. Many major roads have large bike lanes. It's significantly easier to think of a bike as a viable mode of transportation.

Emily said...

I love the idea of planning a city based on centralizing our goods and services in a way that doesn't require a vehicle.

I have a love hate relationship with my car. Sometimes I have to take my car because of traveling long distances. Othertimes I have to take my car because of time constraints. If I had a choice, I would rather ride my bike anywhere than be in a car.

The problem is, where I live isn't bike friendly. If a city were designed to ensure my safety as a bike rider(I could ride the bike paths without being run over by a car or a cell phone talker) I would bike everywhere.

America and the American dream is based on freedom to go and do what we want. In order for us to start prioritize city planning, you are right. A lot of the American dream and our idea of what makes us happy will have to change.

I really liked this blog. Good work! I like what you are studying too. I can't wait to hear more.

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