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Mixed-Use Communities:A Route to Healthy Living?

August 2009
Made for Walking: Mixed-use communities are built to support foot power

Made for Walking: Mixed-use communities are built to support foot power.

When people move into a mixed-use development―considered a hallmark of healthy community design―their new homes, workplaces, and shopping centers are often conveniently located within walking distance of each other. This strategic layout allows new residents to commute to and from work or complete their “to-do” list without driving their car. So the time they once needed to fight traffic may suddenly become available for other activities. What do they do with this new free time and how will their trendy new neighborhood influence their behavior? Will they walk more and live a healthier life?

Karen Glanz, PhD, MPH, and a research team from the Emory University Prevention Research Center are trying to answer these questions in their study funded by the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

In 2007, at least 25% of the people living in 30 states across the nation were obese. Many of the CDC’s Prevention Research Centers study how to help Americans become active so they can control their body weight. Overweight can increase the risk of developing serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer; weight control can be key to staying healthy.

Dr. Glanz and her team are comparing the activity levels and travel patterns of 101 study participants before and after they moved into Atlantic Station, an infill community in midtown Atlanta, Georgia. Once an abandoned site of an old steel mill, the reclaimed development now features high-rise single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, businesses, brick sidewalks, shops, parks, and restaurants. Study participants came from other parts of the city as well as from Atlanta’s suburbs. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be living in the mixed-use development for at least three months, but not longer than two years.

“This is really a unique, ‘Back-to-the-Future’ move for these people,” Dr. Glanz says. “In many ways they are returning to an old-fashioned city neighborhood with a new twist, so they can revisit some healthy habits from another era.”

The research team recruited the participants by calling home telephone numbers at Atlantic Station, screening the adults who answered for their interest and eligibility.
As a group, 28 percent were age 18 to 25. Slightly more than a third were age 26 to 34. Twenty-two percent were age 35 to 49, and fifteen percent were age 50 and older.

 In terms of household income, nearly half the participants earned $90,000 or more annually. Twenty-six percent earned $60,000 to $89,000. Ten percent made between $40,000 and $59,000. Sixteen percent earned under $40,000 a year.   

Once the participants were selected, they completed a questionnaire about their daily lives in their previous homes and in their new homes in Atlantic Station, telling how they got to work, and how far they had to go. They recorded details, such as whether they walked to grocery stores and how often they exercised and how vigorously. 

For the Record: Study participants logged their every move during the data recording portion of the research.

For the Record: Study participants logged their every move during the data recording portion of the research.

The research team also collected data on these residents’ activity levels after they had relocated. In the summer of 2008, if the study participants went anywhere during the five days of data collection, they logged their travels in a written diary, telling whether they were heading to work, going shopping, or stepping out for a quick workout or to see a movie.

“Anything I was doing, activity-wise, whether I was biking or getting a sandwich, I logged it,” says study participant and real estate agent Brooks Smith, 27. 

To monitor their activity, Mr. Smith and his fellow participants also strapped a pager-sized accelerometer around their waists to record energy exertion and step count. Unless they were showering, swimming, or sleeping, the accelerometers stayed on.

Participants also took a global-positioning system, or GPS, wherever they went. The technology enabled the researchers to verify the locations and distances that the participants recorded in the written logs and helped confirm the method of travel. For example, if a participant wrote that he or she walked three blocks to a store, the researchers could find the corresponding starting and stopping points on the GPS recording and learn from the accelerometer how many steps the person took and how much energy was used. The accelerometer and GPS recorded bicycle riding, walking, and driving a car differently because of the difference in the speed of travel and how much energy was exerted with each form of transportation.    

Unless a study participant was sleeping, bathing, or swimming, the accelerometer recorded every activity

Walk and Wear: Unless a study participant was sleeping, bathing, or swimming, the accelerometer recorded every activity.

“The combined use of GPS, accelerometers, and written logs is a new approach,” Dr. Glanz says. “So far, only a few studies have tracked travel and activity levels using this mix of recording methods.”

Two study participants note, however, the high-tech equipment measured something they had already realized on their own.

“I knew there would be a difference when I came to live in a place like this,” says Mr. Smith, who lives in a loft-style condominium in the Atlanta mixed-use community. “I knew it would be different, but I was surprised it was such a time saver.”

At his previous address, Mr. Smith had a half-hour commute, he says. Today, he can leave work and be home in five minutes, which gives him a lot more time at night to prepare dinner, go to the nearby gym, or do something else to unwind. “I just have a lot more time in my day.”

Mr. Smith moved to Atlantic Station from an apartment in Inman Park, a neighborhood known as Atlanta’s first planned community when it was developed in the 1880s. He notes that his old neighborhood had restaurants and a few businesses, but not to the extent of his new location.

 Interesting Arrangement: Research participant Karen Avery says she finds her new neighborhood fascinating.

Future Fitness: Research participant Karen Avery says once her baby is born, she plans to do a lot of walking to the park with a new stroller.

Karen Avery, 30, says she knew her lifestyle was going to change once she moved to a smart-growth community from an Atlanta suburb that was not “walking friendly.” In the suburbs, Ms. Avery’s closest grocery store, for example, was “just far enough away” that it was hard to carry the shopping bags home―something that is especially significant to her now that she is pregnant with her first child. In her new community, she and her husband can walk to the grocery store together. “But I make him carry the gallon of milk,” she laughs. Consistent with multiuse community living, Ms. Avery works in one of the surrounding office buildings and her husband works nearby; they can walk home during the work week and meet for lunch.

Dr. Glanz says in the Atlantic Station Health Study, the type of walking Ms. Avery described is called “walking for transport.” Nearly twice as many people reported they walked for transport in Atlantic Station, compared with the number of people who said they did this type of walking in their old neighborhoods. The survey data also showed that during the time they lived in their previous neighborhoods, participants spent less than 20 minutes each week heading somewhere on foot, on average. After their relocation, participants reported they walked for transport an average of nearly an hour each week.

The data also suggest that the Atlantic Station residents travel less by car. In their former neighborhoods, the respondents averaged nearly nine hours a week behind the wheel; after moving, they cut that car time in half.

But while the residents seem to be walking more when they have somewhere to go, the study results showed that even after moving to Atlantic Station, physical activity was not a popular leisure-time activity. 


Study participant Brooks Smith says everything he needs in his neighborhood is just a short walk away.

Healthy Change: Study participant Brooks Smith says his short commute gives him a lot more time to exercise at the gym.

Both Mr. Smith and Ms. Avery say that moving to their new neighborhood brought some pleasant changes to their lives, such as convenience, stress relief, and lower gasoline expenditures. But Dr. Glanz is quick to point out that it still is not clear whether the lifestyle changes will translate into actual improvements in health, such as weight loss or improved physical fitness.

“We know that walking for transport increased and people didn’t use their cars as much. But we do not know if these differences are enough to improve peoples’ health. Larger and longer-term studies will be needed to answer that question,” she says.

Now that the researchers are getting a better idea of how people’s behavior changes once they relocate to a multipurpose-planned community, the next step is to determine how big a lifestyle change people must make to be healthy and lower their risk for  serious disease.

If science confirms a connection between better health and everyday physical activity in a mixed-use neighborhood, the finding could help make these potentially healthy places especially popular among Americans. The future lifestyle could soon include a brisk walk home from the office, stopping to do a few errands on the way, and then meeting friends for dinner and a movie just around the corner—while making real strides toward staying healthy.


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