Is it healthier to live in the suburbs or the city

by Jennifer
(East Coast )

I was wondering whether it's better to live in a suburban atmosphere or in the heart of the city? There is more pollution in the city, but I'm hoping there are some benefits to living in the city too. I really like the social scene.

Editors' Reply:
Jennifer, your title indicates you are interested in health. Let's say that our physical health is partly a result of our genes, somewhat a factor of our environment, and in part a reflection of the foods we have access to and actually choose, as well as other components of our lifestyle.

So you're really asking, it seems to us, whether cities or suburbs are more likely to promote physical and perhaps mental health by providing access to nutritious food and allowing you to avoid health-threatening situations such as air pollution, polluted water, unsafe drinking water, traffic accidents, violent crime, and lack of places to exercise.

The simple answer is neither cities nor suburbs can claim exclusive rights to good health. Often community poverty means that only packaged, high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are readily available. Certainly that's a negative, but a low-income market can occur in either cities or suburbs.

Look at it this way: low density housing can lead to a lack of buying power a reasonable distance away from a grocery store just as certainly as low income households. You see that many small towns now only have convenience store types of food readily available.

In terms of physical exercise, we like a walkable community, where some of the exercise comes in the form of walking as convenient and free transportation.

That's one of the reasons that we do think there is a linkage between urban sprawl and public health.

By the way, it's easy to underestimate automobile travel as an additional physical health risk factor. Auto accident injuries sideline many thousands of people each year, and sometimes lead to death or permanent health limitations.

If you're looking for outdoor exercise it's important, of course, to have a community that's conducive to crime prevention. As a generalization, cities have a higher crime rate, but it's not a complete correlation.

Where it exists to any significant degree, poor air quality is an important health risk factor. Industrial areas tend to produce lowest air quality, although the immediate vicinity around major highways also offers up a daily dose of pollutants entering the lungs.

Again, it's proximity to the source, combined with weather factors related to how long the pollution sticks around, that matter. Not whether you're in a city or a suburb or a smaller town.

Generally though, cities and unregulated states or countries rank lower on air quality.

Lastly let's look at water quality. In many parts of the world, unsafe water is a leading cause of life-threatening disease. A number of American cities offer very high quality tap water--in fact, water that is as healthy or better than bottled water.

On the other hand a city in a part of the world that hasn't mastered the basics of sanitation is subjecting its residents to one of the worst health hazards possible.

Again, we can't tell you that cities are better or worse on providing clean water, which is vital to good health.

So, our suggestion is go ahead and enjoy the social scene in the city. If you live where you have to drive, try to take transit, carpool, and otherwise minimize trips. On bad air quality days, limit your outdoor exposure. And definitely get some physical exercise, whether through work or play. Seek healthy food, even if you have to grow your own or drive to the suburbs to buy it.

Those seem like key healthy behaviors in cities.

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