Xuemel Zhu in front of development

Design as a Path to Healthier Living

After World War II, many Americans left the inner city.

Before the war, just 13 percent of U.S. residents lived in suburbs. In 2010, more than half of all Americans lived there.

This migration resulted in many shifts — not all of them good ones — of a corresponding magnitude, said Xuemei Zhu, professor of architecture, who studies healthy community design, nonmotorized transportation, and public health.

“We began to see unintended consequences of this kind of urbanism,” said Zhu. “An hour long or longer work commutes became typical in Houston and other cities. Most suburbs were also designed with car use as a priority, which made them unfriendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Also, most of these subdivisions were zoned in such a way that residences were strictly separated from commercial areas. In other words, in most of these developments, a car is required for a trip, even something as simple as getting a loaf of bread or a bottle of aspirin. Car trips replaced walking or biking as a practical mode of transportation. Researchers found that this situation contributed to the U.S.’ rising rates of obese adults and adolescents, which contributed to rising cases of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, and more.

Physical activity is a primary factor in three major dimensions of health: physical, mental, and social. The typical postwar U.S. subdivision design had the unintended, yet direct effect of reducing its residents’ physical activity.

A new research opportunity

Zhu, who studies how urban design can either increase or decrease physical activity, saw a tremendous research opportunity in Mueller, an Austin subdivision that welcomed its first resident in 2007.  Mueller’s planners and designers embraced a design that is friendly to pedestrians and bicycles; a place where people could feel comfortable walking from place to place; a subdivision that wasn’t designed predominantly for cars’ needs. She sought to learn whether the subdivision’s design would improve its residents’ health by increasing their physical activity. 

The subdivision’s history began as Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, which opened in

1930. For the next 69 years, it served as the growing capital city’s air link to Texas’ major cities and beyond. When a new, larger airport opened on Austin’s southeast side, more than 700 acres of real estate less than 5 miles from downtown Austin became available.

The development’s planners emphasized what’s known as a mixed-use concept —locating places where people gather, such as parks, retail shops and restaurants, within easy walking distance of single-family homes and apartment buildings to create a walkable community.

IMG 1617

Can a subdivision’s design affect residents’ physical activity?

But did Mueller’s design actually affect how much people walk vs. how much they drive? This is what Zhu sought to learn in a study, funded with $2,684,000 by the National Institutes of Health. She is one of the study’s co-leaders, with Chanam Lee, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, and Marcia G. Ory, Regents and Distinguished Professor of the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. The research team includes faculty and students from multiple disciplines — architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, public health, kinesiology, computer science, statistics — as well as field coordinators in Austin.

Zhu and her fellow researchers are examining people who moved to the Mueller community from less activity-friendly neighborhoods, including more traditionally designed suburban subdivisions. They’re examining both short- and long-term changes in Mueller residents’ activity levels and determining what design features, such as sidewalks, walking/hiking paths, water features, and parks, lead to changes in physical and social activities. 

“Study participants completed surveys and wore accelerometers and global positioning system units for one week, which allowed us to clearly determine how active they are, and when and where they are active,” said Lee. “Through these measures, we are able to isolate the roles of neighborhood environments in fostering or deterring active living.” We are also able to assess how health and quality of life affects and is affected by physical activity levels”, adds, Ory, who focuses on how the environment interacts with health and aging.

The researchers’ preliminary findings showed positive environmental effects. When comparing participants moving to Mueller with the matched participants who did not move, participants who moved to Mueller increased their moderate and vigorous physical activity by 53.2 minutes per week, while the comparison participants had a decrease of 23.1 minutes per week, which is a typical trend as people age.

These preliminary findings support a 2015 pilot study in Mueller that Zhu led which was based on self-reported, retrospective survey data. In that study, which was funded by grants from the American Institute of Architects and the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University, Zhu found that new Mueller residents had significantly higher levels of self-reported physical activity such as walking and jogging, more social interactions with neighbors, and a greater sense of neighborhood cohesion than they did in their previous, traditionally designed suburban subdivisions. The NIH study addressed issues of self-selection which are common in physical activity and environment studies that do not have before and after comparison groups.

Another Mueller design benefit

Zhu and her collaborators’ study is showing that Mueller’s design isn’t just raising its residents’ physical activity.

“We’re also seeing a huge and even greater change in the level of their social interactions,” she said. “Residents in Mueller talk to their neighbors much more often, and they feel that they live in a much more close-knit community than their previous subdivision.”

Mueller also features a housing concept that’s very popular in the subdivision, but unknown in typical neighborhoods — courtyard housing.

“In this arrangement, the back porches of 10 or so houses face a common courtyard,” said Zhu. “It’s a very popular type of housing, especially if families have children, because it’s like having a park for a backyard. Parents often sit on their back porch and see their children playing, often with other children from neighboring houses.”

Typically, she added, parents don’t feel as comfortable with their children playing outside alone in a standard suburban neighborhood design, as soccer balls or their children might dash into the street, but courtyard housing avoids these hazards. Additionally, in this design, there’s several sets of eyes on children, and an additional opportunity to interact with neighbors.

Mueller’s design guidelines also address a standard location in the suburbs: a garage as the most prominent part of the front of a home.

“At Mueller, no single-family residence can have a garage facing the street, as an additional design attempt to encourage neighborhood interactions,” said Zhu. “In most suburban residences, we drive into our garage, we shut our garage door, and we don’t use the street space to interact with the neighbors. In Mueller, all of the single-family residences and townhouses have front porches, instead of garages, facing the street to encourage greater community interaction.”

A real estate winner

In addition to more physical activity and neighborhood interactions, property values are also higher at Mueller, and houses there also sell quicker, said Zhu.

“Dr. Minjie Xu, one of our post-docs, compared houses in Mueller with similarly matched homes in Austin,” said Zhu. “His research found that Mueller homes sold faster and for higher prices.”

Although Mueller has turned out to be a real estate success story, developers weren’t so sure at the project’s outset.

“As part of the research, we interviewed developers and talked with builders and many other stakeholders. Some of the people we interviewed didn’t think the design would work from their standpoint,” said Zhu. In particular, I recall one developer who was  suspicious about the project’s financial return and decided not to participate in Mueller’s development initially, but regretted it later when they saw how successful it was.”

When the study is completed soon, there will be plenty of data that shows how a walkable design benefits people in terms of promoting healthy behaviors, improving quality of life, and facilitating social interactions, said Zhu.

“I see Mueller as a showcase for this kind of development,” she said. “It’s a blueprint for a healthier society.”

More updates