I'm a scholar, but I'm also a citizen. I separate the two somewhat, but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve the world.

Howard Frumkin, Associate Professor and Chair, Environmental and Occupational Health, School of Public Health


Return to Contents

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Georgia on their minds

"My advocacy comes in demonstrating that environmentally sound decisions can be really good for business. They don't have to decide to spend money for what feels like no return except to get Greenpeace off their backs."
Steven Walton, School of Business


[E]nvironmentally sound decisions can be good for business..."
An Interviw with Steven Walton

The Academic Exchange How do you position your work on the public health effects of urban sprawl?

Professor Howard Frumkin Conceptual-izing the sprawl city is a fairly new area of study. While traditional urban studies focused on the city's core, the study of sprawl takes in the entire metro area, including the core city, the suburbs, and the exurbs. Land use and transportation are central issues. So the public health consequences flow directly from decisions made in other arenas, such as zoning boards, transportation authorities, and mortgage banks. It is multidisciplinary, ranging from demographics to transportation engineering, from architecture to urban planning.

The study of sprawl is also a highly personal enterprise, since many of us grew up in suburbs and/or live there now. Here in Atlanta, we all live in one of the nation's great laboratories of sprawl. Environmental writers have explored the sense of place as a psychological and spiritual force. It seems to me that our connection to place is interrupted and altered in a city like Atlanta because of rapid migration (few of us are "from" here), automobile dependence, and other factors. This must inform our scholarship in ways we may not always realize.

AE What is sprawl?

HF It is land-extensive development. The city moves out in low-density development that tends to segregate uses from each other and put large distances between things, which means lots of new road construction and driving. There's a lack of regional planning and a migration of economic opportunity from the center to the periphery. In terms of health, first it means more air pollutants. Second is a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect. Dark, heat-absorbing surfaces such as rooftops and roadways absorb and re-radiate heat, and the loss of vegetation results in decreased cooling. As a result, the city can be several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. That effect spreads as the suburbs spread. It affects susceptible people such as the elderly and poor-from heat cramps and heat exhaustion to potentially fatal heat stroke.

Third, with more dependence on driving, people walk less. The more sedentary lifestyles, in turn, contribute to our national epidemic of obesity. Fourth, car crashes become more common, and fifth, cars hit pedestrians more as we drive more and build roads that are car-friendly but pedestrian-hostile. Sixth, there's a big body of scholarship on commuting stress, and more recently, road rage has been characterized as a growing problem.

That leads to the final health concern: social capital, the network of interrelationships of trust and civic engagement that makes up a society. As Robert Putnam recently discussed in his book Bowling Alone, social capital can be measured several ways--voting, church attendance, survey data on behaviors such as how many times in the last year you have gone to a friend's house for dinner or to a civic or volunteer association meeting. Putnam claims that every ten minutes of additional commuting time predicts a 10-percent decline in civic engagement. It's clearly not the only factor, but it does seem that sprawl is associated with declining social capital. Polling data show that suburban voters tend to favor much more individualized, privatized, isolated solutions to problems than do urban, small-town, or rural voters. Take social security: if you're a suburban voter, you're more likely to favor individual savings accounts and less likely to favor collective taxation to form a collective fund.

AE In your involvement with the Clean Air Campaign and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, have you ever questioned your role as advocate? Traditionally, a disinterested scholar is not an activist.

HF I'm a scholar, but I'm also a citizen. I separate the two somewhat, but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve the world. I also think the university has a social obligation to the city and region and to civic life. And I think our educational mission can't be accomplished unless we're actively engaged together with our students. To me, it's very easy to do both.

But having said that, I don't think I've always done it well. It is sometimes tempting to go beyond the data, to advocate positions based on conviction rather than on data. That's okay, provided that one is explicit about the basis of one's positions. Having said that, when I give a talk on sprawl and public health, I tend to be the most mealy-mouthed speaker there. Other speakers sometimes make arm-waving, drastic statements about how to build regions and cities and buildings. But I am from the tradition of medical evidence, where you don't advocate treating somebody with something until you have evidence that it's safe and effective.