Promoting the Active Living Benefits of Walkable Neighborhoods

Studies are showing smart growth leads to healthier lifestyles

Do you have to swim laps, lift weights or Zumba at the gym to be fit and healthy?

The answer to that question could lie in the neighborhood where you live.

To improve the health of Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2008 guidelines indicate that adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and muscle-training activities on two or more days a week. For children the guidelines are set at 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day, which can include brisk walking.

With the emphasis that “ten minutes at a time is fine,” there’s a growing number of analyses that show the built environments around you play a role in the fight against obesity. That means pushing baby strollers en route to schools and taking a brisk walk to public transportation counts toward those requisite cardio requirements for good health.

“The more active people are, the more inclined they are to walk throughout their life and the longer they will live, said Dan Burden, founder and chief executive officer of the consulting company, Walkable Communities.

Burden is a Washington state consultant who works with local planning and health departments across the nation to help promote smart growth. He is a believer that high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods near public transportation options can be a major weapon in improving the health of Americans.

There is plenty of data to back up Burden’s assertions.

A 2009 Active Living Research brief, dubbed “Active Transportation – Making the Link from Transportation to Physical Activity and Obesity,” compiles some of the latest data on built environments and active transportation. Some of the findings in the research brief show that: people who used public transportation for any reason were less likely to be sedentary than those who did not and those who use mass transit walked 8.3 minutes more per day than those who primarily drive.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Active Living Research is an association that studies how built environments can increase physical activity and prevent childhood obesity, particularly in low-income and racial or ethnic minority communities.

Another 2009 Active Living Research brief, “Walking and Biking to School, Physical Activity and Health Outcomes,” notes that a study of South Carolina 5thgraders who walked to school had 25 more minutes of moderate to physical activity than children who were driven to school.

And yet another study, the 2007 SMARTRAQ (Strategies for Metro Atlanta’s Transportation and Air Quality)showed that 37 percent of the people in high-walkability neighborhoods in Atlanta met the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendations for physical activity compared to just 18 percent of residents living in the least walkable neighborhoods.

In addition to being good for your physical health, well-built environments that promote activity can also be good for your financial health. That’s one of the conclusions from a June 2009 study, “Walking the Walk, How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities,” which was conducted on behalf of CEOs for Cities, a group that promotes the building and sustaining of cities.

The study measures how walking friendly an environment is by using an algorithm that takes into consideration how close a property is to 13 different public destinations, such as schools, movie theaters, libraries, gyms, bars and restaurants. It gives a property a score between zero and 100. A zero score means that the neighborhood is completely auto-oriented and nothing is within walking distance.

Houses in walking friendly neighborhoods can fetch anywhere between $4,000 to $34,000 more than homes that are further away from public spaces where jumping into a car is a daily requirement for living. In the typical market, the study showed each additional point for walking friendly homes meant a premium increase of between $500 and $3,000.

So does the promise of good health and increased property values drive — no pun intended — people to walkable neighborhoods? Does the volatile housing market offer a unique opportunity to improve the built environment and improve land use?

REALTORS® and home builders/developers were surveyed in 2009 to get the answer to those questions as well as to gain insight on the factors that influence homebuyers’ decisions. The analysis entitled “Developer and REALTOR ® Perspectives on Factors That Influence Development, Sale and Perceived Demand for Activity Friendly Communities,” is a mixed bag of sorts.

According to the analysis more than half of the REALTORS® and homebuilders surveyed believe there is growing interest among their clients for traditional neighbor-hoods. The analysis will be published in the May edition of the “Journal of Physical Activity and Health.”

But the survey also showed that the perception of the respondents was that the dominant market continues to be for an auto-oriented environment. Specifically, REALTORS®’ responses show that affordability/value, safety from crime, and quality of schools were the most influential factors homeowners looked for.

The least influential factors, REALTORS® reported, were ease of walking, “green” living and closeness to public transportation.

Tallahassee, Florida REALTOR® Penny Herman agrees. Herman sells homes throughout Tallahassee including in the historic Lafayette Park area. There are 500 homes in the historic community, which was built between the1920s and 1940s, and homes range in style from Craftsman Bungalows to Mediterranean revival, with frame and brick vernacular in between.

Lafayette Park Arts and Crafts Center, a city-supported recreational site with an after-school program, is in the epicenter of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is within walking and bicycling distance of the public elementary, middle and high school. A movie theatre and restaurants are within walking distance and the hospital is less about a mile away.

The perks and conveniences, though, aren’t always enough to sell a home in the neighborhood or in the adjoining Old Town or Betton Hills areas said Herman, a Tallahassee native who grew up in Lafayette Park and walked to school.

While the location is desirable, she said, her clients are still attracted to the amenities. She recently spent 18months showing one couple in-town neighborhoods close to the hospital where the husband worked. After an exhaustive tour of homes the couple gravitated to a house in a high-end neighborhood on a golf course located miles from the town center. “The golf course and the lake trumped their drive times,” said Herman, owner broker of Herman Realty.

The REALTOR®/developer survey also showed that developers reported that clients are looking for more energy-efficient homes in more walkable neighborhoods and less traffic congestion. Those responses indicate that now may be a good time to increase “social marketing” efforts for traditional neighborhood design.

Unlike traditional marketing — used to sell a product— social marketing is a tactic used to promote a behavior usually to the betterment of society. It is often used in public health campaigns and could be applied to a particular neighborhood’s healthy living benefit.

The social campaign already is underway if the success of the site is any indicator. Front Seat, a Seattle-based software company that launched the walk score product in 2007 boasts that 2.5 million scores are examined daily. The scores also are available on 700 real estate Web sites nationwide.

And to promote neighborhoods that are close to transportation lines — an important cornerstone principle of smart growth — Front Seat launched, which lists more than 60 public transit applications, including real time arrival information as well as portable schedules and features that are designed to shorten public transit trips.

North Carolina-based Active Living by Design has been on the leading edge of promoting increasing physical activity through community design. Active Living by Design is a sister organization to Active Living Research.

The group has worked with more than 180 communities throughout the nation to support active living and healthy eating. The efforts were initially funded through a$14.5 million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.

Philip Bors, a project officer for Active Living By Design, has watched health promotion evolve in his 15 years in public health. Bors said county health departments once promoted physical activity by underwriting things like the occasional 5K race or health fairs — one shot events that are easily forgotten with no long term benefits. Now, he said, health advocates are focused on land use, growth management and how the built environment impacts physical and mental health.

In a recent presentation he made to the North Carolina Legislature on childhood obesity Bors and fellow UNC associate professor of epidemiology Kelly Evenson, Ph.D., outlined six goals North Carolina lawmakers should adopt to combat growing childhood obesity trends.

The first goal was creating more walkable destinations through the use of close-knit communities and smart growth principles.

“We are starting to look at the importance of how we build communities,’’ said Bors. “It’s developing into areal movement.”

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About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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