These Commutes Are Made for Walking

Professor Explores How Built Environments Affect Health
by Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by John T. Consoli

Like most researchers, Jennifer Roberts relies on case studies. In her most memorable case, she was the subject. When Roberts, an assistant professor of kinesiology, moved to a new city and shortened her commute, she lost more than 50 pounds. Roberts tells Terp how built environments—anything surrounding us made by humans—affect our health and how gentrification can be the unintended side effect of a health-promoting urban landscape.

Did you always know you wanted to go into public health?

Growing up, I liked science and health, and I thought that meant I wanted to be a physician. After I graduated from college I thought, “What do people in public health do?” I love public health because it’s everything. When you get a drink of water, public health is our water, because you want safe water. It’s the fluoride in our toothpaste, the food we eat—we hope it was inspected properly. Was our trash picked up? Are the traffic lights working?

How did your personal experience direct you toward the field of built environments?

While I was studying for my doctorate, I was focused more on toxicology and environmental risk assessment. But I made a turn toward built environment research when I moved to an environment that promoted a better quality of life. When I was living in the Bay Area, I commuted almost an hour and a half one way. I would get home late, I was eating poorly, there was no physical activity and inadequate sleep. And then I moved to Chicago, and my commute was only 15 minutes. I was able to get home and exercise, even if it was just walking my dog. I was able to grow a garden in my yard, cook healthier meals and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

What did that teach you about the connections between how we live and how we move?

My research explores the health benefits of active living and how our environments encourage or discourage this type of living. I investigate how we can increase active transportation for adults and children, such as with walking, biking or the presence of public transportation systems, and how we can look at active play of children in relation to where they live.

What can city planners and government officials do to encourage healthier lifestyles?

Do we want to invest in more roads, or do we want to invest in public transportation? Studies show that when people live near light rail or train stations, they typically have higher levels of physical activity, because they’re walking or biking to the station. But there’s also transportation-induced gentrification. You want things like public transportation that improve a community, but you also want to make sure that you’re not displacing the existing community.


Pete Darmody

Great article: self driving cars and riding programs like Uber will cause less physical activity (and more land torn up for less efficient roads)


I hear what you say about living near public transit and choosing active transportation increasing your activity level. I live in NYC and never drive. I miss out on the balance that nature provides, however, and wish I could have the best of both worlds. My kids can walk miles through the urban jungle but I wish hiking trails were accessible on the F train. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It makes me appreciate living in the city and having built in exercise.

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