National Edition

City life offers better health, bigger ladder

Published: Tuesday, April 15 2014 9:30 a.m. MDT

People living in dense urban areas are not only more likely to be thinner and healthier, they are also more likely to move up the income ladder.


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Lynda Stratford walks 10,000 steps a day — she knows this from the electronic Jawbone device that she wears on her wrist that counts her steps.

She walks her son a mile to kindergarten every day, pushing her 2-year-old in a stroller. In fact, Stratford's family doesn't own a car, so any time she goes anywhere — like, say, Trader Joe's where she likes to get groceries — it's a combination of walking, stairs and sometimes the stairs that lead to and from the subway.

Stratford and her family live in Manhattan, and like many urban dwellers, they are used to life on foot. Eighty-two percent of Manhattanites travel to work by public transit, bike or by walking, which is 10 times the national average. All of these steps add up, according to new research, which links urban living to lower levels of obesity and longer life spans.

But the advantages of urban living — and disadvantages of suburban sprawl — go beyond health benefits. The research from Smart Growth America and the University of Utah's Metropolitan Urban Center also show that the high-density, high-diversity climate of urban centers can give city kids and adults a better chance of getting ahead.

"Urban places provide higher likelihood of moving up the social ladder," says Reid Ewing, professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and the lead researcher. "Compact places provide better access to jobs, better transit and more integration."

Getting ahead

Inner cities are often linked to poverty and intergenerational struggles, but that's not necessarily true, according to the study findings. Researchers found that compact areas linked by public transit can help low-income kids get ahead financially as grown-ups. A child in a dense area born in the bottom 20 percent of the income scale has a better chance of rising to the top 20 percent by the age of 30, Ewing says.

A child in relatively dense Los Angeles, for example, has a 10 percent chance of moving from the bottom income bracket to the top, while a child in Atlanta — one of the most sprawling places in the country — has only a 4 percent chance.

There are several possible explanations for this, says Ewing, and one is transportation. In sprawling suburbs, housing and commerce centers are often far apart and public transit sparse, which makes it hard for people to get to work or get access to good jobs. Low-income people usually have fewer transportation options, or struggle to afford that mainstay of American suburban transportation — a private car, says Ewing.

"People living in more compact places have shorter commutes to work," he says. "Picture a place with a dense mix of residential and business development, with interconnected streets and transportation, that gives better access to all sorts of things — but especially jobs. Then think of a really sprawling place like Atlanta, how auto dependent and isolated neighborhoods are."

Another factor may be better income and race integration in cities, says Shima Hamidi, who co-authored the study. "In dense areas, there are more chances for networking, for meeting people, more chances of getting better salaries and jobs." High-income parents demand better schools, for example, says Ewing, so in integrated areas the lower-income kids have a better chance of attending those good schools, too.

Healthy living

There is also growing evidence that living among strip malls and far-flung housing developments can be bad for health. People in dense urban areas tend to be thinner and have lower incidence of diabetes and heart disease.

Once again, car use is a culprit. According to a study in The American Journal of Preventative Medicine, train riders are 6.5 pounds lighter than others, and 81 percent less likely to become obese over time.

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