A new study confirms what new urbanist planners have been saying for years: Historic cities (those built before the auto and highway booms of the 1950's) are more compact, easier to walk or bike and make for a generally healthier population.

Yet as "no-duh" as this study seems to be, the findings give even more fodder to local planning and health advocates calling for retrofits to and more investment in the greater Charleston area's sidewalks, bike facilities and design and more thoughtfulness for future development.

Kurt Cavanaugh, the new executive director of Charleston Moves, says peninsular Charleston is an example of how compact design, such as narrow streets and ample retail, combines with "postcard beauty . for the ingredients for a wonderful urban experience."

But more work needs to be done.

"Our job, as advocates and city planners, is to enhance the safety for everyone using our streets: pedestrians, cyclists and drivers," says Cavanaugh.

"On the peninsula, for example, we would benefit from added pedestrian signals and countdown clocks and additional striped bike lanes. In other areas of the Lowcountry, a human-scale retrofit of the built environment is necessary to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. We cannot ask our neighbors to bike and walk if it's unsafe and unpleasant. In healthy cities, one doesn't need to burn a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk."

The study

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Connecticut looked at 24 medium-sized cities, with populations ranging from 30,000 to 100,000, in California and quantified that older, more compact cities promote more walking and biking and are healthier.

"Previously we had found that people drive less and walk more in more compact cities with more intersections per square mile," says study co-author Dr. Wesley Marshall, assistant professor of engineering at Denver, in a release about the study. "Now we've been able to link these city design qualities to better health."

The researchers examined street network density, connectivity and configuration. Then they asked how these measures of street design impacted rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and asthma.

The study, titled "Community design, street networks and public health," was published online Aug. 8 in the "Journal of Transport & Health" and used data collected by the California Health Interview Survey for the years 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, sampling between 42,000 and 51,000 adults.

The results showed that increased intersection density was significantly linked to reduction in obesity at the neighborhood level and of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease at the city level. The more intersections, the lower the disease rates.

The study also found a correlation between wider streets with more lanes and increased obesity and diabetes rates.

The reason, the researchers said, was that wider streets may be indicative of an inferior pedestrian environment.

The presence of a "big box" store also tends to be indicative of poor walkability in a neighborhood and was associated with a 13.7 percent rise in obesity rates and a 24.9 percent increase in diabetes rates.

The study also considered the "food environment" of cities. Cities with more fast food restaurants were associated with higher diabetes rates while additional convenience-type stores across a city correlated with higher rates of obesity and diabetes.

Exercise vs. being active

Citadel health professor Daniel Bornstein, who is the project coordinator for the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan, says the study falls in line with the "social-ecological model" of health behavior.

The model shows that while the individual person plays an important role in her or his own health, the social and physical environments in which a person lives, works, plays, learns and commutes has significantly more impact.

"With regard to physical activity and health, we know that simply being active, and not necessarily 'exercising' has tremendous health benefits. We also know that in urban areas with 'high connectivity,' where getting from point A to point B can be easily achieved by walking or bicycling, people are much more likely to walk and bike," says Bornstein.

He adds that this type of "active commuting" for as little as 30 minutes per day is enough to meet the Federal Physical Activity Guidelines and dramatically improve health.

The widespread urban sprawl so evident in the United States, he says, engineered physical activity out of the lives of most Americans.

"While this was not the intention of urban and transportation planners, it is a serious, negative unintended consequence of the urban sprawl model," says Bornstein, adding that positive change is ahead.

"There's a growing national trend in urban revitalization. More and more Americans realize the myriad benefits associated with living in more densely connected downtown areas, and are trading in their driveways and backyards for more immediate access to shopping, schools, and a lively social scene."

At a crossroads

With development battles heating up on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant and Charleston working to find ways to accommodate anticipated growth downtown, the study is timely for the area.

Tim Keane, director of planning, preservation and sustainability for Charleston, says the city has an opportunity to grow in a way that lets increasingly more people live without a car, or at least drive a lot less.

"This means we have to invest in development and streets that make cycling, walking and use of public transit easy, safe and fun," says Keane.

"Downtown Charleston lends itself to this best right now because it's compact, has a dense network of streets and is an ideal urban environment," he says.

"However, every part of Charleston and the region should be part of our plan. As every part of the region grows, more people should have these options."

The strategy, he says, is to increase density and provide mixed uses "in the right places" and provide better sidewalks and bike facilities along with more investment in public transportation.

"We need less parking, more bike and car sharing, and so much more," says Keane. "We need a completely different scale of investment in public and shared transportation ... This is all essential to the economic well-being of the city and region."

Battle weary

One of Charleston's most well-known new urbanist developers, Vince Graham, has fought for the principals of more compact, bike- and pedestrian-friendly communities in the Charleston area for nearly 20 years.

Over that time, he had heard too much talk and not enough action.

"Compact shmompact," says Graham, noting that Charleston, even with it compact and dense, historic peninsula city, is more sprawling than Mount Pleasant as a whole municipality.

"Ironically, 95 percent of the land Charleston has annexed over the past 50 years is planned and zoned for the same type of sprawl you see on the north side of Mount Pleasant. ... So despite all the smart-growth rhetoric, the powers that shouldn't be continue to advance a vision of urban sprawl."

Graham sees the fight as being more than about retrofitting communities.

"Sure, there's no question older walkable neighborhoods are more conducive to enabling a healthy lifestyle than are sprawling automobile-dependent suburbs. The compact nature of older cities makes it possible to walk or bike to meet daily needs. ... But so what?"

Graham blames our "consumption-based society" for its transportation and health woes and its resistance to change.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.