Can better urban planning make us healthier? - CSMonitor.com
Does urban sprawl cause obesity and unhealthy habits?
Matthew Turner and co-authors have written an under-appreciated paper that was published in the Journal of Urban Economics. Here is the abstract of their paper titled “Fat City”:
"We study the relationship between urban sprawl and obesity. Using data that tracks individuals over time, we find no evidence that urban sprawl causes obesity. We show that previous findings of a positive relationship most likely reflect a failure to properly control for the fact the individuals who are more likely to be obese choose to live in more sprawling neighborhoods. Our results indicate that current interest in changing the built environment to counter the rise in obesity is misguided."
Intuitively, Turner estimates a fixed effects regression using panel data where he tracks the same person over time for people who move from the center city to the suburbs or vice versa. If sprawl makes us fat, then the average person who moves from the center to the suburbs should be gaining more weight over time than the people who never leave the center city or never leave the suburbs. Turner rejects this hypothesis.
So, there is plenty of work to be done here but it remains an open question of how urban form affects our behavior. I’ve been especially interested in this question focused on our carbon footprint as a function of urban form.