Emory Report
August 23, 2004
Volume 57, Number 1


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August 23, 2004
Frumkin: Urban sprawl a public health problem

By Tia Webster

Urban sprawl causes more than just traffic jams—it is taking a toll on Americans’ hearts, lungs, air, drinking water, sense of community, psychological well-being and physical safety.

That’s the contention of three researchers whose new book, Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning and Building for Healthy Communities (Island Press, 2004), analyzes the many health consequences of urban sprawl, the residential environment that more and more Americans now call home.

Based on their analysis, the authors make the case for “smart growth” as a public health strategy: communities that are more compact, that place homes, workplaces, stores and other land uses near each other, and that offer alternatives to the automobile for getting around. Such communities, they say, would encourage physical activity, contribute to clean air, improve personal safety and promote social interactions—in general, protect and promote health.

Howard Frumkin, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health in the Rollins School of Public Health, has joined two other of the nation’s leading public health and urban planning experts to combine their years of research and experience into the 288 pages of Urban Sprawl.

“The places we live, work and play affect our health,” Frumkin said simply. “We have choices in the way we design our environment, and those choices matter a great deal to those who care about health. This book is a resource for health care professionals, environmentalists, architects, planners, transportation engineers, developers and students in all of those fields. It can benefit members of zoning boards whose job it is to determine the best way to design the built environment, but it can also be comfortably read and understood by members of the lay public.”

Frumkin described his ideal community as a high-density, humanely scaled environment. He cites such examples as Charleston, S.C.; the George-town district in Washington; Annapolis, Md.; Atlanta’s own Virginia-Highland neighborhood; and many European cities as models of effective, mixed-use communities.

A regular speaker to community and legislative groups about sprawl’s effects on public health, Frumkin is a member of the Clean Air Campaign, the Institute of Medicine’s Round-table on Environmental Health Sciences and the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But he isn’t just a rhetorical advocate for change. Frumkin practices what he preaches: He lives near his job so he can bike to work, just as his son bikes to school. And when he’s not biking or walking, Frumkin drives an environmentally friendly hybrid car to work. When he runs errands, he does “trip stacking,” combining multiple errands into one outing.

In fact, when the book project began in 2001, the three collaborating authors were within a bike ride of each other at leading Atlanta research institutions: Emory, the CDC and Georgia Tech.

Lawrence Frank, who worked as an associate professor for the city and regional planning program at Georgia Tech, brought to the table his background in landscape architecture and transportation planning. He currently is the Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation Systems at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. Richard Jackson, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, now is the state public health officer for California, where he promotes statewide initiatives for healthy community design.

In Urban Sprawl and Public Health, the authors examine the direct and indirect impacts of sprawl on human health and well-being, discuss prospects for alternative approaches to design, land use and transportation, and outline the complex challenges of developing policy that promotes and protects public health.