June 7, 2007
We do it without thinking.
Nearly everyone each morning gets into their cars and heads to work, then reverses the process when coming home. Dropping the children off at school, trips to shopping malls, visits to grocery stores, even a quiet excursion to a public park are all accomplished behind the wheel of an automobile.
Few communities are built around the idea of public transportation. Few people bike to their destinations and fewer still have the luxury of being able to walk to get to where they need to go. This dependency on means other than ourselves for transportation has led to a deep dip in physical activity, which in turn impacts every aspect of our lives — from healthcare to housing to gas prices.
Community and Regional Planning Chair Dr. Deborah Howe has embarked on research that hopes to change this trend. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation approved a $200,000 grant for research designed to “transform land use regulations to create livable communities that support physical activity in everyday life.” The grant is part of the Foundation’s “Active Living Research” program.
“The built environment — a determinant of daily physical activity — is the result of dynamics of land development involving builders, investors, consumers and public policies which, over time, have favored car-dominated developments that contribute to a decline in physical activity,” said Dr. Howe. “An expected 25 percent increase in housing units from 2000-2025 to accommodate projected growth in the US offers an opportunity to set new standards for active living design.”
According to Dr. Howe, who prior to coming to Temple was a Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University, she received the grant approval while still at Portland, “but I was able to bring it here.”
“This is a collaborative effort between Temple and Portland State. We are looking at innovative land use policies, zoning, and regulations across the country that lead to built environments that support active living — the focus is predominantly on innovation,” she said. “We want to understand how and why local governments adopt innovative policies with active living design in mind — what are they up against, what are the obstacles, what are the successes? What are the relevant policies — requirements for sidewalks, mixed use developments, trails — for amenities built to get people outdoors?”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving health — focuses on the pressing health care issues facing the country.
“We are privileged to welcome (Temple) to the Foundation’s family of grantees,” wrote Risa Lavizzo-Mourney of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in awarding the grant. “We are enthusiastic about your project and wish you success as we embark together on this important endeavor to improve health and health care for all Americans and to make a difference in our lifetime.”
This multi-faceted study of a wide range of U.S. communities and their experiences in adopting and implementing land use policies that support active living seeks to develop an understanding of how to promote reformation of standard U.S. land development policies. A national advisory committee of developers, public health officials, and local policy makers provide guidance on research design and interpretation of results.
The study includes a survey of “Best Practices Communities” — up to 100 with policies that support active living — in addition to a survey of a random stratified sample of 500 communities to examine their experience with active living concepts.
Developer and lender interviews will identify success factors, barriers, and opportunities for innovation while case studies of three communities with land use policy innovations that support active living development will analyze how and why policies were adopted and the effects of the policies using existing before and after data.
“The capacity to undertake, support, and implement local land use planning varies widely among local governments. Even within states with growth management programs, differences in values, resources, and local leadership impacts the effectiveness of local planning efforts,” said
Dr. Howe. “This is the reason that this study looks at experiences in diverse municipalities. The outcomes will provide the basis for understanding the relationship between active living development policies and what is built and the extent to which goals of an environment that allows for and encourages physical activity are achieved.”
According to Dr. Howe, particular attention is being given to “defining principles of practice that will be useful for planners, local policy makers, developers, public health professionals, and others committed to the creation of livable, healthy communities.” Mari Wildt Radford, a Community and Regional Planning Graduate Research Assistant who served in East Africa and Central Asia as a U.S. Department of State Community Liaison Officer, is assisting with the research at Temple.
“One of the important pieces of the puzzle is walkability — how to create routes to get from here to there without too much walking. The question surrounding innovation is how to get people to buy into the concept,” Dr. Howe said. “We are hoping for the opportunity to extend the study even further to create a comprehensive database that is useful for other efforts. There is a great deal of student interest — and the research provides a variety of opportunities for student involvement — in embracing the livability concept. We’ve envisioned the study in such a way to provide opportunities for both the Center for Sustainable Communities and students in the Community and Regional Planning program to be directly involved.”
According to Dr. Howe, most communities have simply become “used to the need to drive everywhere.”
“As soon as you are out of the cities where there already is infrastructure, areas become easy to develop. They are often low density developments with a perception that there is no need for sidewalks, no need for urban amenities — people are drawn to large houses on large lots, they aren’t thinking about their health,” she said. “When development is allowed to occur in this way, they aren’t looking toward the common good. When developers are just doing their own thing, then efforts to promote active living, walkability, and mixed use are going to meet resistance.”
The larger goal of the research, Dr. Howe said, “is to improve the built environment to show the demonstrable importance of activity.”
“There is an epidemic of obesity and poor health due in large part to lack of physical exercise. If exercise can again become part of our normal daily activity — as opposed to getting into a car and driving to the gym — that has to have a positive impact. The additional benefit is reducing our dependency on cars, gas, and oil, and decreasing pollution.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful, and timely change. For more than 30 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. For more information on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, visit www.rwif.org.
For more information on Dr. Howe’s research, contact 267-468-8108. For more information on Community and Regional Planning undergraduate and graduate degree programs at Temple University Ambler, visit www.ambler.temple.edu/crp.