This post is part of Thesis Chronicles.
About two decades ago, researchers began to carve out a special niche for urban planners in reducing our obesity epidemic in the United States. As rates of obesity grew, public health professionals realized that obesity was not just a problem of genetics and individual lifestyles; the built environment was contributing substantially to the problem by enabling or impeding physical activity. The new niche for urban planners thus centered on land use, transportation, and streetscape design interventions that were geared to make us more physically active.
But the more I read about obesity for my masters thesis, the more I saw that obesity is a problem that is concentrated unevenly spatially and by socioeconomic status. For instance, U.S. cities where poor people and people of color tend to be concentrated, we see the highest rates of obesity. And yet, our cities — with gridded street networks, sidewalks, compact development, and public transit — seem to have all the built infrastructure necessary to make people more physically active.
The more I pored through the literature, the more I saw that physical activity environments are used as a proxy for reducing obesity independent of the socioeconomic context or other factors that may contribute to obesity. Additionally, there are many aspects of underprivileged environments that may chip away at the potential benefits of physical activity.
I drew on this dilemma to think more critically about whether land use, transportation, and streetscape design were appropriate for reducing obesity in all communities. How is planning to reduce obesity in low-income urban communities different than planning to reduce obesity in suburban communities? Is there a greater role for urban planners in reducing obesity than land use, transportation, and streetscape design? If so, what is it?
Post and photos by Laura Tolkoff, who is a masters candidate in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.. Laura’s thesis research aims to look critically at the role of urban planning in reducing obesity — particularly through the planning of physical activity environments.