Sept. 4, 2003
Last spring, during the media frenzy over crime in the city, I interviewed a Brandon woman who had been the victim of an armed robbery in Jackson. She wasn't physically harmed, but she clearly had been terrified by her experience, and understandably so. But to hear her tell it, life in Jackson was a sheer every-day hell where you put your life on the line every second you spend in the city. And life in the suburbs, she seemed to think, was the most safe and healthy alternative to big city.
"Crime is driving people out to the suburbs," the woman said then. "People aren't going to come into Jackson at all." Then she said that her daughter, who lives in Pearl, is afraid to take her toddler son outside or to a public park to play … even in the suburbs. And none of her family would ever go outside at night if they didn't have to, she added.
This woman clearly believes that the suburbs are supposed to be the Great Safe Haven where everyone who can afford it rushes to escape the ills of the big, bad city. Any Jackson neighborhood, at least west of I-55, is unhealthy … right? Life has to be safer behind all those gates … right?
The truth is, health and safety and living long and prospering are not quite so cut and dried. That Brandon woman likely doesn't know that her family could be cutting their lives shorter, and drastically decreasing their quality of life, by the choices of where they live. The suburbs, it seems, are not the safe haven their adherents like to promote. People who run from the city to be safer, ironically, face a whole new slew of risks that may actually be worse than what they're running from.
Perception of Safety
Crime, of course, occurs everywhere, and often suburbanites are no more or less prone to be a victim of violent crime than their city neighbors. The fact is, random violent crime—meaning crime inflicted on a victim that the criminal doesn't already know—happens at relatively low rates in both the city and the suburbs. The crimes that are far more likely to befall city dwellers and suburbanites alike are domestic: acquaintance rape, marital violence, child abuse and molestation, suicide. Still, it's uncommon to see headlines like, "Are the Suburbs Safe?" or "Crime Rampant in the Burbs!" simply because a high-profile crime occurred there. There is an assumption of suburban invulnerability that is often based on nothing more than the grapevine.
But in their haste to escape feared urban crime—which, based on statistics, is highly unlikely to harm most city dwellers—urban refugees often overlook the actual dangers of suburban living.
In late August, a team of academic researchers released the first national and peer-reviewed study, commissioned by Smart Growth America, showing a clear link between suburban living and health problems. In "Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl," researchers Barbara McCann and Reid Ewing ranked 448 counties in the United States—including Hinds, Rankin and Madison—on what they called a "sprawl index." They used U.S. Census data and other federal sources on development patterns to assign the counties numerical sprawl ratings. The highest sprawl score (most negative) was a 63 and the lowest (most favorable) was 352. Faring poorly were outlying counties of smaller metropolitan areas in the Southeast and Midwest. (Sound familiar?)
The Jackson metropolitan area scored poorly across the board, but Hinds fared best, scoring 97.30, Rankin came in second at 81.66 and Madison at 80.16. The lower the score, the more likely that residents spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars; their homes are far away from any destination including shopping, school and work; they travel on dangerous, high-speed arterials; there is no easy public transit; and it is unsafe or unpleasant to walk or bike in their neighborhoods. In addition, kids have little to do near their homes and have to travel elsewhere by car, and often the communities don't even have sidewalks, much less common areas.
Not only does this home-car-work-car-home routine sound like an unpleasant and stressful lifestyle, but the researchers, using a national health survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control, found strong evidence that such choices make life unsafer than living in more compact communities such as Jackson's Fondren, Broadmoor or Poindexter neighborhoods. Sprawl residents are more prone to certain serious illnesses such as hypertension, and are routinely more obese—the American epidemic that is on course to become the No. 1 killer, far and away a greater life risk than being killed in an armed robbery.
Why? Call it "sprawl butt."
