Is obesity really caused by suburban sprawl?

Suburban sprawl is often linked with rising obesity – for example, see this submission to last year’s Urban Growth Boundary Review from Kelvin Thompson, Labor Member for the Federal seat of Wills, or this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The customary argument is that because the incidence of obesity is lower in the inner city where densities are higher, it follows that low density outer suburban development is the cause, or at least a very significant contributor, to obesity.

At first glance this seems to make some sense. For example, only 1.1% of workers in Melbourne’s outer suburbs walk to work, compared to 12.9% in the inner city.

But for all its faults, is it reasonable to put the blame for obesity on sprawl?  No, it isn’t reasonable. We would we better off focusing our energies on the real issues associated with sprawl rather than being distracted by sideshows.

The key reason is that what goes in our mouths is more important than how much we exercise. You have to walk the dog for an hour and a half, or cycle for an hour, to burn off the calories in just one Big Mac.

The inner city has a lower incidence of obesity primarily because the residents eat better. And they don’t eat better because of higher density but because they have higher incomes than residents of the outer suburbs and, importantly, higher levels of education. They are more likely to know about the importance of good eating and they are more likely to be able to afford to eat better food. They also have smaller households on average so it’s easier to cook healthy food at home rather than go out for fast food. Read the rest of this entry »

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