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Tuesday, April 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
As population sprawls, so do our waistlines

By Roger Valdez
Special to The Times

Long commutes contribute to the nation's epidemic of obesity.
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It is difficult these days to read magazines and newspapers or watch the news without learning more about the latest diet fad that promises us an easy way to lose weight. Fast-food restaurants are touting low-carbohydrate options and even candy is advertised as "fat free."

The fact is, Americans are too fat. Why? The problem is partially our sugary, fatty diets, but obesity is significantly complicated and worsened by our regions' land-use policies.

Our sprawling cities and suburbs, linked together by endless ribbons of freeways, match our sprawling waistlines. Long commutes combined with eating habits that support quick, drive-through cuisine have formed the basis of an epidemic of obesity.

The link between obesity and chronic disease (diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, for example) is now a well-established fact and is powerfully present in the American consciousness. The link between our land-use policies and obesity is only now being drawn.

There is a developing argument within the public-health community that decreasing density (the number of people living and working per square acre) and increasing sprawl have led to a decrease in the public's quality of life and an increase in the chronic diseases associated with obesity.

The Seattle City Council is currently considering serious changes to density in our downtown core. The council has the opportunity to increase density and create the basis both for improving the health of our community and creating real benefits for residents and business.

Increased density can lead to a decreased risk of chronic disease. Studies show that people are more likely to walk and be more physically active in areas with more concentration of people. Increased physical activity reduces the risk of obesity. A study by the Puget Sound Regional Council shows that "vehicle trips decline while transit and pedestrian trips increase as density increases up to around 20 dwelling units per acre." More density leads to less driving and more walking.

Density is healthier than sprawl. Density is good for the economy — for the jobs it can create, the tax base it can improve, and also the money government can save on amenities such as improved sidewalks and parks.

The city has the ability to loosen regulation, allow more density and in return ask developers to include these amenities in their projects, and to provide free bus passes and rental bonuses to their tenants who do not own a car.

By enhancing Seattle's current transfer of development rights and transfer-credit program, we could trade increased density in part of the city for public benefits from private developers, while still allowing for the projects to remain profitable.

The proposals being considered by the City Council — increasing height and bulk of buildings downtown — give the city an opportunity to convert underutilized land in the downtown core into a public health benefit, while at the same time creating more jobs and economic benefit.

Council members need to be sure that they understand the value of what they are trading. More density means more space for developers to sell or lease. That is a good thing for our local economy as well as for the developers. But we need to get as much for the community and public at the same time.

One important project for downtown could benefit from this kind of approach. A day center for homeless men is seriously needed downtown. Right now the library and other public places serve as a poor substitute for this need. Homeless men can't get what they need at the library or riding buses in the free-ride zone all day. Nor does it benefit local businesses to have homeless individuals in their doorways.

The council should consider the possibility of trading some of the proposed increases in density for help in defraying the cost of operating this much-needed service downtown.

This approach would promote the public's health through better urban planning, stimulate the local economy, and generate resources to improve downtown by providing a day center that would benefit the homeless as well as downtown businesses.

Land-use policy is public health policy. The way we plan for growth now has serious impacts on the future health of people in our city and region. The council also has a unique opportunity to loosen regulation in order to create amenities and public benefits in a time of scarce resources.

Roger Valdez, of Seattle, is a regional vice president of the Washington State Public Health Association.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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