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Sunday, April 30, 2006


Urban Sprawl and Public Health

Howard Frumkin, MD, DrPH, from the Department of Environmental and Ocupational Health, Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, wrote an article back in May of 2002 outlining his findings about the effects of sprawl on public health titled Urban Sprawl and Public Health.
The planet is warming towards ecological disaster, yet the public seems more preocupied with the rising prices of gasoline. If the demonization of sprawl will be at all possible, the 'environmetalist' approach may not be the most effective, since twenty-first century urbanites do not seem to be loosing too much sleep about global environmental degradation.
Dr. Frumkin attempts a new avenue by actually presenting a few ways in which urban sprawl will kill you before the melting arctic has completely invaded our country (not unlike illegal immigrants).
Here are the main conclusions (sarcastically summarized) in Frumkin's article:
1. Sprawl causes reliance on automobiles and automobiles cause pollution. Pollution is terrible for your respiratory system. In Frumkin's words, "Sprawl is associated with high levels of driving, driving contributes to air pollution, and air pollution causes morbidity and mortality."
2. Sprawl increases motor vehicle crashes and pedestrian injuries: "While many factors contribute to the high toll of pedestrian fatalities, including alcohol abuse, inadequate lighting, and pedestrian behavior, the proliferation of high-speed, pedestrian-hostile roads in expanding metropolitan areas likely plays an important part."
3. Sprawl is associated with less walking and bycicling. If you dont walk or ride a bike you may become fat. Do not take this numeral lighltly for as the writer warns, "the risk associated with poor physical fitness is comparable to, and in some studies greater than, the risk associated with hypertension, high colesterol, diabetes, and even smoking."
4.Sprawl is bad for water. Warning: "Sprawl may threaten both the quantity and quality of the water supply. As forest cover is cleared and impervious surfaces built over large areas, rainfall is less effectively absorbed and returned to groundwater aquifers."
5. Urban areas create "islands of heat." The warming effect from cities is not only caused by the emission of greenhouse gases; "dark surfaces such as roadways and rooftops efficiently absorb heat from sunlight and reradiate it as thermal infrared radiation."
6."Certain aspects of sprawl, such as commuting, may exact a mental health toll." In other words, Frumkin asserts that dimishing contact with nature and increasing congestion could drive you crazy.

I do not intend to dispute any of Frumkin's findings. In fact, I believe that most of his conclusions are common sense/ common knowledge type assertions. I am not sure that the Doctor is succesful in drawing a connection to 'unplanned' sprawl per se, but I do think that the idea of life in the mountains beeing a tad healthier than urban existence is not a groundbreaking discovery.
Do people choose to live in the city because it is healthy or because it suits their economic interests?
Any effective argument against urban sprawl should target the motivations and preferences of the people that live in sprawling metropolitan areas. A person that willingly chooses to spend a significant amount of time commuting, will not be 'turned against' sprawl by telling him/her that sprawl makes you drive more!
How important is the environment and breathing clean air to an urban dweller? Important enough to move? Important enough to stand for radical urban transformation?
If not, will the environmentalist arguments against sprawl ever work to change the way urbanites think?

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