Places to park and stride

Times Staff Writer

In the land where the car is king, Acquanetta Warren has learned a thing or two about body fat and upward mobility. A transplant from South-Central Los Angeles to Fontana, one of the Inland Empire’s fastest-growing cities, Warren has achieved the dream of suburbia -- a big house with a three-car garage and a sweeping plot of green.

But for several years, moving up meant barely moving under her own power. And over a few short years, that contributed to some serious upward movement on her bathroom scale.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 18, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Counteracting obesity -- An article in Monday’s Health section about land use planning aimed at getting people to become more active misspelled the San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont as Claremont.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 21, 2005 Home Edition Health Part F Page 7 Features Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Obesity and environment -- The San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont was misspelled as Claremont in last week’s Health section article on new efforts to get people moving.

Now 50 pounds lighter than her heaviest weight, Warren -- a City Council member in Fontana -- has become a foot soldier in an emerging movement. Spurred by evidence that 60% of Americans are too sedentary and 61% are overweight or obese, assorted academic experts and public officials have joined forces. They aim to fight the nation’s epidemic of obesity with more sidewalks and bike paths, schools that kids can walk to, devices that slow traffic and zoning changes that would create an appealing mix of homes, stores, schools and recreation in blighted downtowns and far-flung suburbia.

Simply put, they want to shape and retool communities to encourage walking and cycling -- not as a spandex-clad, feel-the-burn obligation, but as a healthful activity that is a normal part of everyday life.


The focus on what experts call the “built environment” is the latest attempt to grasp the social and environmental factors that influence Americans’ decisions about eating and exercise.

“If you want to get rid of fat America, then you have to change your built environment,” says Ron Sims, county executive of Washington state’s King County, which includes Seattle and many of its inner suburbs.

“You are what your neighborhood is,” he says. “If your neighborhood is designed to get you home and into your house, you’re going to be a couch potato. But if your neighborhood is designed to get you out of your house, then you’ll get out and get active.”

Across the nation, the “active living by design” movement is plotting changes designed to coax Americans out of their cars.

* In at least 18 states, including California, a grass-roots movement called Safe Routes to School has won public funding to improve sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths that link children and their families to school.

* In Denver, on the massive site of what was once Stapleton Airport, developers are working with city planners and public health officials to build a community that promotes everyday walking and biking.

* On the Winnebago Indian reservation in Nebraska, where obesity rates are high and diabetes affects roughly one in three residents, tribal leaders and local authorities have set out to bridge a busy state highway that separates reservation housing from shops, schools and recreation facilities. In addition to creating bicycling and walking clubs, reservation authorities plan to create pedestrian-friendly crossings that would make it possible for tribal members to hike or cycle to do errands.

* In King County, Sims and his administration have redrawn local transit routes and redrafted zoning regulations to make White Center -- a sprawling public housing complex now being rebuilt -- a model of walkability for neighborhoods undergoing urban renewal.

* Local government leaders in the fast-growing city of Nashville, Tenn., are organizing teams that will walk every public inch of 25 downtown neighborhoods, searching for improvements that would encourage walking. These “walkability surveys” have become a first step for many cities and neighborhoods, including Sacramento and Riverside, to encourage changes.

* Riverside County public health officials were key players in drafting the fast-growing county’s most recent “general plan,” which lays out broad guidelines for how land will be used, where public facilities will be sited and how population growth will be accommodated.

But even those intent on paving Americans’ way to more exercise acknowledge that research is still underway on what works. Small changes such as sidewalk improvements can be made easily. Other features that have discouraged everyday exercise will be harder -- and will take longer -- to alter.


A startling comparison

James D. Sallis, a psychologist at San Diego State University, conducted one of the first studies that made a connection between a neighborhood’s structure and its residents’ fitness, comparing the exercise patterns and body-mass indexes of residents living in two San Diego neighborhoods.

Although residents were similar in age, education and income, their neighborhoods had very different structures. Normal Heights is, by many measures used by urban planners, considered to be a walkable neighborhood, with varied types of housing near retail stores and services, all linked by good sidewalks with safe crossing points. Claremont is newer and, by the same measures, considered much less walkable.

“I frankly was amazed at the difference,” Sallis says. On average, the Normal Heights residents got about 70 more minutes of exercise per week than the Claremont participants and were one point lower on the body-mass index. In Claremont, about 60% of residents were overweight -- almost exactly the national average. In Normal Heights, only 35% were. Sallis is now conducting larger studies like this one in Seattle and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro areas.

The relationship was no local fluke, either. Looking at 448 counties across the nation, University of Maryland urban planner Reid Ewing and a team of researchers found in 2003 that people who live in sprawling counties are more likely to be overweight or obese and to have high blood pressure.

The study found that even when residents of sprawling areas walked for exercise, they tended to be fatter, on average, than those in compact neighborhoods who walked for exercise. It was the incidental exercise -- walking to the store or to pick the kids up at school -- that seemed to make the difference.

In fall 2004, a transportation planner teaching in Canada drew the strongest links so far between neighborhood structure, walking and extra pounds. A team led by Lawrence D. Frank asked 10,878 residents of Atlanta to wear a pedometer and keep a diary of their time spent driving. The researchers also rated the “walkability” of each participant’s neighborhood, considering, for instance, whether streets meandered aimlessly or were connected in a grid that would deliver a walker efficiently from one place to another.

