Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Smarter Built Environment Could Make Kids Smarter, Too

A study of 9 and 10 year olds in the journal, Brain Research found an association between brain size, cognitive ability, and exercise.  You can find an online article about the study, written for a lay audience, at the website of Science Today magazine:
When they analyzed the MRI data, the researchers found that the physically fit children tended to have bigger hippocampal volume -- about 12 percent bigger relative to total brain size -- than their out-of-shape peers.

The children who were in better physical condition also did better on tests of relational memory -- the ability to remember and integrate various types of information -- than their less-fit peers. 
The new findings suggest that interventions to increase childhood physical activity could have an important effect on brain development
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, Ohio State University, and the University of Pittsburgh, was serious enough to warrant notation in the December issue of Pediatrics magazine, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  The study provides further evidence that a built environment creating walkable and bikeable schools could improve academic performance.  Other studies examined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked physical activity and academic performance.  

We have engineered incidental exercise out of our lives.  Sprawl development patterns, using dangerous highways to connect schools to subdivisions, have reduced the percentage of children walking and biking to school from over 40% in the late 1960's to around 13% today.  Partly as a result, childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions--at about 17% of the pediatric population--with about a third of children overweight.   Instead of self-reliance, we are instilling in our children a culture of dependency. 

A properly built, smart growth environment can induce up to 80% of children to walk to school.  I suspect additional research in coming years will show that smart growth can make kids smarter.  
Leave it to Beaver depicted an America we've lost--kids walking to and from school.  The sidewalks in our newer, conventional subdivisions are four feet wide--not wide enough for two, let alone three bigger kids to walk side by side comfortably. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Road Safety Paradox

Traffic engineers straighten and widen roads, then establish "clear zones" to make roads safer.  That was the premise for four-laning Apopka-Vineland Road through Dr. Phillips in the late 1990's into a treeless drag strip with Interstate highway lane dimensions.  The result: a faster, deadly road.  The high-speed road design contributed to the death of my neighbor, who lived a couple homes away from us in the Emerald Forest subdivision.  He left a young wife and toddler. 

Charles Marohn, P.E., president of, states, "Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year."  He posted  a cartoon illustrating the road safety paradox through a parody of statements he used to make to concerned citizens.  Increasingly, leaders in the engineering field are rejecting this old line of thought in favor of context sensitive solutions.        

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sidewalks Need Buffers from Traffic

My heart goes out to the parents of Patricia Martin, 8, run over by a small day care center bus while riding her bicycle on Oakland Road at Cynthianna Circle in Altamonte Springs, Florida.  Patricia, who diligently wore a helment (which may have saved her life) remains hospitalized, in critical but stable condition. 

According to the Orlando Sentinel, "Troopers are still trying to determine why the girl left the sidewalk and rode into the path of the bus," apparently traveling northbound behind her.  The photograph below may help partially explain what happened:

Oakland Road and Cynthianna Circle--Altamonte Springs, Florida.
The sidewalk, where Patricia was riding initially, is four feet wide with no landscaping buffer from the road.  Phil Laurien, executive director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council pointed out to me that, if Patricia was distracted and her bike left the sidewalk, nothing buffered her from traffic on Oakland Road.  The sidewalk merges with the street at Cynthianna Circle without any painted pedestrian crossing. 

A grassy landscape buffer, like that depicted below, might have avoided the incident.

Courtesy: Jurgen Duncan, Transportation Planner, Canin Associates
The photo above depicts a shaded five-foot sidewalk and landscape buffer perhaps ten feet from the road.  The cross-street in the background has a painted pedestrian crosswalk, setback from the more heavily traveled road and defining the path for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The environment is not perfect.  The brick walls eliminate natural neighborhood surveillance of children walking and biking--a crime deterrent.  However, the photo provides a good example of a more complete street that could lessen the number of parents who experience the terrible anguish of a critically injured child.