It’s long been known that, despite urban pollution and millions of people living tightly packed together, residents of New York City are on average some of the healthiest people out there. That was confirmed once again this summer in a study by the metropolitan area’s Regional Plan Association: New Yorkers enjoy lower obesity rates and higher life expectancy than residents in most other big cities.
One of the primary reasons for New Yorkers’ relative health has also been long known: New Yorkers walk -- a lot. As any visitor to Manhattan has discovered, walking is frequently the fastest and easiest way to get from point A to point B. In fact, a good bit of that walking is to and from the nearest bus stop or subway station. “In areas of the region that don’t have those options,” says Mandu Sen, a senior planner with the regional planning association, “health outcomes are generally lower.”
As city and health officials think about how to tackle the social determinants of health, they’re coming to realize that one of the best places to start is in the urban planner’s office. Thanks in large part to New York City, the benefits of walking and relying less on automobiles have been getting more and more attention across the country.
Just ask Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla., about the benefits of planning. No one was more aware of the city’s reputation as one of the nation’s fattest than Cornett. After successfully losing 40 pounds, Cornett thought it might be possible to get residents fired up about losing weight too.
So back in 2007, Cornett introduced an initiative called “This City Is Going On a Diet.” Residents could sign up on the program’s website and log their weight loss journeys. A couple years later, Cornett embarked on infrastructure projects to make the city easier to get around by foot or bike. Funded by a sales tax and a multimillion-dollar bond issue, sidewalks, bike and walking paths, and a world-class rowing center popped up in the downtown area. (Cornett was honored in 2010 for these efforts by this magazine.)
In 2012, Cornett reported that Oklahoma City’s residents had collectively lost 1 million pounds, a result he credits in large part to providing more opportunities for getting around without cars. “Our downtown went from being one of the least pedestrian-friendly to one of the most pedestrian-friendly,” Cornett says. “It’s a destination now where you can park your car and walk around.”
Oklahoma’s capital isn’t the only city revitalizing its downtown with a goal of improving residents’ health. “I don’t have a public health staff,” says South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, “so how do I use the tools in front of me to make a difference? For me, that means using decisions around traffic and safety, which are embedded in health.”
Buttigieg’s first step involves taking on residents’ car dependency. In April, the mayor’s office launched a “complete streets” initiative that will fix sidewalks, narrow multilane roads to invite walking, and, the mayor says, “generally change the feel of downtown.”
Buttigieg doesn’t have an immediate plan to track the improved health of residents, though he hopes that will come with time. But he’s confident that the steps the city is taking will show results. “People are healthier and safer when they live in a place where they want to walk or ride their bike,” he says. Certainly a lot of New Yorkers would agree.