Rockville Community Paves the Way for Healthful Living
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2004; Page A01
Just outside Washington, on the grounds of an old farm, a new community is taking shape that researchers think is the kind of place that will help solve the nation's growing obesity crisis.
At the King Farm development in Rockville, homes are being built, streets are being paved, sidewalks are being laid, and office buildings, restaurants and stores are being located in ways that experts say should do one seemingly simple but crucial thing: get people to walk more.
A handful of similar communities have been sprouting up slowly across the nation in the first tentative attempts to counter the sprawl of strip malls, cul-de-sacs and subdivisions without sidewalks that force people to drive everywhere, which -- along with junk food and super-sizing -- is believed to be a major reason that Americans are getting so fat.
"We built communities with no sidewalks, and then we wonder why our kids don't walk to school. We live in gated communities where the garage faces the street and there's no connection with the neighbors, and we don't get out and walk. We drive to everything," said James O. Hill, a weight researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "We've created the perfect environment for creating obesity."
So far, many of the "walkable" attributes of new neighborhoods such as King Farm have been unanticipated consequences of decisions that developers made largely to satisfy housing density requirements or to make their projects more marketable. But the nation's obesity crisis has spurred a new movement to purposefully build communities and retrofit existing ones to make it more natural for people to be physically active.
"We're trying to develop an environment that's health-promoting so we can avoid dealing with treating all the illnesses that result from obesity down the line," said Allen Dearry of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Heath, who organized a recent conference in Washington to spur more efforts.
Medical researchers, government officials, sociologists, exercise scientists, nutritionists, city planners, architects, transportation experts, developers and even police have been forming unusual collaborations around the country to foster new living and work environments such as King Farm.
The effort is driven by accumulating evidence that the physical environment plays a crucial role. A landmark University of Maryland study last year found that people who live in the most sprawling counties are the most likely to be overweight, and vice versa. And this month, the first study to examine the issue on a neighborhood level showed that people who live where stores and other businesses are within easy walking distance are significantly less likely to be overweight, primarily because they walk more and drive less.
"Having shops and services near where one lives is the best predictor of not being obese," said lead author Lawrence D. Frank of the University of British Columbia, adding that mixing housing and businesses also may make it easier to eat better by offering grocery stores instead of convenience stores and better quality restaurants instead of fast-food outlets.
Another new study out this month found that poor people and minorities tend to have less access to parks, pools and other facilities that make exercise easier.
Several federal agencies, state and local governments, private foundations and community organizations have begun funding projects to encourage walking and physical activity.
"Our built environment scripts our behavior in many, many different and important ways," said Richard E. Killingsworth, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health who directs one of the biggest programs, called Active Living by Design. "It's the driving force for how we incorporate daily physical activity into our lives, which is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight."
The projects span the country:
• In Denver, developers are building a massive new neighborhood on the site of the former Stapleton International Airport that features sidewalks, street patterns that enable people to walk from one place to another, open spaces and other attributes that are conducive to walking, bicycling and other outdoor activities.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company