Friday, September 23, 2005

Sprawl Kills

A respectable case can be made that suburban sprawl is hazardous to your health: It leads to more high-speed traffic accidents that result in injuries, and, by promoting an autocentric society at the expense of walking and biking, it contributes to the decline of daily exercise and the raise in obesity.

Now comes Douglas E. Morris, author of "Its a Sprawl World After All," who writes in the Gainesville Times to link the rise of sprawl with the increasing number of serial killers in the United States. The connection: By increasing the physical separation between people, sprawl-like development contributes to the social separation of people, leading to more isolation and aberrant behavior.

Morris' theory is a stretch -- wasn't the Son of Sam from New York City? -- but it makes for an interesting read.


At 8:44 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

By all accounts the Old West was pretty violent, did sprawl cause that?

Morris' letter was an interesting read primarily because it was absurd. It was far more than a stretch, it was a complete fabrication: even he admits he has no evidence for causality. You could compare it to the argument that sprawl causes traffic congestion: post hoc doesn't mean propter hoc.

There are far too many other factors at play to claim either position without a lot more knowlege than we have now.

Even worse, the tone of the letter reminded me more of red-baiting or hate mail than a cogent exposition of a theory to be taken seriously. Even the meager "facts" he uses to support his idea are wrong.

His letter was published in the Fauquier Times as well where it inspired a retaliatory letter "We Should Facilitate Exodus From the Cities". The author describes how estranged apartment dwellers can be. In spite of arguments on both sides, I don't think the government has any business either promoting more density or promoting more sprawl.

There is no doubt that the death rate per hundred thousand miles traveled in the country is higher than it is in the city. It is not clear this is a a result of sprawl.

Consider some place really rural, where sprawl is not an issue, and the traffic death results still hold, so "sprawl" which is not even well defined, cannot be to blame.

Some researchers have found associations (not causality) with other factors. Rural teens suffer more falls, poisonings, farm machinery, and off-road vehicle deaths. Urban teens suffer four times as many homicides, yet the rate of gun related homicides in the most rural areas is similar to that in the most urban areas.

Heart disease, cancer, and diabetes cause more deaths in rural areas than urban areas. But black urban teens who reach their fifteenth birthday have a lower chance of reaching 45 than most US teens have of reaching old age, and chronic cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the main reason.

Yet, people who live in the most rural areas (fewer than 10,000 people) and inner-city areas share several factors in common: higher rates of poverty, mortality, and poorer health status than their suburban counterparts.
(Urban and Rural Health Chartbook, National Center for Health Statistics, 2001.)

There is a lot more to this than sprawl. Anyway, considering all factors and causes, the death rates don't vary much between urban and rural places.

We argued this before, and I think we agree that if you are scioecomically advantaged enough to live in a safe part of the city, and you move to a similarly advantaged rural area, then you have taken on additional risk due to travel. Otherwise, your case that suburban sprawl is hazardous to your health in general is not proven.

If I'm not mistaken, the owners of the Times family of newspapers are strong supporters of the PEC, and they use their editorial powers to promote their views, which is perfectly OK.

To my mind it would be better if they published more balanced and educated views. And, to their credit, I observe that this seems to be more of the case recently, for example, they did publish the opposing letter in this case.

I'm in favor of conservation, but I can't think of any better way to destroy the movement than to promote quacks publishing nonsense or conspiracy theories, which will be perceived as silly by many. Consequently, the good ideas will also be associated with a bunch of whackos, or criminals like ELF.

Then when time comes to actually spend money, as for Chesapeake Bay conservation, we may find we don't have the support we need.

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