Why Your City Planner Is Making You Fat

If we as Americans do one thing well, it’s gaining weight. NIH data shows that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and one-third are obese. Of course we have all heard the usual “lack of diet and exercise” mantra about weight gain. Data certainly backs up our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, such as the fact that the average United States household now spends roughly 8 hours a day with the television on. That being said, what if there was more to the story?

The United States is falling victim to a systematic elimination of the neighborhood. Shopping is occurring more and more at large retail chains (i.e. Walmart, Home Depot, Costco) which require tremendous real estate. Therefore city planners are favoring the creation of sprawling commercial centers where numerous such chains can be built in close proximity to one another, and allow for one-stop shopping.

NeighborhoodThe only place where ample commercial real estate is available is far away from residential areas, and thus the divide begins. Rather than walking several blocks to the local market, customers are forced to get into their car and drive to the commercial center. Because the center is so congested and busy, planners must reroute traffic and build highways with access ramps just to reach the developments, creating more barriers to traveling on foot. Of course the shopping plaza will also have several chain restaurants to choose from so that one doesn’t have to leave the area if they get hungry. This cycle then becomes vicious as the successful center diverts customers away from locally owned shops and restaurants that are available in residential areas, forcing them to close their doors. The end result is that Americans are no longer able to walk anywhere, making our usual form of inadvertent exercise impossible.

The problem of sprawl also compounds the existing dilemmas facing our society as a whole. When people have to drive to get anywhere, our conversations are carried out via cell phone and text messages rather than face to face. Increased sprawl also increases commute times to work, which already average about 50 minutes round trip every day. Added to our ever-lengthening average work week, this cocktail spells increased isolationism and loneliness for our society, which increases food drive.

Take notice of your surroundings, and pay attention to the development projects happening in your neighborhood. Increased sprawl and other such environmental factors may be making an unwitting contribution to our nation’s obesity epidemic.


Weight-control Information Network, NIDDK. Statistics Related to Weight and Obesity.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD Communications Outlook 2007.

U.S. Census Bureau. Americans Spend More Than 100 Hours Commuting to
Work Each Year, Census Bureau Reports. 2005.

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  • Very interesting. This indicates that the problem is more long-term than just lack of diet and exercise. Once a city or neighborhood is planned, it sets the strategic direction for that town and it is hard to deviate from it. If the trend is for “outskirt” consolidated shopping centers, then this is going to be the reality.

  • Heidi

    I curse you sprawl! You take away my sidewalks, my ability to connect to my community face-to-face, and you eliminate the local, small business owner who knows me and force me to buy at places with inferior sales staff.

  • Well said. No question, our build environment is a huge issue in reducing our mobility. An even broader perspective is offered by thinking of the obesity epidemic in relationship to global warming.
    As I blogged before: the key to solving one of these issues is solving the other.

  • Who would have thought that our neighborhood could make us fat – but when you take a closer look at all the new construction and developments being built it really does seem to be true. I recently read a blog on Prevention.com that also addresses this issue – newer neighborhoods are making people fat. I tend to believe that these developers are creating neighborhoods with conveniences of their residents, but are not
    realizing that these conveniences can be damaging.

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  • You have hit the tip of the iceberg. We have become a society of convenience. We want everything ‘just blocks away’. But as you noted the space needed for the behemoths is becoming more scarce, so our intention of having something close only pushes it away.

    I recently interviewed a pair of architects – one designs buildings, the other infrastructure. Both are ‘green-minded’. They believe that city planners need to be thinking about sustainability first and convenience second. Sustainable can be as simple as reusing a building or space. Or it can mean, if you insist on creating a new subdivision, you do so with the mind of ‘creating’ a neighborhood.

    Basically that means putting up an old-fashioned small town in the middles of suburbia. You build homes within walking distance of the stores you are building. And rather than making parking be the first feature at the front door, walking paths sweep throughout the area for a pedestrian friendly development.

    Personally, I am about a modified take on the Portland plan. They have drawn a giant circle around the city and told developers they can build and rebuild within that line. Until everything inside the line has been reused or the land parsed out, there will be no development outside of it. That has allowed the city to become about the bicycle and the bus. They walk a lot too. You don’t hear about Portland being one of the fattest city’s in the country.

    So yes, your points are quite valid. I would love to see an even more in depth study from you regarding this. I really enjoy learning how others are dealing with these issues.

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Sajid Surve, DO

Sajid Surve, DO, is a physiatrist, acupuncturist, and osteopath who specializes in musculoskeletal medicine and integrative medicine.

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