Ever since two studies linked sprawl and obesity in 2003, study upon study has been published suggesting that our built environment -- marked by car-oriented, isolated, unwalkable neighborhoods -- is having a deleterious influence on our health. In other words, sprawl is making us unhealthy, unhappy and fat.
One early study of 200,00 people, led by urban planner Reid Ewing, found that residents of sprawling communities tended to weigh more, walk less and have higher blood pressure than those living in more densely populated areas. Another study, by health psychologist James Sallis of San Diego State University, concluded that people living in "high-walkability" neighborhoods walk more and were less likely to be obese than residents of low-walkability neighborhoods. A 2004 study based in Atlanta, led by Lawrence Frank, reported that the number of minutes spent in a car correlated with a risk of obesity. Among the oft-cited conclusions of the study: A typical white male living in an isolated residential-only neighborhood weighs about 10 pounds more than one living in a walkable, mixed-use community.
I never understood the suburbs. I know someone who moved out of the city when he got married because he wanted to bring up his kids in the country. Of course what this meant was getting a McMansion in a subdivision (which destroyed the very nature he said he wanted to live in). The cute little chipmunks he sees on his lawn are there because their home was bulldozed to make way for his lawn. His family has to drive any time they want to go somewhere. He doesn't like his neighbours. There's no sense of community. Culture is hours (of driving) away.
Unfortunately in places like Toronto, living in the city is increasingly expensive. Many have little choice: "30 percent of the respondents reported that they wanted to live in walkable neighborhoods but were unable to afford them."
The answer isn't necessarily to move everyone into the few walkable cities that exist in North America, but to focus all development on the principles of New Urbanism: neighbourhoods that are pedestrian-friendly, medium-density development, mixed-use zoning, and preserved green spaces outside the city. In concrete terms this means you can live, work, and shop in the same neighbourhood, without having to own a car. (Here's a virtual demo of what such a community might look like)
Via the Carfree USA Blog. Urban environments can have all kinds of benefits, health is just one.