Consider for a moment the land of 1970s children's TV, where "it's a beautiful day" in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Won't we be his neighbor? Of course, we will! On Sesame Street, that halcyon hub where humans live alongside puppets, we encounter friends on their stoops and joyfully discover our neighbors: "They're the people that you meet, when you're walking down the street. They're the people that you meet each day!"
These shows introduced us to the world through the neighborhood, a place brimming with a sense of community and belonging. Trouble is, many of us live in a world that doesn't even come close to this ideal. Instead, much of America lives in areas circumscribed by sprawl. Whirring cars and long, sidewalk-less routes make traveling by foot a risky proposition even as Americans face the twin threats of inactivity and obesity.
Researchers are increasingly pointing out the health hazards of these environments, where sedentary, isolated lifestyles have made us fat, lonely, and depressed.
That, along with the expense and inconvenience of sprawl, has led to soaring demand for urban living and the mixed-use, high-density developments that have gained popularity in suburbs. In either case, it's about living amid convenient goods and services and the intangible spirit of a vibrant community. At the forefront of the movement is the Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit organization that promotes restoring cities and reworking suburbs into walkable and sustainable communities. But the desire for these places is largely driven by two burgeoning populations—Millenials and baby boomers.
"Young people have seen the rat race," the long commutes endured by their parents, says Richard Jackson, host of the current PBS series Designing Healthy Communities and chair of environmental health sciences at UCLA School of Public Health. "We boomers don't want to be mowing the lawn or taking care of a great, big house anymore."
A former pediatrician, Jackson addressed toxic environmental conditions as director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there, he realized the broader web of issues at hand. "What really matters most to people in terms of their environment is where they live, where their kids live, where their parents are growing old," and those places "can make us depressed, lonely, overweight, and unfit, or [they] can reverse all those things."
Rattling off several morose U.S. statistics—like the doubled rate of diabetes in the last 15 years—Jackson describes a "profound decline in the fitness of Americans," and blames, in large part, the environments we've created. "In many ways, it's because we've taken people's legs away from them," he says. "Most people can't buy a carton of milk without getting in the car."
Of course, walkability is just one part of the recipe for a healthy community—which requires green space, safe streets and buildings, and access to fresh food and public transportation.
The good news: These places are coming. The last 30 years have seen walkable urban neighborhoods go from some of the least-valued real estate in America to among the nation's most desirable places to live, says Christopher Leinberger, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he recently coauthored a study showing a direct relationship between a neighborhood's walkability and the value of its commercial and residential properties.
"This is a signal from the market that there is significant, pent-up demand for walkable, urban places. The converse, of course, is that we've dramatically overbuilt suburban places, and that is the reason for the [economic] crash," says Leinberger, a founding partner of Arcadia Land Company, a Pennsylvania-based real estate group that builds walkable communities.
If you don't reside in a mixed-use, high-density village that lets you work where you live and walk to your farmer's market, don't fret. Short of gutting your neighborhood or moving, there are plenty of steps we can all take to enhance our communities.