Urban planning perspectives suggest that people walk more and weigh less when they live in pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, meaning that urban design can help to fight obesity and health problems.

Obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of premature death in Australia, while more than one third of all adult population in the United States is obese. The percentage of obese American children has doubled in the last 30 years, while only eight per cent of 12- to 19-year-olds get the recommended hour of physical activity each day.

Recent research has shown that the cause in some cases is genetic or habit-related, but one of the less-explored areas of obesity research has to do with the built environment and its potential influence in healthy behaviour.

Researchers from the University of California have been studying how urban design elements such as mixed residential and commercial land use, walkable neighbourhoods, compact housing, and green space can influence physical activity and health.

New Harmony Community California

New Harmony -a smart growth community in California- includes solar power for its 69 residential units and community building.

Over the course of a week, they measured the activity levels of more than 380 children living in Preserve – a smart growth community – compared to activity levels of children in a conventional suburban community in Chino, California.

“Kids in the smart growth neighbourhood showed local activity levels that were 46% higher than those of kids who resided in the ticky-tacky Chino suburbs’ rows upon rows of post-war housing. Just by living in a smart growth community, kids were likely to gain 10 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity around their homes,” the research team said.

However, overall activity levels between the two communities were similar.

“That means that the parents and the children that live in these (conventional) communities must be engaging in physical activity that’s well outside their neighbourhood,” said Michael Jarrett, lead author of the report.

New Harmony Community California

Developers of New Harmony constructed a bike path linking the development to the city’s extensive bicycle network.

The key findings of the study highlighted that urban design can play an important role in health, with socio-economics another key factor.

“If parents weren’t carting their kids to distant soccer practice or ballet lessons, which cost fuel emissions and cash, their activity levels would likely significantly decrease. By maintaining physical activity that’s local, free of charge, people aren’t going to be economically restricted from participating,” Jarrett said.

As a result of funding cuts from the federal government, Jerrett’s team has run out of funds. The researchers are wrapping up their larger study on public health outcomes in October.

“When we think of how many times the federal government has cut funding in the sequestration, this is going to be one of the hidden costs,” Jarrett noted. “We’re not going to have the knowledge to protect public health in the future.”