Walking Is a Magic Cure. So Why Are Some of Our Most Walkable Communities So Unhealthy?

Walking is as close to a magic cure as there can be for better health, argues David H. Freedman in his compelling Politico article on making the suburbs more walkable.  And indeed, the New York region’s high walkability, anchored in a robust transit network, is one of its most important health benefits, as we reported in the State of the Region’s Health.

But if that’s the case, why is it that some of our most walkable communities also have the lowest life expectancy?  Take a look at Northern New Jersey, for example. Life expectancy in Essex County, for both men and women, is far lower than in neighboring Morris County.

This is despite the fact that Essex County is overall far more walkable than Morris County.

Why the discrepancy? As documented in our recent report, 80% of a community’s health outcomes depends on place-based conditions, but neighborhood design that promotes walking or access to exercise opportunities is only one part of how where you live affects your health. Some of the most walkable places in our region are also those which have seen decades of discriminatory policies and disinvestment that have resulted in lower access to opportunity.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the quality of our public schools.  A child growing up in Morris County will be far more likely to go to high performing public school than one growing up in Essex County. And education can have a huge impact on public health. In the United States, people with college degrees on average live at least five years longer than those without a high school degree.

Our approach to using planning and design to improve the health (urban or suburban) has to be as diverse as the ways that the health of those communities is shaped by the built environment.  We need to create more walkable communities, but we also need to expand opportunities more broadly. Walkability is only one piece of the puzzle.


Photo: Thomas De Los Santos


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  1. 1

    Like other national examples, the DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey’s walkability indices are based on the perceived quality of street, bicycle, and open spaces, proximity to destinations, as well as perceptions of neighborhood safety. Often, areas with high connectivity suffer from low perceived safety and other issues related to disinvestment. By including these issues within a walkability index, you can see that areas with the highest levels of walkability tend to be major downtown areas (such as the centers of New Haven, Stamford, midtown Manhattan) and “inner suburbs” with good connections to transit (such as the center of South Norwalk, center of West Hartford, area surrounding Greenwich train station, and so-called “streetcar suburb” or “transit suburb” areas that have relatively high density and many active retail destinations but also still relatively higher homeownership levels within the major cities such as Park Slope, Forest Hills, certain sections of New Haven, etc.).

  2. 2

    Yes! And it would be great to have more and better information on people’s perceptions of street quality and neighborhood safety on a consistent level. Also, better inventories of ramps, surface quality, places to sit, etc.

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