How Neighborhood Design Can Make Us Sick

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It slowly oozes out from the city, radiating away in decreasing density, destroying all trees and fields in its path and supplanting them with … housing developments and strip malls. The dreaded urban sprawl.

Newly developed areas characterized by urban sprawl are wreaking havoc on the environment by any number of reasons, one of which is an integral piece of suburban design – a reliance on cars. But neighborhood design also influences the health of human populations, according to a new study from St. Michael's Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

The researchers found that the less walkable one’s neighborhood is, the higher risk its inhabitants have of developing diabetes.

The study looked at data from the population of Toronto aged 30-64 and identified those without diabetes. For five years the participants were tracked to see who developed diabetes, which was compared to where they lived and analyzed against data on neighborhood walkabiliy.

To figure out how walkable each neighborhood is, the researchers created an index looking at factors such as population density, street connectivity and the availability of walkable destinations such as retail stores and service within a 10-minute walk.

The results were surprising, with up to a 50 percent increase in the risk of developing diabetes for those living in a less walkable neighborhood, when compared to long-term residents living in the most walkable areas, results were regardless of neighborhood income. Within these findings, the team found that the risk was especially high for new immigrants living in low-income neighborhoods. As noted in the study, past research has demonstrated a precipitated risk of obesity-related issues for new immigrants within the first 10 years of arrival to Canada.

"Although diabetes can be prevented through physical activity, healthy eating and weight loss, we found the environment in which one lives is also an important indicator for determining risk," said Dr. Gillian Booth, an endocrinologist and researcher at St. Michael's and lead author.

The study published online in the journal Diabetes Care.

Tags: Diseases | Urban Planning | Walking

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