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Lack of walkable cities expands China’s obese

A sprawling road network in Hangzhou, China A sprawling road network in Hangzhou, China Shutterstock
18 Nov
2014
Rapidly climbing levels of obesity across China are being blamed on bad urban design that encourages car usage over walking

Startlingly, one-fifth of all overweight or obese people in the world are now living in China, with most of the increase occuring among the growing middle class. A report published in the journal Preventive Medicine studied six Chinese urban neighbourhoods – including three in Shanghai and one in the nearby city of Hangzhou, measuring the level of ‘walkability’ of each urban centre – taking into account cars parked on pavements, curb cuts and other crowded pavement features – and comparing the incomes and Body Mass Indices (BMIs) of local residents.

The results showed significantly higher BMIs for people with middle-range incomes, who tended to live in less walkable neighbourhoods. Conversely, both poorer and richer communities, living in more walkable districts, were not experiencing the same growth in obesity levels.

The report therefore suggests that with the automobile-centric nature of new Chinese cities, the new middle classes have taken advantage of being able to afford to travel by car, but that this has had an adverse impact on their health.

GEOFACT: A separate study conducted across ten Chinese provinces revealed that 34 per cent of people in China between the ages of 20 and 69 are overweight.

‘This runs counter to the finding that higher-income people are the ones that are more likely to be obese,’ says Mariela Alfonzo, an assistant research professor at the NYU School of Engineering, and lead author on the report. ‘We think it’s actually the middle class, as they are the ones more likely to live in less walkable places and are the ones that are adopting fast food or Western diets. The higher-income people can afford to live in walkable places and they are more aware of what actually constitutes healthy eating. The lower-income people are also often still living in the more walkable center of town, just in smaller or run-down units and don’t have access to Western food.’

Alfonzo hopes this report will help to convince government regulators and city planners in China to build more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly neighbourhoods, something which is currently prohibited due to the existing strict urban design regulations. Her fear is that China’s rapidly growing cities, such as Hangzhou, will otherwise be allowed to continue sprawling outwards away from the city centre, further motivating people to invest in private cars.

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