Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Paradox that is the Suburbs: Kids, Death and other Deficiencies

As a parent with a kid in the urban core that is not a prototypical city (like New York or San Francisco), I am asked all the time when I am moving to the suburbs. In an area where that thinking has been entrenched for decades, city living is for those without kids and the 'burbs are where kids are raised, folks have a hard time understanding the severe trepidation my wife and I have towards moving to a conventional suburban setting.

I posted before about the myth that kids and suburbs hold hands and skip in the wildflower fields. While my opinions since that post haven't changed, I want to add a supporting stance from articles discussing new academic research about this topic.

Sarah Goodyear penned this article in the Atlantic Cities that says much of the same that I did, and also adds other useful information. For example residential neighborhood design that still reflects an auto-favored design force kids away from the street. Without decent parks, and for some, with a nearby park, this encourages a sedentary childhood. This contributes to the lack of place that pervades our cities, since they don't really experience their city.

She also wrote this one, that gives numbers to the point. Bottom line, there is no greater killer of children than cars worldwide.

Aside from schools, lack of a backyard is the other big reason I hear for leaving my current living situation. However, there is no proof that a backyard equals physical activity. Manhattan kids, many of which have no backyard, are still less obese than the American average. The same exists everywhere, urban kids are less obese than suburban counterparts.

In the end, it comes down to design. An environment that encourages activity will have healthier people. We walk, bike and play in the park across the street as an everyday activity. The same can not be said in the modern suburban setting. Just by living day-to-day, my family burns more calories than if we had to drive everywhere.

Note, when I reference urban versus suburban, I am not referring to city boundaries, but urban design. Lake Highlands in Dallas is suburban, downtown Plano is more urban, even if small in area.

The last point I want to make is that it is not just kids who suffer. Continuing the citing of Atlantic Cities, Nate Berg points out that there has been a correlation established between the health of adults and time spent behind the wheel. Keeping it local, the study cited followed drivers in DFW and Austin and found the longer the commute the greater chance for decreased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased weight, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.

The scary part is that all these are simply direct results. These are easily quantifiable. But what happens to the indirect externalities?  How do you quantify health impacts of particulate matter? Smog? The end of a car's life? Estimates vary widely, but even conservative ones show a huge societal problem.

If you see me next, ask about my family, job or thoughts on a certain topic. Please don't ask when I plan to move to the suburbs.


Courtney said...

:) All very true.

Debra said...

Hmmm, I don't think I quite agree with some of your "facts". You have tons more cars driving down the street in front of your house in the city than I do in the suburbs. Plus, I have a back yard for a child to play in. I'm not trying to convince you that the 'burbs are best, but the vast majority of people in this beautiful country prefer where I live to where you live.

Branden said...

I don't think I accurately relayed what I or the study is saying.

First, cars on the street are not the inherent problem. Street design can be. However, the big problem is kids being stuck in a car for everything. Every errand you run is with the car. Kids don't die from being hit by car nowhere near as often as being in the car.

As for the street, more cars can actually be safer. On conventional, modern suburbs, streets are wider. This design gives drivers a certain comfort level. That usually means faster speeds. Design considerations aside, more cars can actually be safer. Speeds on I-30 are slower at 5pm than at 9 pm, even though more cars use the 5pm time.

I think a common mistake is evidenced here in that the common thought is either low-density single family or high density towers. Single famliy neighborhoods can be quite urban. For local examples, see the Bishop Arts District, Lower Greenville or even leftover pieces of Uptown. The difference is design. Modern suburbia is car-only. Pre WWII suburbia is quite dense and walkable. I think I have a topic for a new post.