WASHINGTON – Plaba Ghisinz is afraid to live in the city. The 21-year-old University of Virginia student lives in Herndon,a suburb in Northern Virginia. Reports on the news about crime and violence in the city have made him believe the suburbs are a much safer place to live.
“It's quieter than the city,” Ghisinz said. The Northern Virginia native,who is on a break from school,said he has plenty of opportunities for exercise and socializing.
“I still go out,” he said. “I chill with my friends,hang out. I play soccer.”
In remaining a suburban resident,Ghisinz is an example of why suburbs were created.
“The deepest impulse for suburbanization was health,” said Robert Fishman,professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan. “Industrial cities would literally kill you. Suburban design was an amazingly healthy environment – it saved your life and the life of your children.”
Fishman spoke at a discussion in September at the National Building Museum,the first in a series on greener living,surprisingly titled,”Can the Suburbs Kill You? Measuring the Health Effects of Urban Sprawl.” The series is investigating the link between health and the all-American suburban lifestyle.
Fishman said the initial concept of the suburbs in 19th century America was to escape the smog and congestion of the city. The new design provided residents with cleaner air and water,parkways for running and horseback riding,homes close to transit lines and smaller communities designed so neighbors could mingle.
Over time,however,the car culture took over,and people no longer needed to live near a transit line to commute.
“The suburbs in effect became a new city,” Fishman said. “This very healthy urban design has been lost.”
In 2006,Professor William Lucy of the University of Virginia's school of architecture completed a study comparing the ratio of homicide deaths by strangers in the city to deaths by automobile accidents in the suburbs.
Astonishingly,he found suburbs more hazardous than cities. A person living in the suburbs is 13 times more likely to die in a car accident than a person in the city is to be killed by a stranger.
Lucy said “not many” people die of car accidents in cities or are killed by strangers in the suburbs. Of all the possibilities,a person is most likely to die in a car accident in the suburbs,where people drive every day,longer,faster and on bigger roads.
“The irony is that most people move into the suburbs because they think it is going to be safer,” Lucy said of the 2 million people who make the switch each year from the city to the suburbs.
According to 1998 census figures,30 percent of U.S. residents lived in urban areas, half lived in suburbs and the remaining 20 percent lived in rural areas.
Obesity is yet another problem connected to sprawl,or automobile-dependent growth.
As more people became reliant on their cars,they led more sedentary lives. With additional cars on the road,air quality has decreased while the number of people suffering from asthma has increased,on top of added car accidents and mental problems.
“Once we got there,we realized it wasn't so healthy,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin,author and director of the National Center for Environmental Health.
“I like living downtown,” said Lee Oler,58,a retired school teacher who lives in Tucson,Ariz.,and bikes most places. “I like being close to things; if I want to go to the university,a concert,a play. A lot of people have a preconceived notion that urban areas are unsafe. That's false!”
Elizabeth Westgate,a Washington native,agreed. Westgate,83,said she prefers “the city,but my husband prefers the suburbs.” They live in Arlington,Va.,a close-in suburb. She prefers the city because “you need a car out there,and it's more depressing in the suburbs. As you get older,it's easier to get around in the city and there are more things to do. I still drive,but if I didn't have a car I would hate it.”
Many suburbanites say they are happy where they are.
“We're in better shape since we moved to the suburbs than before,” Mike Rocchi,53,a car dealer in Warrington,Pa.,a suburb of Philadelphia,said of himself and his wife.
Rocchi,who was “born and raised in the city,” said he prefers the suburbs because it's quieter,the people are nicer and he can have a bigger house.
“I didn't think I'd like it,” Rocchi said. “But I do. It's better.”
Matthew Turner,a professor at the University of Toronto,conducted a study over the last 12 years called,”Fat City: The Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Obesity,” that claims there is no link between the two. He said people who are predisposed to being heavier tended to move to more sprawling neighborhoods while slim,fit persons tend to want to live in the city.
“We find no evidence that urban sprawl causes obesity,” Turner wrote on his Web site. “Previous findings … most likely reflect a failure to properly control. … Our results indicate that current interest in changing the built environment to counter the rise in obesity is misguided.”
Turner said most people are either born “thick or thin.” And,things such as genetics and changes in lifecycles cause weight gain.
Yet,physical ailments aren't the only troubles in suburbia. Frumkin said there are a multitude of mental problems that frequently occur in the suburbs,such as road rage,anger,loneliness and social isolation from the “privatized” homes people are building,such as those in gated communities. He said people who take “super commutes” to work,driving 60 to 90 minutes each way,are less likely to be involved in their children's school,community events or other collective gatherings among neighbors.
“This social capital is important,” Frumkin said.
Frumkin suggested ways the average person can live more healthfully include taking public transit,taking the stairs and walking more.
Char Seeman,who said she is “middle-aged” and lives in Centennial,Colo.,outside Denver,doesn't feel she and her family are at a disadvantage. “We're not isolated. We have a car!” said Seeman,who drives daily. “Where do you have your soccer games in the city?”