Fat in the Burbs
If you're a suburbanite, you might be rolling your eyes about now, thinking this is just another ode to life in the big city. Or, you might be thinking about this story in your car sitting in traffic trying to get to the one turn-off into your gated community so you can collapse on the sofa with exhaustion. You'd like to go exercise, but you have to drive to the health club 25 minutes away. Meantime, your friend from the office might already be leisurely unloading her daughter from her stroller after the family's long evening walk through Belhaven.
Whether you like this constructed scenario or not, if you live in a sprawling suburb, you are statistically more likely to be overweight, even obese, than your city counterparts—in fact, a pound more likely for each 50 points down the sprawl scale you fall. Mississippi, of course, is the most obese state—not overweight, obese (see map above)—and of the three counties around Jackson, Madison is the fattest, although only slightly.
This is no surprise to the Smart Growth researchers: fatness and unhealthy lifestyles follow the most dramatic sprawl. Most city dwellers, quite simply, get more exercise than most suburbanites do. In a comparison of the health of 200,000 subjects who live in the analyzed counties versus the more compact cities nearby, the researchers found that even the burb dwellers who intentionally exercise tend to be fatter. Why? Because their everyday lives, aside from planned exercise, are very sedentary. They don't walk or bike to get to places. They drive most everywhere. Many don't have inviting backyards for their kids to play in, or trees to climb. In fact, one study showed that only 20 percent of suburban residents had walked to a specific destination in the past week, compared to 45 percent of city residents. And that difference shows up on the thighs.
Engineering Bad Health
It also shows up in health-care costs, both private and public. In Mississippi, you hear a lot of jawboning about rising health-insurance costs, but you don't hear a lot of folks talking about the state's off-the-charts obesity rate, which is affected by both high-fat diets and sedentary daily lives. "[R]ising health-care costs are threatening state budgets," the researchers wrote in the report. It's estimated that obesity is costing the United States $78 billion a year in health-care costs—more than smoking or drinking.
This indolence costs Mississippi upward of $50 million a year; physically active workers tend to cost, on average, $330 less each a year in medical costs. The Governor's Commission on Physical Fitness and Sports said last fall that Mississippians get a solid "F" for physical activity—often not even managing the recommended 20 minutes three days a week. In fact, only 19 percent of adults in the state get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Nearly half do nothing.
This lethargy is just plain dangerous. Excess weight is a factor in more than 200,000 premature deaths a year. In the past 25 years, overweight children ages 6 to 11 have doubled; overweight teens have tripled. Today, 15 percent of young people ages 6 to 19 are overweight, and they're getting adult diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, as a result. Obesity also contributes directly to colon cancer (which is rampant in these parts), heart disease, and hypertension, among others. In fact, this study found a direct correlation between sprawling communities and high incidence of high blood pressure.
"Have we 'engineered' movement out of our daily lives to such a degree that our neighborhoods are now contributing to the obesity epidemic and other health problems?" the researchers ask. They believe the answer is yes.
They also argue that a little education can go a long way.
Damn the Cul-de-Sac!
The Smart Growth study maintains that many suburbanites might want to be active, but simply live in places not conducive to physical activity. "A common denominator of modern sprawling communities is that nothing is within easy walking distance of anything else," the report says. It specifically calls out wide, high-speed roads, buildings next to vast parking lots, and the lack of mixed-use areas where homes and businesses populate the same small territory. These areas do not encourage walking or biking. In fact, a companion study showed that American walkers and cyclists are much more likely to be killed by passing cars than are European pedestrians and cyclists where better non-driving infrastructure is in place and where the culture reveres physical exercise (and where they're much skinnier and healthier, aside from all the smoking).
The "new urbanist" approach (see page 18) to engineering safe neighborhoods finds one characteristic of many sprawling areas particularly offensive: the cul-de-sac. Basically, this is a little rounded street with only one arterial leading in or out; there are no street grids for people to walk and bike on. Who wants to ride around and around in a small circle? And for those concerned with safety from crime, the cul-de-sac can actually make a neighborhood less safe, because it discourages an active community of people who can see what's going on. In your mind, compare an active Belhaven street filled with walkers and strollers just before dusk with a cul-de-sac community with no one on the streets. If you ever thought to yourself that a place like Belhaven is charming, the lack of cul-de-sacs and the grid of streets and sidewalks are probably why.
