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Urban Planning For Active Living: Who Benefits?

October 22, 2003 by Administrator in Fall 2003

By Kristin Day

The US population is heavier than ever, with obesity and overweight reaching alarming levels. Inadequate physical activity explains at least part of this trend. As Thomas Halton explains elsewhere (see “Obesity Epidemic” in this issue), 22 percent of US adults today do not participate in regular leisure-time physical activity. The health implications of this are grave, though insufficient physical activity does not affect all groups equally.

According to Pratt, Maceral and Blanton (see “Resources for Active Living” in this issue), low-income communities and some communities of color are especially at-risk. Among high school students, for example, participation in vigorous physical activity is lower among black (54%) and Hispanic (60%) students than among white students (67%). Black and Hispanic adults are also more likely to be inactive than are white adults. People with lower family incomes and lower levels of education are more likely to get too little physical activity. In fact, nearly half of those individuals with less than a high school education report no regular leisure-time physical activity; by comparison, less than 20 percent of college graduates are similarly inactive. US patterns of physical activity are similar to those in other developed countries.

These numbers may not tell the whole story, however. National health surveys, such as the BRFSS (Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System), emphasize traditional “leisure-time” physical activity–reflecting a class bias that assumes physical activity to be an aspect of leisure or recreation, rather than a product of manual work or a function of everyday life, e.g., walking or bicycling for transportation.

So while measurement may be one problem, it is broader than this. Though physical activity and overweight/obesity have not been systematically studied for diverse populations, low-income groups and some communities of color clearly face additional jeopardy for health problems that are tied to low levels of physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, for example, one in two Latino children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes during their lifetimes, due largely to high obesity rates among Latinos.

The last decade has seen growing interest among planners and public health professionals in how the physical environment supports or impedes physical activity. Prompted by researchers, advocacy groups and public health institutions, the resultant “active living” agenda blames contemporary US urban design for limiting our opportunities to walk, bicycle and conduct physical activity as part of our everyday lives. Until now this agenda has been developed largely in the context of middle-class, suburban communities, where large blocks, separated land uses, low densities and absent sidewalks make it nearly impossible to walk or bicycle to school, shopping or jobs. These features do not, however, characterize the neighborhoods where many low-income and black and Hispanic residents dwell. The pressing need to increase physical activity among these communities suggests that a refocusing of the active living agenda is necessary to ensure that its considerable energies and resources directly benefit these groups.

To help the active living agenda assess its focus, I offer three questions for consideration and further research: 1) is the physical environment the problem in low-income communities and communities of color?; 2) are we looking at the right aspects of the physical environment?; and 3) how can we understand physical activity and active living from the perspectives of low-income communities and communities of color?

Is the Physical Environment the Problem?

The active living agenda recognizes that obesity results from many factors, including nutrition and lifestyle as well as a poorly designed physical environment. Active living advocates argue that modern conveniences–lawn mowers, microwave ovens, dishwashers–reduce our daily energy expenditures. Our dependence on our cars, in particular, eliminates a key source of regular physical activity. If our communities were redesigned, the argument goes, we might be more inclined to walk and bicycle to our destinations, thereby getting more exercise and improving our health.

The causes of physical inactivity warrant further consideration because they vary among groups based on race, ethnicity and income. High-tech, labor-saving devices and sedentary occupations, for example, may be less of a cause of inactivity among low-income populations than among more affluent groups. Dependence on cars also differs by race and income levels. The 2000 census shows that more black and Hispanic workers travel to their jobs by walking, bicycling or using public transportation (16% and 14%, respectively), compared to non-Hispanic white workers (6%). More likely than high-tech conveniences, it seems, limited leisure-time physical activity in poor communities may be associated with limited time to exercise because individuals are holding two or more jobs and dealing with high caregiving burdens. Planners and public health professionals must be careful not to generalize from middle-class populations and places; we need more research to understand whether the physical environment is a primary cause of physical inactivity in poor communities and communities of color.

Are We Looking at the Right Aspects of the Physical Environment?

Until now, the active living agenda has focused most attention on the design attributes of middle-class, especially suburban, environments that may limit opportunities for everyday physical activity. Such stereotypical suburban environments feature shopping malls surrounded by seas of parking; large street blocks and curvilinear streets that make it difficult to get directly where you are going; low densities; a rural imagery that foregoes sidewalks; long distances from homes to shops, jobs or schools; and prominent garages that produce boring streetscapes.

Such physical features may indeed limit opportunities for walking and bicycling in the suburbs. Many of these features have little to do, however, with the design of urban settings, which in the US continue to be occupied disproportionately by low-income residents and by people of color. Indeed, many older urban environments boast an impressive array of the very features that are hypothesized to support physical activity–grid street patterns that increase connectivity, high densities, public transportation, sidewalks and a mix of land uses. Other physical features may better explain lower rates of active living in low-income, urban environments–insufficient parks, high crime rates and fears for safety, pollution, lack of jobs to walk to, dirty streets and sidewalks and residential overcrowding that limits opportunities for exercise at home. Aesthetic issues certainly matter, but they are likely to be overshadowed by more pressing barriers that limit accessibility or compromise safety.

