Unbiased Analysis of Today's Healthcare Issues

Urban Sprawl and Health

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Feb• 20•07

Defining sprawl is difficult. Los Angeles is generally seen to be a leader in sprawl, but in fact Los Angeles is the most densely populated urban area in the U.S; Portland is seen as a model of reducing urban sprawl, but sprawl increased by 25,000 acres in Portland between 1980 and 1990. While population growth certainly affects the rate of increase of urban sprawl, cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, Buffalo and Dayton all lost population between 1970 and 1990, but experienced significant sprawl.

Despite the fact that many newspapers and blogs rail against urban sprawl, Americans are continuing to move to the suburbs. Larger houses, bigger yards, and lower housing prices are some of the attractive features of suburban life. Critic of urban sprawl denounce suburbanites for a variety of reasons: from increased automobile pollution to creating “cookie-cutter” communities.

A spate of recent studies on urban sprawl and health may give critics of urban sprawl another point of contention. An article in Science News (“Weighing In on City Planning“) looks at a handful of these studies. Using a recent move from Atlanta to Vancouver, Lawrence Frank poses the hypothesis that more dense areas increase walking-time and decrease car-commuting time. Those who walk more and drive less are generally more healthy individuals. Cross-sectional evidence seems to show that this is the case.

Economist Matthew Turner argues otherwise. He proposed that individuals who have less active life styles migrate to the suburbs and those who enjoy walking move to urban areas. Thus, Frank’s finding of increased health in dense urban areas could be due to sorting. Using panel data, Turner measures the change in health level of individuals who move from urban to suburban areas (and vice versa) and finds that the move has no effect on health.

A final study by Frank concludes that “no matter how much people like or dislike being active, they are more active when they live in compact, walkable areas than when they live in sprawling neighborhoods.” Frank says that this “demonstrates that both preferences and the neighborhood in which people live impact their behavior.”

  • Also see a Reason magazine review of Lawrence Frank’s latest book – Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning and Building for Healthy Communities.

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5 Comments

  1. You say “in fact Los Angeles is the most densely populated urban area in the U.S”, which sounds highly counterintuitive. In fact, I cannot find any numbers that support this assertion. Los Angeles (2183/sq.mi.) only ranks #3 in California, way behind both San Francisco (15503/sq.mi.), and even Orange County (3053/sq.mi.). My source for these numbers is http://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/90den_stco.txt but they are corroborated elsewhere.

    Could you be referring to something else?

  2. You say “in fact Los Angeles is the most densely populated urban area in the U.S”, which sounds highly counterintuitive. In fact, I cannot find any numbers that support this assertion. Los Angeles (2183/sq.mi.) only ranks #3 in California, way behind both San Francisco (15503/sq.mi.), and even Orange County (3053/sq.mi.). My source for these numbers is http://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/90den_stco.txt but they are corroborated elsewhere.

    Could you be referring to something else?

  3. You say “in fact Los Angeles is the most densely populated urban area in the U.S”, which sounds highly counterintuitive. In fact, I cannot find any numbers that support this assertion. Los Angeles (2183/sq.mi.) only ranks #3 in California, way behind both San Francisco (15503/sq.mi.), and even Orange County (3053/sq.mi.). My source for these numbers is http://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/90den_stco.txt but they are corroborated elsewhere.

    Could you be referring to something else?

  4. Jason Shafrin says:

    The data you cite above is county-level. It is true that San Francisco County and Orange County are more dense than L.A. COUNTY, but looking at the entire L.A. METROPOLITAN AREA, L.A. is the densest metropolian area in the U.S. Please also see the demographia website (http://www.demographia.com/db-ua2000-4dense.htm).