After crunching the numbers, Frank and his team found, quite simply, that residents who lived in walkable areas walked -- and were less likely to be overweight. Those who would have to brave narrow sidewalks or shoulders flanked by fast-moving cars, who would have to walk miles to a store or who were caught in a rabbit warren of twisting residential streets did not walk as much. And they were, on average, more likely to be overweight.

Frank also found that for every additional hour per day spent in a car, the likelihood a person would be overweight rose by 6%. And for every kilometer walked per day, the likelihood of being overweight was driven down by 4.8%.

The nation’s obesity crisis appears to be, at least in part, an unforeseen consequence of policies that put cars first -- not people -- when it came to planning and building communities after World War II. Federally funded highways were designed to carry people from the workplace to the suburbs at high speed. Large feeder roads were built to disgorge them quickly into residential neighborhoods, where streets dead-end in cul-de-sacs and meander in large circles.

Walkable downtown areas either withered or were never built, as stores were placed on the outskirts of town where there would be more room for parking lots. In this scheme of things, sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly crossings were unnecessary or an afterthought.

The result: Americans running errands to a destination less than a mile from home drive there four times out of five.


An undeniable link

Acquanetta Warren wheedles, exhorts and cajoles Fontana residents all day long to get up and get active. But she knows that if that’s all she does, the forces of sprawl, time crunch and temptation will overwhelm her advice completely.

“A lot of people moving out here, they’re just trying to make it,” Warren says sympathetically. “They’re commuting long hours. So we have to help out.”

For Warren, the link between obesity and the built environment is an undeniable fact of life, both personal and public. Growing up in South-Central Los Angeles in the 1960s, Warren walked everywhere. Like 80% of her generation -- she is 48 -- she walked to school every day. (Today, just 10% of U.S. schoolchildren do.) But Fontana is the kind of place where residential developments can sprawl for miles without a sidewalk, where parents often drive their children to the school bus stop, and where, for many, the commute to work is inching toward two hours -- each way.

Throughout the late 1990s, Warren says, she ate too much, and her sole mode of mobility was her car. When she left the house, whether to go to work, buy a gallon of milk or collect one of her kids from a friend’s home, that’s how she got around.

By 2000, seven years after her arrival in Fontana, the 5-foot-6 Warren, who had always been thin, tipped the scales at 236 pounds and was considered borderline diabetic.

That’s when Warren, since 2002 a member of Fontana’s City Council, strapped on what she quaintly calls her “tennis shoes” and hit the pavement on a mission to improve her health. In the process, she gained a public mission.

Today, under the banner of the “Healthy Fontana” campaign, Warren plans to push for zoning changes, local transit networks that connect far-flung developments, bike paths and street improvements that would encourage fellow Fontana residents to get out on foot or by bike. And she has encouraged private developers like Randall Lewis to bring their walker- and cyclist-friendly plans to Fontana.

If Lewis has his way, he will demonstrate the effect that a developer could have on the future health of homebuyers. A veteran homebuilder who now designs master-planned communities throughout the Inland Empire, Lewis is hailed by urban planners as a pioneer in creating communities that foster everyday exercise.

Last month he unveiled the centerpiece and first few homes of the Preserve, a planned 10,000-home development on the edge of Chino. Its focus is a K-through-8 school and a three-acre park with gardens and a multipurpose community and fitness center. The narrow streets are laid out in grids, which makes walking to the center more direct. Sidewalks and a trail system would put school within walking distance for all students in the development.

In western Riverside County, Lewis is three years from building an 11,000-home development in which he plans the same kinds of healthy-living initiatives. He also is laying plans to build two smaller developments in Fontana.

“We want to make a difference; we want to leave a legacy,” Lewis says. “I think if you can look back and say people are living a healthier lifestyle because of something we did, that would be nice.”

But in suburbs across the country, including in the Inland Empire, Lewis’ ideal of improving health through better design could meet its match.

The fastest-growing suburbs and small cities are pushing into open land, and, with so much space to fill, housing developments tend to be sprawling warrens of homes with large yards, placed far from shopping centers. New schools tend to be sited off highways at the edge of town. There they have the space to expand as needed, but few children walk to them.

If new developments are built without zoning laws, city ordinances or designs that give residents the chance to walk to school or bike to the store, experts say, they too will become incubators of obesity and the chronic conditions -- diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease -- that tend to come with it.


Luring the couch potatoes

But if researchers have established that gated communities, megamalls at the edge of town and schools accessible only by highway have contributed to the nation’s epidemic of obesity, what’s the answer? Will neighborhoods built to promote walking or bicycling help reverse the trend? If you build it, will the couch potatoes come?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” says UC Irvine’s Marlon Boarnet, author of a recent study showing that when small changes were made to roads, crossings and sidewalks near schools, more children and their families left their cars at home and walked to school. Boarnet said the study, which measured the effectiveness of California’s 6-year-old Safe Routes to School initiative, demonstrated that there is plenty of what he calls “low-hanging fruit” -- inexpensive improvements that will encourage changes in some people’s behavior, at least at the margins.

Indeed, reversing a trend toward overeating and sedentary lifestyles that has been years in the making will take more than a few zoning changes, says San Diego State’s Sallis, who directs the Active Living Research Project there.

“A lot of people get the too-simple idea that if we just put in sidewalks, a trail, make the parks nicer, that’s really going to do it. And that’s not going to do it,” Sallis says. “We’re not going to get away from the truth that it is partly the individual’s choice, and you need to motivate and educate people to make those choices. It’s a dual strategy: One or the other will not be sufficient.”