Back in 1972, Stockton was the backdrop for “Fat City,” a classic boxing movie. As it turns out, that movie title could just as easily refer to the city’s development pattern which has unknowingly contributed to Stockton’s obesity problem for the last 50 years.
As Stockton has grown and grown, so has the population. Stockton’s obesity rate currently sits at 25%, and sprawl may be one of the big reasons why. In a nutshell, sprawl encourages us to use cars to run all of our errands instead of walking or biking, which in turn leads to higher obesity rates. Essentially, the way we build our communities shapes our health, and there is plenty of research to back up this claim.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that children living in “healthier” neighborhoods (i.e. neighborhood walkability using Walkscore, access to parks, concentration of fast food) had a 59% lower chance of being obese. Research done in Toronto published last year looked at how the built environment affects health. Among the study’s findings were that areas with higher levels of diabetes also had lower levels of walking and biking compared to other areas (such as downtown). There is also research that ties increased rates of automobile usage to obesity rates. A study conducted by a professor at the University of Illinois found that between 1985 and 2007 vehicle use correlated in the 99-percent range with national annual obesity rates. Basically, how much you drive predicts your likelihood of obesity.
While 50 years of car-centric development has undoubtedly helped cause the obesity epidemic, there is hope that smarter development in the future can be one of the main elements in bringing our nation’s belts back to their original notches. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences recently came out with a study looking at ways to prevent obesity moving forward. One of the main recommendations the report cites is to change the way we build our neighborhoods. “Communities, organizations, community planners, and public health professionals should encourage physical activity by enhancing the physical and built environment, rethinking community design, and ensuring access to places for such activity.” This means more mixed use development with neighborhood friendly commercial options instead of strip malls accessible only by car. Safer streets that encourage walking and biking for children. Better access to parks.
In Stockton, obesity is a major problem. While we were “named” most obese in 2010 (a title I debunked here) our current obesity rate is about 25%, right around the national average, which is not by any means desirable. In order to stem this health issue, the city could encourage more walkable, mixed use neighborhoods and fewer massive big-box retail centers surrounded by a sea of single family homes. The village concept adopted by the city’s planners is a good first step, encouraging more neighborhood friendly options, though more concrete guidance and policy is needed to ensure that our future neighborhoods truly incorporate tenets of sustainable, healthy communities.
Obesity has been called one of the greatest threats to the economy as the health problems associated with obesity disproportionately tax our health care system and drain worker productivity. It is foolish to ignore obesity as a major issue facing the entire country, not just the city. I believe in smart growth because there are tangible economic benefits, and lowering the prevalence of obesity is certainly one of them.