We’ve been hearing for years that people who live in cities tend to be thinner and more active than those who live in suburbs—all that walking and climbing stairs seems to contribute—but a new study finds that people who live in densely-packed cities also are more likely to be agile in a different way: climbing the economic and social ladder.
The study by Smart Growth America and the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Urban Center is significant because it quantifies urban sprawl. Sprawl is not just about how much land is occupied by a city. As the authors write, “sprawl is not just growth, but is a specific, and dysfunctional, style of growth.” The study shows that the health benefits that correlate with city living are specific to dense cities, where residents have lower rates of obesity and diabetes. Residents of sprawled-out cities such as Atlanta do not show the same benefits as do those living in packed-in places such as New York.
Reid Ewing of the University of Utah, lead researcher on the study, told Lane Anderson of Deseret News, “Urban places provide higher likelihood of moving up the social ladder. Compact places provide better access to jobs, better transit and more integration.” The study judged Los Angeles to be relatively dense compared to Atlanta and other sprawling places, and found that a child in L.A. has a 10 percent chance of moving from the bottom of the income scale to the top, while an Atlanta-based low-income child has only a 4 percent of chance of such a rise.
Ewing said that one factor in this difference might be transportation—denser cities tend to have better public transportation, which gives citizens of all income levels more access to better jobs and schools, but is especially important for low-income people who may not have a car. Better mixing between people of different ethnicities and economic levels might contribute to the social mobility, too. “In dense areas, there are more chances for networking, for meeting people, more chances of getting better salaries and jobs,” he said. And riding the train also seems to keep people thinner—train riders are 6.5 pounds lighter than car drivers, according to The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and they’re 81 percent less likely to ever become obese. One twist: the study found that kids get more exercise in the suburbs where they can run around in backyards and playgrounds, and adults get more exercise in cities, where they are forced to hoof it.
The authors of the study hope their findings will encourage more cities to implement healthy changes, such as bike-share programs, more mixed-use developments, and improved transportation. Or, as Ewing asks, “It’s time to ask the question again, how can we make cities better?”