These blocks are made for walking

The right neighborhood could add years to your life


Weekday mornings, while Sandhya Rajput’s co-workers are inching along the freeway, Rajput strides along a path over-looking a lagoon, crosses a pedestrian bridge and arrives at her job as a product manager at Oracle. Dressed in work clothes and running shoes, and sporting a backpack, she has spent the last 45 minutes — her commute — walking by the landscaped yards and duck-filled marshes of Foster City, a suburb carved out of San Francisco Bay.

Rajput, 47, began walking four years ago when her doctor implored her to start exercising. Now, she refuses to move or switch jobs, mostly because she’d have to give up her pedestrian commute along her town’s parks and waterways.

Jamie Kripke
  Abby King in her walkable neighborhood.

“How many people can enjoy the luxury of walking such a nice route to work?” she asks.

As Rajput has learned, and as a Stanford professor’s research has demonstrated, Americans get more exercise if they like to walk in their neighborhoods. Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and a senior investigator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, found that 67 percent of people who were trying to be more active and lived in a neighborhood they perceived as attractive and easy to walk in attained the national exercise recommendations. If they found their neighborhoods unattractive and pedestrian-unfriendly, and stores or other destinations were far away, only 30 percent met the goal of two-and-a-half hours of exercise a week.

“People’s perception of their neighborhood is where the rubber meets the road,” King says, explaining that many people get their exercise by walking near home. “It’s what matters when it comes to running an errand on foot or getting in the car.”

King and her colleagues based their research on studies from Eugene, Ore.; Stanford; Memphis; Atlanta; and Kingston, R.I., that measured the effectiveness of methods for encouraging people to exercise. The study participants were sedentary but motivated to get off their couches, often because their physicians had encouraged them to do so.

The researchers asked the participants to evaluate their own neighborhoods with respect to attractive scenery and other aesthetic qualities, safety, how far away destinations were and other aspects of neighborhood “walkability.” Then they compared how active participants were in relation to the neighborhood evaluations. They expected that demographics would predict success the most, King says, but found that men and women of different ages, ethnicities and educational levels behaved similarly. “It wasn’t about demographics,” King says. “It was about perceived environment,” or how residents viewed their neighborhoods.

“People don’t live in a vacuum,” says King, who often walks or jogs in her quiet, friendly Los Altos, Calif., neighborhood. “It depends on the interactions between people and place.”

While pleasant scenery and ease of walking are two of the most critical incentives, a neighborhood is even more conducive to exercise if it offers other attractions. Traffic safety is important for all age groups, but particularly so for the elderly and children. Nearby shopping is a bonus, as is an absence of stray dogs. Opportunities to see or speak with neighbors and availability of alternative routes, so residents can vary the paths they take, also entice residents to walk more.

King’s study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion last fall, is one of a growing number in which health researchers link urban design and health. Urban planners have been thinking along the same lines. “Over the last 15 years, urban developers and planners have been very focused on the benefits of pedestrian-oriented communities,” says urban designer Gerry Gast, a visiting associate professor at Stanford in the Program on Urban Studies.

“It’s a reaction to the typical American suburbs, where you see a lot of garage doors. They don’t have sidewalks or street trees. You have to get in the car even if you’re going to buy a loaf of bread. Kids in these communities do not walk to school.”

While the prevailing practice in the United States is to design car-intensive suburbs, Gast says more pedestrian-friendly communities are springing up. One is the new development of Brytan in Gainesville, Fla., where garages are tucked behind the houses, trees shade the sidewalks and a shopping district lies within walking distance. “Increasingly, people are looking specifically for these features,” Gast says. “They want to be able to walk around, have their kids walk to school.” This new urbanism, Gast notes, is a return to the old-style community of a century or so ago, when people walked almost everywhere.

Although the developers who created Rajput’s town, Foster City, built it during the suburban sprawl era, it came out differently — partly because the developers wanted the community to stand apart and partly as an accident of its location.

In 1958, developer T. Jack Foster and his three sons purchased Brewer Island, a stretch of tidal marshland east of San Mateo, with plans to create a visually appealing community that offered its residents plenty of opportunity for recreation. Each neighborhood would have a distinct architectural style, more than 10 percent of the land would be set aside for parks and shopping areas would be spaced throughout the city.

But before they could build, they had to turn a soggy cow pasture into land that would support houses, apartment complexes and shopping malls. Faced with the problem of what to do with the water, the project’s engineers decided to use it: They carved out an S-shaped lagoon in the middle of the island and piled earth around it several feet above sea level.

The engineering feat resulted in a community that’s almost Disneyland-like in its appeal. A pedestrian and bike path winds along San Francisco Bay, encircling the city. In the center of the town lies a wide lake where windsurfers take advantage of the stiff breeze and kayakers glide through the waves.

Homeowner associations — aided by a median household income of $95,000 a year — ensure that flower beds, lawns and California native shrubbery stay neat and well-tended; many apartment and condominium complexes boast ponds and fountains at their entrances. The crime rate is lower than that of the surrounding suburbs, thanks to the city’s wealth and the waterways that separate it from the mainland.

Two more features make the city even more amenable to walking: City leaders have enacted a leash law, allowing dogs to run free only in specified parks. And the lagoons create many dead-end streets, curtailing traffic. Rajput chose the ideal town for her health, though she didn’t realize it when she moved to Foster City 10 years ago.

Since she began commuting to work on foot, Rajput has lost 20 pounds, improved her stamina and reduced her stress level. But the walk is no longer an exercise routine. She watches for the sandpipers that flock to the marshes in fall, listens to the rain pattering on her umbrella in winter and appreciates the carpets of magenta ice plant flowers in spring.

“At first I started walking for health reasons,” she says. “But then I realized, this is time to think and appreciate nature. It’s my time.”

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