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Where Urban Planning and Obesity Collide

Take a look at what the streets of Louisville, Kentucky have got to do with the battle against obesity.

Are cities making us fat?

After all, research has linked urban sprawl, a car-dependent culture, and even the absence of a sidewalk in front of homes to neighborhoods full of people with higher body mass indexes. Design has facilitated eating in cars. We've engineered dishwashing and walking out of our lives. Still, others say the link between obesity and sprawl is a matter of self-selection; building walkable communities will attract the kind of people who want to live and walk there.

Either way, the notion of "fat cities" has captured our imaginations as a metaphor for the sprawling post-war metropolis—and urban design has become a serious front in the battle to fight obesity. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Risa Lavizzo-Mourey told The New York Times today: "The changes to our physical and social environments that have contributed to the epidemic were gradual and have had decades to gain momentum."

Now, public health crusaders are working to reverse that. In Louisville, Kentucky, nonprofits have contributed about $4.5 million in grants to establish bike lanes, develop small “pocket” parks, improve traffic patterns, and remake sidewalks. They've sponsored multi-generational dance and fitness classes and a bike repair program.

Design initiatives like these are up against formidable odds: by January 4 each year, food marketing in the United States reaches $100 million, just about the entire annual operating budget of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. So while urban design isn't not the silver bullet for solving the problems associated with fat cities, it will be interesting to see these projects play out in the long run.

Image via "ACTIVE Louisville: Incorporating Active Living Principles into Planning and Design" (PDF).

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