Obesity & Urbanism

By - Aug 12th, 2010 12:32 pm
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The obesity predicament in this country and particularly the state of Wisconsin came to light last week with a report that showed 26 percent of people in the state are considered obese. The fact that over one quarter of the people in the state are overweight leads to increased costs in many areas of society, most prominently health care. One article that I read pointed out that this heath issue really has two sides to the equation: one the food that we eat and two the exercise that we partake in. So you ask how all of this relates to urbanism, good question.

The rise of obesity in this country largely follows peoples increased use of machines for everyday tasks. This is common sense, less manual labor burns less calories. So it is no question that walking is a large part of the physical activity we get every day. In traditionally designed and urban neighborhoods walking is a key mode of transportation. Wither it’s the 10 min walk to work, the transit stop or walking a block or two to get that gallon of milk. So let’s do a little comparison to see, everything else being equal, how many calories a typical suburbanite will burn vs. a typical urban resident.

Both get up in morning make breakfast and do the normal routine, so let’s say all else is equal till they walk out the door. The urbanite walks to work, let’s say 10 min or a 1/3 of a mile, stops gets coffee, a muffin or whatever. The suburbanite gets into their car and drives to work stopping to get their coffee and pastry from a drive through. Now, let’s say both have two meetings during the day. The suburbanite who works in a suburban office park has no choice but to drive to both meetings, since walking around the office park is sure suicide with no sidewalks and 12 foot wide roads that encourage people travel at 40-50mph. The urbanite has to drive to one meeting at a suburban office park and one meeting is in the urban area so they take public transit, the stops are 2 blocks on either sides of the trip, for a total of 8 blocks. Let’s say those blocks are around 250 feet long, that’s 2000 feet or a little more than a 1/3 of a mile. Lastly, the trip home adds another 1/3 of a mile of walking to the urbanites physical activity for the day. This does not include any trips to the grocery store or other errands like dry cleaning that can be handled with a short walk.

Due to the compact built environment; the urbanite walks an extra “unconscious” mile every weekday. I call it an unconscious because when a person lives in a traditionally designed or urban neighborhood they walk without even thinking about it, it’s built in.

All in all, what does this do for the urban resident? The calories that are burned depend on the weight of the person and the speed of walking. I weight 165, so let’s say 160 and my favorite number is 3, so let’s say 3mph. With these parameters a person would burn an extra 85 calories. Not much right, well given the same weight and running at 6mph, you would need to run ¾ of a mile to burn those same calories.

Remember all of the estimations were rounded down. So by the time a person walks to their dry cleaner or to the store they could be saving themselves from having to run a mile everyday in order to stay healthy.

Guest post by: Matthew Trussoni

Matthew Trussoni, PhD, PE, RA is currently an Assistant Professor in and an alumnus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Architectural Engineering Department. After graduating MSOE he attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. where he completed a dual master’s degrees program in the School of Architecture in 2005 earning the degrees of Master of Architecture and Master of Urban Design. In 2009 he earned his Ph.D. in civil (structural) engineering in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department. His professional experience has encompassed both architecture and engineering as he is a Registered Architect and Professional Engineer in the State of Florida.

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16 thoughts on “Obesity & Urbanism”

  1. SS says:

    Except the areas where obesity is the biggest problem are in the inner city, not in the suburbs.

    Poor urban dwellers are more likely NOT to own cars, they DO walk to the bus stop, and they DO walk in their neighborhood to get around, but that’s where the obese and diabetics are. The suburban office worker is typically not obese.

    Obesity really has a lot more to do with your diet than how you commute to work.

  2. Jesse Hagen says:

    More than one factor can impact whether people in an area are obese or not. Say, if you’re looking at income, the higher the income the thinner people are.

    So controlling for income, urban areas have thinner people… meaning if poor people lived in more suburban environments, they would be fatter than if they lived in more urban areas… yet they’re still more likely overall to be overweight.

    Are you taking an offhand look around your suburban office… because it must be the exception, show me some numbers. I’ve seen plenty of chubby/obese people streaming in/out of office parks.

  3. SS,

    You are confusing inner city, which is a term that refers to poor neighborhoods, with compact and traditionally designed, they are not synonymous. Poor people typically do not get healthy food to eat because only highly processed food is available in their local area and they do not have car to go and find healthy food.

    There are a lot of variables in this equation, which is why the comparison is on exercise only; a person would need to write a book to analyze all the inputs.

  4. SS says:

    Show me some numbers? Ha! How about YOU show me something besides “I’ve seen plenty of chubby people”!

