Sprawl and Obesity, Part 2

MLewyn's picture

After yesterday's post on obesity in New York, I thought I would do some more research comparing obesity in cities and suburbs, focusing on central cities that (a) were coterminous with their counties (so I could find obesity statistics for cities alone) and (b) were sufficiently transit-oriented and compact that city residents might be more physically active than suburbanites.   The results were mixed.

The more affluent cities seem to me to be thinner than their suburbs.  For example, in San Francisco the obesity rate among adults is 16.1% - less than any suburban county, even affluent Marin County (17.1%), inner-ring San Mateo County (16.9%) or Silicon Valley's Santa Clara (19%).  (Alameda and Contra Costa Counties also had higher obesity rates than San Francisco).

In Washington, D.C. which has significantly more poverty than San Francisco but also enclaves of great wealth, the results were more mixed.  The District of Columbia's 22 percent obesity level was higher than that of some suburbs but lower than that of others.  In particular, the suburbs with strong Metro Rail service tended to have the lowest obesity rates: Montgomery County's 18.8 percent was as low as some San Francisco suburbs, and Arlington and Alexandria, two rail-heavy Virginia suburbs, had obesity rates of 20.7 and 21.4 percent respectively.  

On the other hand, Fairfax County (which has a couple of Metro stops but is generally more car-dependent than Montgomery or Arlington) has an obesity rate about the same as the District (22.2%). Exurbs, by contrast, tend to be fatter than the District.  Affluent but rail-less Loudoun County has a 23 percent obesity rate, outer suburb Howard County clocks in at 23.9%, and Prince William County's obesity rate is a disappointing 28.2%.   In sum, inner suburbs with good transit service were thinner than the city of Washington, but the most car-oriented suburbs were not.

In declining or poorer cities, however, cities were actually fatter than suburbs.  Despite recent gentrification, Philadelphia's median household income is only about $37,000, less than 2/3 that of the District of Columbia.  Like many low-income cities, Philadelphia has weighty obesity issues (pun intended); 29.1% of its adults were obese, far more than in any close-in suburban county.  (Chester, Montgomery, Camden and Delaware Counties all had obesity rates in the 22-26 percent range).

I also looked at two cities that (unlike Philadelphia and Washington) have lost population even in recent decades: Baltimore and St. Louis.  Both cities have obesity rates over 30 percent- partially because these cities are more car-oriented than Washington or Philadelphia.  Even their suburbs are fatter than those of the transit-oriented cities discussed above.  Baltimore's suburbs of Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, and Harford County all have obesity rates in the 25-27 percent range, a little higher than that of most Washington, Philadelphia or San Francisco suburbs.  Similarly, St. Louis County and St. Charles County near St. Louis both have obesity rates of around 28 percent.

(Note: all of my statistics come from City Data). 

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