January 20, 2010

Can a neighborhood promote healthy living?

If you were to design a neighborhood that promotes play and discourages childhood obesity, what would it look like?

I started thinking about this very question after Lenore Skenazy wrote a blog post saying cul de sacs likely wouldn't be part of that equation. She asserts that they're great until your kids want to venture beyond their own front or back yard, and then anyplace they need to go requires driving, which means a more sedentary lifestyle.

Here's her conclusion:

So if you want a safe spot to raise your kids where you're less likely to get financially reamed, fat, or lonely, consider a home on "the grid" -- any network of streets connected to each other and shopping. Teach your kids how to cross the street safely and you'll reap the rewards: More independence for them – and you. Less teen driving. Better property values!

Read the full story here: Cul de Sacs: Bad for Kids? (ParentDish).

It's an interesting theory. I grew up on a cul de sac myself, and I was allowed to walk to the grocery store and several playgrounds once I was old enough. I can't even describe the thrill of independence that gave me. I cherished those times when I was permitted to walk with a friend to a place where we could spend a few dollars of our own money. Once I hit a certain age beyond that, though, the grocery store became a much less enticing destination, so I did end up having to get rides a lot - to my friends' houses, to the mall, to the movies.

But truth be told, the mall and the movies weren't built in a pedestrian-friendly way. Even if you lived in walking distance from them, you had to cross a highway and a rather treacherous parking lot to get to them. To me, that and a decided lack of public transportation in our little exurb were the problems, not the fact that I lived on a cul de sac.

For example, now I live within half a mile of two great playgrounds and a vibrant downtown area with lots of shopping, an outlet mall, and two movie theaters. To me, where I live now is better planned for walkability and would be a great place for both kids and teenagers to live. And just to be sure, I checked the Walkscore for both my childhood home and my current location, and am happy to see I graduated from a "Car-Dependent" area to a "Walkers' Paradise." 

There are lots of organizations trying to encourage walkability, like the Project for Public Spaces, Smart Growth America, and the Congress for New Urbanism. But is walkability (particularly easy walkability to playgrounds) the key to having healthier kids, or is there more to the equation? Let us know what you think in the comments. 

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