The problems of cities are not new, and the causes are also well-known: lack of affordable housing, too few jobs in city centers, private disinvestment, and financially-strapped city coffers. The active living agenda could harness its considerable political and media power to bring attention to these conditions and to demonstrate links between poor quality urban environments and the expensive health outcomes of inactivity. Such strategies might generate new interest in addressing the longstanding problems that face older US city centers.

In built-out cities and impoverished rural areas, design and planning solutions to support physical activity will require extra creativity and resourcefulness. Here, the need to increase physical activity competes with a range of other pressing needs–for schools, jobs, housing, safety. The city of Santa Ana, California, for example, faced with an extreme shortage of park space for its low-income, young population, recently decided to convert one of its existing parks to a badly needed school site. New resources to increase physical activity will not be easy to identify. The best will stretch limited resources and will address multiple needs at once: community gardens that produce a source of income and fresh food; joint usage agreements to open school playing fields to community members; neighborhood watch patrols that encourage residents to walk. Usually, these solutions will not be glamorous; they will not involve expensive, high-speed rail or magnificent new parks or facilities. The scale of intervention is likely to be local and the cost of projects is likely to be modest, though still potentially hard to finance. In terms of social justice, however, these investments are easier to support than the retrofitting of middle- and high-income suburbs at the public’s expense.

How Can We Understand Active Living from the Perspectives of Diverse Communities?

To date, most public health research assumes a “barriers” approach to understanding active living in diverse communities. This approach assumes a shared definition of active living, and presumes that characteristics of individuals, groups and environments function to limit participation. Usually, such research finds that low-income populations and communities of color face extra barriers to physical activity–additional caregiving responsibilities, heightened health concerns, lack of energy and time. While helpful, this approach falls short in that it does not acknowledge the unique forms that active living may take in each community. It also does not harness the wide range of resources that diverse communities might marshal to encourage physical activity.

Planners and public health practitioners who hope to increase physical activity in communities of color must begin by understanding active living from the perspectives of these communities. Such “culturally competent” planning starts by identifying and learning more about the specific community to be served rather than planning for some hypothetical “norm” and modifying the plans (or not) to fit “exceptions” to that norm.

To understand the meaning of active living for a specific community, researchers and practitioners must work with communities to identify the groups’ relevant history and life experiences, their positive and negative assets, their beliefs and values and their activities and preferences, especially regarding physical activity. How, for example, could the strong family ties that characterize most Latino cultures serve as the basis of family-centered strategies for physical activity? How may fears of race crime and harassment limit physical activity in “wilderness settings” for black Americans? How might park design support the practice of Tai Chi among older Chinese-Americans? In interviewing Latino parents in Pico Rivera, California, about their children’s travel behavior, we learned that these parents, most of whom walked their children to school, aspired to someday being able to drive their children instead. The lack of drivers’ licenses and limited access to cars forced these parents to let their children walk, but they feared for their children’s safety in doing so. As this example suggests, planners should not assume the universality of middle-class ideas about the “goodness” of walking and bicycling. For groups that have had few alternatives, these transportation modes may have varied meanings and implications.

Communities themselves should be centrally engaged in identifying and developing strategies for active living. The Active Living by Design program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers a good model of what this might look like. This program provides modest funding and significant technical support to communities that demonstrate a commitment to increasing active living. The program seeks to support communities that have both grassroots and top-level commitment to this goal, and that have developed an agenda of activities that will work in their particular site. Ideally, community involvement would look more like community members planning and implementing active living activities, and less like community “input” or tokenism.

The active living movement succeeds in tapping a widespread, middle-class discontent with harried lifestyles and placeless communities–a nostalgia for another, perhaps imagined time, when life was less busy and more local in its orientation. In this other time, children walked to school each day and parents did not worry about child abductions or spend their time chauffeuring children from one activity to another. A day’s errands could be handily accomplished by a stroll to the market and a stop at the local post office. In this time before homeowners’ associations and three-car garages, homes were smaller and closer together, and neighborhoods were more distinctive and interesting. Neighbors were more inclined to walk in them and less likely to park in front of the TV for hours each evening without even having to get up to change channels.

We must remind ourselves that the development and design of US suburbs was motivated, in part, by a desire to escape dense, urban areas and the “problems” with which they were associated. Suburban development has had long-term implications for race and class justice in the US. We are still struggling with its effects. We cannot in good conscience now commit our resources to changing these suburbs into cities while neglecting our existing urban centers.

Urban environments present tremendous potential for supporting active living; these places are, after all, the models for the reform of suburban design that is the heart of the active living movement. The positive characteristics of urban environments provide an excellent foundation upon which to build, ultimately making city centers into places where residents have places to walk and bicycle to, and pleasant and safe routes to get there. The active living agenda has made great strides in a short time by insisting that we can change how we design our cities to support the kinds of lives we want. This vision of the “good life” can be broad enough to include the communities that need active living the most.

Kristen Day (kday(at)uci(dot)edu) is associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of California, Irvine.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.