"I'm on a kick about grids and gridded streets," said Jackson urban planner Matthew Dalbey, a Jackson State professor and Fondren resident. "You can be more aware of what's going on if you live in a gridded neighborhood rather than a cul-de-sac community where there's less a chance of a neighbor walking by." Dalbey recoils at the idea of closing down streets to ostensibly make communities safer—he believes the opposite is true—although he is in favor of traffic-calming techniques to get people to slow their cars and SUVs. That is, neighborhood streets should be narrow, preferably with cars parked along the sides, turning radiuses should be tight, and you can even consider boulevard-like lay-outs to slow cars down.
Is It Too Late?
A drive through one of Jackson's sprawling suburbs can both be hard on the eyes and a bit depressing. You look at row after row of McMansions, and it's easy to think: Is it too late to do anything about sprawl? Is America too far gone?
No, say adherents of new urbanism. This movement is spreading as people figure out that there's more to life than commuting and maneuvering Home Depot parking lots. There is a renewed interest in charm and community in towns including Meridian and Philadelphia (Miss.), which are reclaiming their historic sites downtown, building coffee shops to act as "third places" for people to hang out together, and really determined groups such as Fondren Renaissance who believe that if you build appealing local businesses, local people will come.
But it may take some doing, especially on the home front and if you've already chosen to live in a sprawling area. First, there are often legal hassles; many of today's suburbs are actually zoned to ensure that all development is cookie cutter and to keep out mixed-use businesses and people-friendly roads. Bad idea; change it. You want a mixture of ages, incomes and professional levels. And remember that Wal-mart is still a corporate behemoth even if it has a little Madisonian-like sign on its front. Instead, focus on bringing in small local businesses.
The Smart Growth folks encourage you to think about "retrofitting" your neighborhood; that is, put pedestrian cut-throughs between houses, add bike and walking paths wherever possible and ensure that traffic laws are strictly enforced. And consider the effect of your own driving—like, say, rolling through stop signs—on pedestrians who are trying to enjoy their neighborhood.
Most importantly, be sure to consider your kids' health when making your next neighborhood decision. They need easy places to walk and bike, and to hang out with friends as they get older. (Car accidents are the largest single danger to teens, much greater than threats of school violence or gang activity.) Try not to raise kids on a cul-de-sac, and if you do, just turn the page for ideas on how to make the best of your suburban community for you and for them.
Just remember: Be careful out there.
Read the entire "Sprawl" report here.
Read Todd Stauffer's story about "new urbanism" in Jackson.
As an advocate for sustainable development and "smart growth," I want to believe the study. The link between the types of neighborhoods we construct and the quality of life we enjoy are numerous. However, I'm not sure that sprawl deserves the blame for obesity (it is one of numerous variables). We have a sedentary culture and lack a fitness ethos. The impact of artificial environments (climate controlled), computer gaming/working, fast food, and auto-dependency (directly related to sprawl and development) result in too little calorie-burning and too many calories.
So even though I welcome the study, I'm taking it with a grain of salt--preferably on a super-sized fry.
If you build the sidewalk, will they exercise?
I lived in Jackson years ago while attending Millsaps College and I like to keep up with events in my old home through your online edition. In response to your article about the dangers of suburban sprawl, you should also add the fact that in this country over 40,000 people are killed each year in car accidents, much more than the total number of people who are murdered each year. Because living in a pedestrian-friendly city reduces the time you spend in a car, it therefore reduces your risk of dying in an automobile accident. If safety is a concern, city living is definitely the more prudent option.
