Urban Sprawl and Public Health

Urban Sprawl and Public HealthUrban Sprawl and Public Health —  a great book! It was amazing to see urban planning and public health brought together in this way — a solid primer on both for each, along with a plea for professionals to start working together to fix this. Because sprawl is killing us.

I myself would throw in a soupçon of sociologists and geographers and community organizers to the health and planning mix as well, because what was missing? More analysis on the nature of development and how the drive for profit drives this urban form, more analysis on the struggle of everyday people to fight for and against some of these dynamics, and the ways in which race and land have long been linked (but there is more of this second aspect than in many another book). Still, despite these critiques, I confess that few things get me going the way that talking about the city and health in the same book do.

Health & Sprawl facts:

In the last 15 years, the US has developed 25% of all the land developed in the past 225 years of its official existence. (xii)

Between 1960 and 2000, average American’s yearly driving more than doubled — 4,000 to nearly 10,000 miles per years. “rush hour” spread over seven, not 4 and a half, average driver’s time spent stuck in traffic each year: 6 to 36 hours in Dallas, 1 to 28 hours in Minneapolis, 6 to 34 in Atlanta. (xiii)

On Sprawl

Sprawl — a term from William H. Whyte! Did I know that? He wrote an article for Fortune in January 1958, titled ‘Urban Sprawl’. There are a variety of definitions and measurements of sprawl, here they follow those that incorporate both land use and transportation as intrinsic. They focus on four main aspects — density, land use mix, automobile dependence and connectivity (or how destinations are linked through transportation systems (7). (5)

I particularly like how much they use illustrations, this is a good one:

"Source:
Source: Drawing by Duany Plater Zybek as shown in F. Spielberg, ‘The Traditional neighborhood Development: How will traffic Engineers Respond?’ ITE Journal 1989 (59) 17-18

I also liked the ‘transect’ — a look at the continuum between sprawl and compact neighbourhoods (16)

Transect 03-03-03" width="1572" height="530" class="size-full wp-image-7010" /> Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03
Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03

Chapter 2 looks at the origins of sprawl, and it is based almost in its entirety on Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. So it summarizes the multiple factors that have lead to spraw, and it is a very long list. He heads it with the pull of the suburbs and the (European) cultural values Jackson believed underlay that pull — domesticity, privacy and isolation (28). In addition you have land ownership as a mark of wealth and status, alongside (partly driving perhaps, but I’m a cynic that this drove development rather than sales) a love of land itself and antipathy toward cities. (29) The Garden City movement feeds into this, embodied by Frederick Law Olmstead, along with the new technologies and construction methods and lots of cheap land (no mention of conquest here of course). There is a little here on the willingness of cities to spend taxes on providing infrastructure like roads and sewers — directly subsidising this kind of development as opposed to improving older neighbourhoods or public housing. The rise of the automobile and destruction of public transportation. The rise of zoning. The HOLC and the FHA, federal policy and money going towards new housing for whites (I do wish, though, that they had read Freund).

Still, I like the simplicity of their conclusions though:

Sprawl, as we know it today, appears deceptively chaotic. In fact, it is a highly ordered and predictable form of development. An edifice of public and private instruments erected over the past three-quaters of a century reinforces and extends sprawl. (42)

There is a little on financing here, and that real estate financing now works on an expectation of profits within 5-7 years — more built-in obsoleteness. I wish they had connected this to Harvey’s ‘spatial fix’ but that’s complex I guess. This is my field though, and this is a good summary.

Urban Health

Urban health is not my field, though I have a good deal of practical organising experience on the subject.

Frumkin et al compare the evolution of urban health with public health through ‘epidemiologic transition’ — and these titles really do inspire the SF writer side of my brain: The Age of Pestilence and Famine, The Age of Receding Pandemics, and where we are now: The Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases. In cities, infectious diseases once dominated, but sanitary infrastructure ended that to a great extent. But industrialisation introduced pollution, and mental health and violence are not forgotten here, with growth in poverty, social dislocation and crime. (45)

From a public health perspective, the critical problems that grew as cities did were: garbage, commercial activity (tanning and other nasty things), sewage, water, air, and housing. (46)

An interesting aside:

In New York, Assemblyman Aaron Burr [founding father and profiteer] obtained a charter for the Manhattan Company, a private firm that was to hold a monopoly on piped water for the next quarter of a century. (51)

Privatised water is nothing new. Nor are the images from Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. My family for example, hanging out with the other half in Pittsburgh, probably looked much like this, though they were never in this particular alley.

Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888
Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888

 The Results: A Plethora of Infections

Their heading, not mine. I had not read of the yellow fever epidemics that swept through Washington D.C. — as President Washington fled in 1793 leaving over 5,000 dead, or over ten percent of the city’s population. (55)

The book quotes a citizen group in Philly writing:

if the fever shall become an annual visitant, our cities must be abandoned, commerce will desert our coasts, and we, the citizens of this great metropolis, shall all of us, suffer much distress, and a great proportion of us be reduced to absolute ruin. (56)

it continues

Cholera, Typhoid…Cities in these early days were ‘incubators of infectious disease’ (57)

Now this is Pittsburgh just as my great-grandparents were arriving:

1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA — Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But slowly this would change…

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The heading for this section is ‘The Social Pathology of City Life’. (61)

during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The urban crisis — it is interesting, perhaps a little troubling how the social is here linked with the epidemiological, but I am often troubled by the public health gaze at poverty. Foucault was too, so I’m in good company. The book here  notes the riots of the Red Summer of 1919 — yet it doesn’t distinguish these horrifying white killing sprees where literally hundreds of people were murdered with ‘riots’, what inhabitants themselves described as ‘uprisings’ in protest of police brutality and living condition in Watts in 1965, LA again in 1992 and etc (62).

It is interesting to consider the ‘urban health penalty’, however:

a complex of environmental conditions such as deteriorating housing, inadequate access to nutritional food, and scant medical care, and health consequences such as untreated hypertension, cardiocasvualr disease, intentionala dn unintentional injuries, and infectious diseases. (63)

Interesting to read of a 1990 article in New England Journal of Medicine showing that men in Harlem had lower life expectencies than in Bangladesh.* They write:

A literature of urban health arose, focusing on these conditions and how to provide health care to the victims. (63)

From here on to the nitty gritty.

Air Quality:

I like this chart:

IMG_5598

‘As the model illustrates, land use patterns affect each category of athropogenic emmissions–their location, their quantity, their dispersion in the air, and how people are exposed. (66)

And a summary of what air quality means for health:

Air pollution threatens human health in four principal ways. The two most important are by increasing mortality and by threatening respiratory health. In addition, air pollution can damage cardiovascular function and increase cancer risk. There is evidence for some other health effects as well. (80)

Physical Activity:

The ‘epidemic’ of obesity must be well known to anyone doing community work, or even who just reads the paper.

Being overweight is itself a well-established risk factor for a number of diseases. people who are overweight die at as much as 2.5 times the rate of non-obese people, and an estimated 300,000 Americans die preventable deaths each year as the result of being obese. (96)

So sprawl obviously has some share of this, creating environments where no one walks. Where it is dangerous to walk even if you wanted to, and there were somewhere to go. What features of the environment help people become more active?

Frank, Engelke and Schmid** identify three dimensions of the built environment…. land use patterns, design characteristics and transportation systems. (99)

Pikora et al*** expand on this, primarily in area of design — functional factors, safety factors, aesthetic factors and destination factors. So — a mix of different land uses, availability of sidewalks and footpaths, enjoyable scenery, the presence of other people in the space being physically active, safety.

Fucking rocket science, this is.

Injuries and Deaths from Traffic

Holy Jesus, this will make you never want to get in a car again. Over 40,000 people a year die by automobile. (110)

Water Quantity and Quality

So, you got your microbial contamination of water, your chemical contamination. You have your water scarcity. Sprawl affects all of these — thus the section titled ‘The Hydrology of Sprawl’. The rain falls, it percolates through foliage, roots and soil — cleansing itself as it does — to recharge groundwater and the water table. About half of us drink water from surface sources, and the other half from groundwater. My family drank from groundwater once, now we’re on a list, because it was contaminated. But that’s a longer story.

Forested areas are best at capturing and cleaning water, paved streets and rooftops, as you can imagine, fail completely. It all becomes chemical and pollutant-rich run-off. They give a view of what development’s effect is on this process:

Schematic view of water balance before and after development -- Center for Watershed Protection
Schematic view of water balance before and after development — Center for Watershed Protection

The stormwater runoff from suburban development contributes to microbial contamination as it ‘includes large loads of waste from pets and wildlife and nutrients from such sources as fertilizers’. Heavy runoff also carries sediment, these can protect dangerous bacteria like giardia as they sit in filters and drains. And then you have your further suburbs using wells and their own septic systems. The final way is unexpected — the continued growth of suburbs means the focus is on building new infrastructure, not repairing and cleaning out the old, which desperately need it. So our own pipes and things are poisoning us.

