Guest Column - April 2005
Find a printable version here

Design for Active Living Theme Focuses on Recreational Resources

American Society of Landscape Architects

By Patrick A. Miller, Ph.D., FASLA

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has declared April 2005 as National Landscape Architecture Month, and the theme, Design for Active Living, highlights ways community design and access to parks and recreational facilities affect residents' daily activity levels and, in turn, their overall health.

Years ago, we all walked to school, to the store, to the park and to friends' houses. Today we often are unable to walk anywhere safely because many communities are designed only for car travel. We have literally engineered the daily physical activity out of our lives, fueling an obesity epidemic and affecting our aging population in particular, which relies heavily on walking to access transit and other services. Landscape architects, working closely with parks and recreation professionals, planners, developers, and public officials, can design active living components back into our communities.

Studies show that access to resources such as parks, recreational facilities, bicycle paths, walking trails and sidewalks can increase physical activity among residents, lowering obesity and improving health. But these resources are the exception and not the rule in most communities. According to the Active Living Network:

  • Seventy-four percent of Americans are not regularly physically active; 28 percent do not get any physical activity at all.
  • The average American walks only about 400 yards per day—less than five city blocks.
  • Today there are nearly twice as many overweight children and almost three times as many overweight adolescents as there were in 1980.
  • During roughly the same time period, children's walking trips to school have declined 60 percent.

Concerns over the obesity crisis and its causes are beginning to hit the mainstream media as well. According to U.S. News & World Report:

  • Three-year-olds spend about 79 percent of their time in sedentary behavior—often watching television—and only about 20 minutes a day in moderate or vigorous active play.
  • Three out of five older children—ages 9 to 13— do not participate in any organized physical activity outside of school.
  • Up to 25 percent of cars on the road during the morning rush hour are providing school transport.

But perhaps the most frightening statistic of all, according to the American Heart Association, is that up to 12 percent of total deaths annually in the United States are due to a lack of regular physical activity. Medical costs associated with lack of physical activity may exceed $76 billion annually.

Communities can be designed for active living. Creating or improving access to places for physical activity can result in a 25-percent increase in the number of people who exercise at least three times a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And people walk up to three times more in neighborhoods with square city blocks than in neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs or disconnected streets.

Physical activity can be incorporated into commuting to work and even into the workday itself. Time spent at work does not have to mean being sedentary.

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Find opportunities to stand up and stretch during the workday.
  • Walk or bike to work instead of driving.
  • Use your lunch hour to go for a walk with coworkers.
  • Ask your employer about workplace fitness programs. If there isn't one, start generating support for establishing one among your coworkers.

To help reverse the trend of childhood obesity, during April many ASLA professional and student chapters will work with K-12 students from local schools to assess safe walking and biking routes between their schools and homes. Local landscape architects will use the National Center for Bicycling & Walking's checklists to help children issue walkability and bikeability "report cards" on their communities.

We invite readers of Recreation Management magazine to join the landscape architecture profession in this effort to promote design for active living by participating with our local professional and student chapters in activities planned during April. A calendar of local events and coordinators is located on the ASLA Web site, Together we can make a difference.

Patrick A. Miller, Ph.D., FASLA, is president of the American Society of Landscape Architects. For the past 18 years he has taught in the Landscape Architecture Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, heading the department for 14 years.