In the study, which was published online last week in the Journal of Transport & Health, the authors broke down street networks in 24 medium-sized cities by their three most fundamental characteristics: connectivity, density, and configuration. Then, the researchers compared those characteristics with health data from 50,000 adults examining the rates of diseases in that area, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
After controlling for the effects of things like land use, local food selection, and various socioeconomic variables (such as income and level of education), the results showed that compact cities were indeed associated with lower rates of all four diseases. Also, street categorizations showed that, in practice, areas with full, tree-like branching networks (familiar to any suburb-dweller) were associated with an increase in obesity and high-blood-pressure rates. Wider streets with more driving lanes were also linked to increased obesity, as well as diabetes.
The authors conclude that, although it's certainly possible to lead a healthy lifestyle in almost any type of neighborhood, those in compact cities — most of which happen to have older designs that have been around for thousands of years — might have an advantage. One key reason is transportation: People who live and work in denser areas are less likely to drive, preferring to walk, bike, or use public transportation instead. It makes sense; a compact city plan makes walking to the grocery store (rather than hopping in that luxuriously air-conditioned car) that much more feasible.
Although our newer cities are becoming less and less compact, we're also becoming more aware of how silly that is. So, city planners are trying to keep walkability in mind when building or expanding the next great neighborhood. According to Walk Score, Williamsburg, Brooklyn gets a pedestrian-friendly score of 95, and Soho wins a perfect 100. Compare that to San Francisco's 84 and the paltry 65 of poor Los Angeles, and we're pretty sure we put R29 HQ on the correct coast.