- Mark Michalovic
To Kchilton's comments, I will respond that it's not enough to build a sidewalk. The sidewalk has to go somewhere people want to go, like a grocery store for example. That is, sidewalks must be part of smart urban planning that allows businesses to be built within walking distance of residences.
- Mark Michalovic
Kenneth and Mark: two quick comments about your posts. The Smart Growth study does talk about poor diet being a factor in obesity, but it argues that there is another part of the equation, which I believe as well. I perhaps should have talked a bit more in the story about the role of poor diets--but this story is about adding something new to think about to the obesity equation. It struck me as extremely obvious, and certainly covered in the news, that the fast-food industry is under fire for its role in the obesity wars. (One might also add in there those all-you-can-eat buffets, which I don't think we hear nearly enough about, but I digress ...) I also think it's obvious that when people aren't out walking to the store and such in their neighborhoods, they're often playing computer games and watching TV -- doing inactive things inside, that is. I think that's part of this equation, but I appreciate that you brought these things up. You should read the study, though (linked above), and give us more of your comments. I'd love to hear more specific thoughts.
And Mark, I alluded to the car-danger problem, as did the Wann story that's part of this package. Teenagers, for instance, are much more likely to be killed in car accidents than any other way (and, often, with adults driving, by the way, but that too is another story). That is, I couldn't agree with you more that people should think of how much their odds of a car wreck increase when they spend so much time commuting and driving to super-centers and such. I, for instance, seldom even go on I-55, and I really like it that way.
Donna, we are probably in agreement on the issue of sprawl. I just want to be careful when blaming sprawl for everything. I don't think we can overlook our inactive culture when placing the blame for obesity on suburban development.
Whether we like the burbs or not, consumers are voting with their feet. According to the 2000 Census, the majority of residents and the majority of jobs are in the suburbs. As much as we might like to disparage the plastic suburbs, they are winning.
Perhaps some of our stereotypes about suburbs are wrong, just like many urban stereotypes are wrong? For instance, I live in the sprawling burbs because my job is in the sprawling burbs. In my new tract neighborhood, we have residents from Russia, Belgium, Canada, The Netherlands, Japan, Taiwan, Cuba, Germany, India and throughout the USA. We have a healthy mix of whites and non-whites. These aren't our father's suburbs anymore.
I'm all for suburb-bashing, I simply want to make sure the particular bashing we undertake is valid.
Good points, Kenneth. I wouldn't, though, characterize the suburbs as "winning," nor really think it should be cast us winning-vs.-losing. I agree that we shouldn't blame the suburbs for everything, and that wasn't the point here. (In fact, some people have accused us of glorifying the suburbs with this issue.) This package says that the suburbs can be more sustainable and liveable, and here's a few ways to do that. I decided to do this in the first place because I saw Wann's piece with ideas on how to help burbs, not just excoriate them, and wanted to run it to get people thinking about it. It was actually serendipitous that the Smart Growth study came out right before we went to press, so we wrote it up, too. I'm also hoping that there are ideas here that people within the city limits will heed as well. Here in Jackson, I worry a bit that city neighborhoods will try to make themselves more like suburbs (closing streets, etc., for "safety"). And, of course, we have the problem of more urban flight from people scared of crime in the city, but not considering the dangers that the suburbs can bring (starting with increased risk of car accidents and going from there). The ultimate point, to me, is to make wherever you choose to live safer, healthier and more sustainable, and to get your butt out of the house and get some exercise and create more activity on the streets -- not hide inside and get unhealthier.
Of course, this issue didn't get into the sticky issue of diversity in the suburbs or city neighborhoods; we'll save that rat's nest for other issues!
Ken really wants to move back to Jackson. He just won't admit it.
- Matthew Dalbey
He certainly still seems interested in what happens here, eh? Well, Ken is certainly welcome to come on back and lend his urban-planning expertise to all us eager Jacksonians! Seriously, Ken, keep your comments coming; you're adding immensely to our thinking here.