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the Sidewalk Ends
on their minds
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
sound decisions can be good for business..."
An Interviw with Steven Walton
How do you position
your work on the public health effects of urban sprawl?
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?
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.