Death by suburban sprawl: better urban planning will combat sedentary lifestyles

People are more likely to walk if they live in compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods with connected street networks. Elsie esq./flickr

Non-communicable diseases – Billie Giles-Corti looks at how the built environment impacts the development of NCDs.

Never before in human history have so many people been able to be so sedentary in the course of daily life.

Since World War II, technological advances have transformed the design and development of buildings and communities, the way populations are mobilized and fed, the nature of work, and methods of communication.

Industrial and home labour-saving devices – from the remote control of garage doors to televisions and everything in between – maximise convenience and minimise effort.

So compared with our parents and grandparents, feeding and clothing ourselves has never been so effortless.

But while offering convenience, our use of motor vehicles – even for short trips to the local shop – or a blower to “sweep” garden leaves, appears to be having a profound impact on the health of human populations.

Sitting to death

Diseases previously associated with affluence – cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses and diabetes – are now prevalent in disadvantaged populations.

The problem is so big that an emergency long-term response is required – not just by the health sector but by everyone.

The United Nations declaration calling for action on the prevention and control of non-communicable disease highlighted the need for a “whole of society effort” to tackle this enormous global problem, which is crippling already overburdened health systems.

This is a call for all hands on deck: no one sector – and certainly not the health sector – can solve this problem. Fixing up people when they are ill is not the solution.

The number of people with non-communicable diseases are growing exponentially not because we have changed genetically, but because we have changed our lifestyles in response to a rapidly changing environment.

We now sit too much, move too little and over consume energy dense food – just because we can.

Built environment

The UN call for action specifically mentions the role of urban planning in the development of non-communicable diseases.

Research consistently shows that people are more likely to walk if they live in compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods characterised by connected street networks, access to mixed-use planning, with presence of local destinations and higher density housing.

And that time and distance influences walking and cycling as preferred modes of transport.

Heavily trafficked roads are contributing to the decline of active modes of travel. Peter Blanchard