Cities vs. Suburbs: Why The Grid Is Good For You

Image source: Mark Burrier

Image source: Mark Burrier

In the 1930s, the U.S. Federal Housing Authority (FHA) published a technical bulletin labeling the urban street grid of cities as “bad” and the cul-de-sac layouts of the suburbs as “good” in hopes of swaying the general public to believe that the suburbs were better to live in . Since then, the argument for cities versus the suburbs has evolved to include the relative health factors of changing times such as crime rate, pollution and quality of life.

However, the real case for cities over the suburbs goes beyond the aspects of life in which we can control and onto the roads that lead our existence from place to place. In a recent study published in the Journal of Transport & Health, researchers concluded that the design of a neighborhood correlated highly to the wellbeing of its residents; specifically that the grid is healthier to live in than the hierarchical (suburban) typology.  

Grids, which exist largely in cities, have more compact and connected street networks that increase walking, biking, and transit usage. They encourage a round-the-clock active lifestyle that comes with many physical benefits like improved blood pressure, less obesity, strengthened muscles, and everyone’s favorite, weight loss. According to a study of more than 8,000 households in varying street network typologies of Atlanta, Lawrence Frank discovered that a male living in Midtown Atlanta was likely to weigh ten pounds less than his identical counterpart living in the cul-de-sac neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta. The implication is that street networks naturally influence peoples’ travel behavior based on the accessibility of walking versus the perceived necessity to drive.

In addition, because of its grid layout, cities have the capacity for larger populations, which increase walking speed, and in turn, decrease the risk of premature death as concluded by the National Walkers’ Health Study. Voted as one of the fastest walking cities in the world by the Quirkology Experiment, this may be one of the contributing factors to why the average New Yorker’s life expectancy was about 2.2 years longer than the average American’s in 2010.

With ever-increasing longevity, most, if not all, of us hope that our minds will be able to keep up with our age. By walking 1-1.5 miles a day, which a city resident is likely to cover on an average day according to Jawbone’s data, a person can halve their risk of developing memory problems, and thus, delay the onset of diseases such as dementia. Among additional mental benefits, walking improves short-term cognitive effects and incites creativity in open-ended thinking. Packed with immediate stimulation and energy to feed off of, cities and their dense surroundings can spark innovation with just a few steps on the sidewalk.

Introverted or extroverted, being surrounded by people boosts happiness more than being alone, and with so many people packed into a dense area, a city resident can experience the benefit of soul satisfying connections through direct interactions or merely by people-watching on the streets. These increased social opportunities heighten the likelihood of having a supportive community of friends or peers. Seniors are one of the many communities who experience a better quality of life in cities than their rural counterparts. According to the Journal of Rural Health, people over 65 years of age in rural areas reported lower social functioning levels implying that they may be socially isolated and need more help in maintaining health, social relationships, and community involvement. Furthermore, having more people within the close proximities of cities encourages greater diversity, which in turn expands curiosity and open-minded thinking about the world.

Overall, cities are no longer what they used to be when the FHA first published its bulletin 80 years ago labeling their layouts as “bad.” Data now shows that cities, and especially their grids, quietly cradle the health and longevity of millions of lives and encompass the entirety of the body, mind and soul. So next time you're stuck on a hot subway platform or behind a garbage truck, just remember, there are a lot of reasons why the city is good for you.