The chemical contamination is more obvious I think, all the toxic things we uses every day as well as those deposited by cars and exuded by factories all get swept into the water supply as well.

Mental Health

this is good to see here, I think it is left off of such analyses far too often. They remind us that sprawl is partly caused by a desire to get away from the city, into nature, into all that is good for mental health. Yet this is only one aspect of the suburbs — possibly offset by highways, sameness, box stores, speed, large scales, and just the amount of time people spend driving.

There is a whole of information on just how bad for us driving is. How it increases stress, makes us angrier. Studies on road rage. All of these things could, most likely do, contribute to morbidity.

Social Capital

This comes from community. They define such a sense of community as a

“feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”**** There are four aspects of this sense of community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. (161)

They look at the many ways community psychologists, human ecologists, and sociologists have talked about community and social capital, but much of it is based on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, so I won’t go on too much more here except for the ways it affects health. I’ll be dealing with Putnam too. Everyone quotes him.

Research has focused on two broad aspects of the social environment: structural features and social support. Structurally, people look at the density of relationships and extent of social networks. Social support is described as the the amount of emotional support (and other kinds?) in times of need (166. In a nutshell: People with strong social networks live longer. Lots of studies confirm it (you can see the Marmot Review on the UK). (166) The same correlations hold true for social capital.

Sprawl, on the other hand, tends to to diminish both networks and capital in several ways:

  1. Cars have much to do with this, the amount of time people spend driving restricts free time for civic engagement.
  2. sprawl ‘reduces opportunities for spontaneous, informal social interactions’ (173)
  3. ‘sprawl privatizes the public realm’, people who spend all their time at home don’t value public space, green space, suburban voters almost always vote to limit government programs with social goals or for public transportation
  4. sprawl divides people into homogenous communities.
  5. sprawl disrupts continuity of life as people age — can’t move into smaller house in the same neighbourhood (173)
  6. 1998 report from the Transit cooperative Research program found that ‘sprawl weakens households’ connection both to their immediate neighbors and to the larger metropolitan community. (174)

But it turns out that some sprawl better than others — the built environment and design can affects this, so there is some hope. But this first post is on all that is wrong, the second on what can be made right…

Health Concerns of Special Populations

I do like that there is focused attention on how sprawl impacts different groups, acknowledging that the costs of it are not even. There is a long list…Given that women are usually doing most of daily chores and chauffeuring of kids, the burden falls disproportionately upon them.

Children breath more rapidly, have narrower airways — thus pollution has much more impact on them than on adults. The lack of physical activity affects them more — and yet when they are physically active in polluted areas, it is more dangerous for them. Part of childhood is exploration of the world and the self away from parents — yet we have built spaces where that is not safe, impacting the mental health and development of kids. They are isolated, and don’t have the wealth of networks and adults watching out for them that a health community might have.

The elderly, too, are severely impacted. Communities that aren’t walkable require cars — so people drive long past the time they should not. Elders are isolated, unable to exercise, unable to have meaningful connections that improve their health and quality of life. This is often also true for those who are disabled. How dare we create cities without sidewalks.

Then, of course, there are the poor and people of colour. A reprise here for HOLC and FHA regulations, the racism that confined people into inner cities (I don’t think they quite realise how prevalent this continues to be). The steady concentration of poverty and its related health impacts in areas of higher pollution. The disparities of race in class so visible in health and morbidity statistics.

The connections are multiple and strongly evidenced. Enraging really. I like that they don’t stop there, but include a final chapter on possibilities for changing our cities and our future. That will follow in the next post.

*McCord C., Freeman, H. Excess mortality in Harlem. New England Journal of Medicine 1990; 322: 173-179.

**Frank, Engelke and Schmid (2003) Health and Community Design: How Urban Form Impacts Physical Activity, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

*** Pikora, T et al (2003) Developing a framework for assessment of the environmental determinants of walking and cycling. Social Science and Medicine 56: 1693-1703

**** McMilland and Chavis
Save

Save

Save

Save

2 thoughts on “Urban Sprawl and Public Health”

Leave a Reply