Urban sprawl has a negative effect on life expectancy and reduces innovation.

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Urban sprawl has a negative effect on life expectancy and reduces innovation.

A recently published study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows a correlation between urban sprawl and a decreased life expectancy in the United States.   

What the researchers say: “The study shows that the United States is not among the countries with the highest levels of life expediencies despite the highest levels of expenditures on health care,” the lead author said. “Changes in urban planning and the way we build things have to be made to help with this challenge.”   

The researchers used 21 criteria in evaluating quality-of-life issues among residents who live in major metropolitan areas. They show that life expectancy, economic mobility, transportation choices and personal health and safety all improve in less sprawling areas.   “What the study shows is that alternatives like the green building movement have to become society’s staple and not the exception,” they said. “People who live in poorer socioeconomic areas often have to overcome more adversities like greater travel times just to get to work, school or the grocery store.”   The same team published another paper about how certain aspects of the built environment help attract knowledge-intensive businesses, like Amazon. This national multi-level study of the association between neighborhood innovation capacity and urban sprawl, appeared in Urban Studies Journal.   

“The lack of walkable urban developments and supportive transit systems can result in a shift away,” they said. “Universities, incubators and an inflow of high-tech and innovative firms are critical components to regional innovation ecosystems. But the developments surrounding them and regional accessibility to them must be more supportive.”   

The two studies urge the urban concepts of clustering of similar industry, walkability and proximity to urban amenities, diversity and regional connectivity.   “From the studies we learned that sprawl not only doesn’t attract knowledge intensive businesses, it actually chases them away,” the researchers note.  “One way we can right the ship is through employing more progressive building standards—like mixed-use development, walkable and transit supportive—when we’re adding to our already built environment.”   This new, more intensive style of development can do more than attract knowledge-intensive businesses, it’s increased livability also attracts the creative workers the new industries need.   

So, what? The interesting thing about this research is that it shows that the uncontrolled urban sprawl which we see in most urban environments around the world is making us sicker and killing the industries we need for society to survive in difficult times. Even more interesting is the fact that the authors of the studies are professors of architecture working in conjunction with health professionals. We need more of this kind of integrated research.   

Many other studies have shown that the kind of urban environment that the researchers describe leads to a diminution in our physical and mental health as well as to a decline in our overall standard of living (see previous TRs). It is something that we discussed in our book Creating Optimism. We also said there that for mental health it was important that we have a connection to Nature even if we live in an urban environment.   

What now? Humans were not designed for urban environments and the more “unhuman” they become—the more we have to commute, the more we are separated from our “tribes” of family, friends, and other associations, the more tightly we are packed together—the worse our mental and physical condition becomes. Perhaps the TR Tribe, which contains urban planners, architects, engineers, journalists, psychologists, physicians, scientists, GRC professionals, developers, marketeers, business leaders, lawyers, strategists, ethicists, philosophers and even politicians need to lead a new dialogue and propose new solutions. The Tribe should perhaps be a voice to be heard.  

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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