    > So controlling for income, urban areas have thinner people

    According to… something you just made up?

    You are correct, income is a factor. Probably why the suburban office worker isn’t as likely to be obese. A much bigger factor than where you live. Which is my whole point.

  5. Nick Aster says:

    Mathew, SS raises a really good point. I generally agree with your argument and if you compared say, bike commuters with car commuters then there might be some interesting correlation.

    But he’s right, the worst obesity in the US is in the urban black population – who typically live in compact, theoretically walkable urban neighborhoods – including much of Milwaukee. These communities may be walkable, but they are hit by the extra whammy of poverty, miserable education levels, and almost no access to anything but junk food. Ironically, in those neighborhoods the only thing you can walk to is McDonalds or the liquor store, so not having a car actually makes nutrition worse.

    At the end of the day, educated and prosperous walkable areas have thinner people, but without education and prosperity, even walkability gets trumped.

  6. Gregg says:

    I would like to add two things to the discussion.
    First, I think people here are missing a crucial point. The author did clearly state: “let’s say all else is equal till they walk out the door.” ‘All else is equal’ is an important caveat when making an argument. So you can’t criticize based on certain population groups being this or that because in that case it is no longer equal. Of course other factors influence obesity.

    Second, none of you have data.

    What the author is trying to point out is that dense, walkable environments are more beneficial to public health; i.e., that on average people will be thinner and consequently on average healthier than those in auto-dependent neighborhoods (all else being equal of course).

  7. Gregg says:

    To be fair, I think that is what a few people here were trying to make. Just thought it might be helpful to take a step back and examine the argument that was being made.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Gregg/SS/Nick I’d add that nobody is saying there isn’t a problem with obesity in the inner city, in fact the lack of good quality food options is a serious issue in the inner city. But as Gregg pointed out and Matt’s article reads all else being equal the adding of a little bit of walking to a persons day, as living in a walkable neighborhood does, can help fight this problem. Further I’d add that fact that the inner city doesn’t have great quality food options actually makes the area less walkable, as options to walk to are part of walkabilty.

  9. I don’t think we are diminishing the importance of these other factors that lead to obesity, because they are numerous and important. But the scientific method really is to hold all other variables constant and vary one to see how it affects the equation. That is look at it with a totally analytical mind. There also is the whole eminent level of how the built environment depicts cultures priorities and how these things affect people physically and psychologically.

    “We make our buildings and afterward they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”
    -Winston Churchill

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @Jesse Thanks for the link

  11. That is a very good paper, glad to see a former Wisconsin politician in it.

  12. ktkof08 says:

    This article is so irrelevant. I mean how about not attending Food Cart Fridays? That would be a start. Really thought, this article is not relevant for 99+% of the metro population. I mean sure, ANY extra walking would help out, but is that really a realistic scenario? I mean suppose you’ve planned yourself to be an “urbanite”, where you live 1/3 of a mile from your work. Exactly what are the chances your spouse is going to also find a job to his/her liking that is 1/3 of a mile walking distance of your employment? And we’re not even considering children. What happens when that same couple has a couple of kids to consider as well? Oh and Little Johnny wants to be in soccer and Little Suzy wants to be in gymnastics. Guess what, these parents are going to have to own a car. They’re also going to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to send their children to great schools, since MPS likely does not provide them.

    This is a problem many middle class families have in Milwaukee. It’s also relevant to say that 90% of a weight loss diet is THE DIET, on account that unless you’re Michael Phelps you can easily out-eat your exercise regime.

  13. Dave Reid says:

    @ktkofo8 I’d start by quickly point out that this is UrbanMilwaukee.com, so it is extremely relevant. What would not be relevant is a new Sonic opening in Brookfield, though I might try:)

    ” I mean sure, ANY extra walking would help out, but is that really a realistic scenario? ” Yes it is. People make a choice as to where the live, and living in a walkable neighborhood has numerous advantages, one being the added health benefit. Even if one of the household member’s job requires a drive, they still get the benefit of walking/biking for just about all other errands. People who live in walkable neighborhoods take less vehicle trips and drive less distance (there are plenty of stats on this out there), because they can replace some trips with walking.

    PS Because of those few extra calories burned by walking daily Food Car Friday is just fine to do, and some of the options are actually pretty healthy.

  14. Dave Reid says:

    Here’s a timely survey… One that ties the length of your commute to obesity: Commuting is Very Bad for You http://bit.ly/9c3k3Y

  15. Dave Reid says:

    Oh here is another related article on the topic Use it (transit) to lose it (weight) http://bit.ly/a3xsmF

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