Suburbs increasingly view their auto-centric sprawl as a health hazard

Planners in Prince George’s County have talked for years about reshaping communities to help residents fetch a gallon of milk via a walk or bicycle ride, rather than add to stifling traffic congestion by having to drive.

But planners say they’re increasingly treating the Maryland county’s low-density, auto-dependent design as more than a traffic problem. More often, they say, they’re considering sprawl a health hazard.

Nearly 70 percent of Prince George’s adults are considered overweight or obese, and many areas of the county lack sidewalks or feel unsafe — whether from cars or crime — for walking, cycling or playing outside. With some of the longest commutes in the Washington region, planners say, many residents have little time to walk the dog, let alone get to a gym.

Now, in addition to trying to curb traffic, Prince George’s officials talk about changing the county’s “built” environment — how and where buildings, streets and other aspects of new development are laid out — to improve public health.

“We’ve always talked about health and recreation in terms of bicycle access and trails and parks,” said Kierre McCune, a Prince George’s planner. “But now we’re looking at how does our physical development affect our public health?”

A more health-oriented approach to urban planning is taking on new urgency across the United States as rates of child and adult obesity have soared, along with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related illnesses — despite public education campaigns and doctors’ warnings. Last year, U.S. life expectancy declined for the first time since 1993, in part to rising fatalities from heart disease, stroke and diabetes, according to a federal report released earlier this month.

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