5 Tips for Finding a Healthy Neighborhood

This just in: 50s-era subdivisions can make you fat and depressed. The right urban neighborhood is actually good for your health. Here’s how to find one that works.

You buy whole grain bread and organic arugula. You are on a first-name basis with your yoga instructor.

If a healthy lifestyle is important to you, then you probably want to buy in a neighborhood that promotes good health. It’s an odd paradox, but suburbs with big lots, cul de sacs and wide streets looked like a healthy alternative to crowded cities, but ended up not being quite as healthy as their planners had hoped.

From the post-World War Two era until sometime in the past 15 years, it seems that land developers and builders aimed for that suburban ideal, but here’s what happened:

*Residents got fatter because they had to drive everywhere. Suburban sprawl made it too far between destinations, some neighborhoods got rid of sidewalks altogether, planners zoned out those pesky corner businesses and made retailers locate in strip malls with parking in the front for the cars you had to use to get to them.

*Residents became more isolated. Without a pedestrian scale, they quit meeting their neighbors. Without shared spaces such as sidewalk cafes, plazas, pocket parks and other community gathering areas, people didn’t connect. Vast suburban subdivisions may have playgrounds, and sometimes they work. But often they are empty and too frequently, families drive to the park and drive home, eliminating the chance that they might talk to someone while walking or cycling there.

*Getting and staying healthy became difficult—it required time and effort.

More recently, urbanists have determined that city neighborhoods—which two or three generations ago were dirty or cramped—are the ones that have it going on, especially those that have cleaned up their act.

As you are perusing the home listings and thinking about whether you can afford a third or fourth bedroom, you might also add “healthy neighborhood” to your wish list.

How will you know one when you see it? It’s a place where staying active is the easiest choice, not the hardest. Specifically, look for:

Bucktown sidewalks

1. Sidewalks. Urban neighborhoods tend to have sidewalks, so the next part of that checklist is: are they usable? Wide enough for two people to walk side by side? Smooth enough for skates or a stroller? Maintained? Free of broken glass and other hazards? Your healthy neighborhood needs good, safe sidewalks because the neighborhood must be walkable to be healthy.

____1 point if the sidewalks are walkable and connected.

Bonus points: Give it one point if the sidewalk is more than four feet wide and another if it is within 10 feet of your front porch. Wide sidewalks encourage neighbors to meet and linger and a nearby front porch offers a safe way to meet new people.One more bonus: As you the visit the neighborhood, look for pedestrians. If no one is out on a nice evening, you would be wise to wonder why not. Sometimes it could mean the neighborhood is not safe, but it could also mean there is little neighborliness or interest in healthy activities.

___ 1 point if you see people walking in decent weather

2. Walkable destinations. From the property you are looking at, can you walk to something useful? A grocery store, restaurant, church, school, L stop? That yoga studio? Everyone sees distance differently—some may think four blocks is barely walkable while others think nothing of a mile or two. Destinations that can be reached by bike also count if you are a biker, and if the streets are safely navigable.

____ 1 point for each destination you might actually walk (or bike) to

Lincoln Square residents outdoors3. Street-oriented homes and retail. Sidewalks and destinations are important, but so is the journey. If the scenery you are passing is not welcoming, you probably won’t walk it too often. Street oriented buildings have a nice human scale to them.Here’s a building that does not—Willis Tower. When you walk past its foreboding gray walls at the street level, you want to move away as quickly as possible. Nothing about that building makes you want to admire it from the eye level.

Now imagine a quaint Parisian street, or the French Quarter of New Orleans. Sidewalk cafes, flower boxes, homes with front porches and balconies facing the street – all of these add eye interest and create intriguing human scale spaces that make you feel welcome and invited.

____1 point if the streets feel comfortable and inviting and you would enjoy turning just one more corner to see what’s there
____Bonus point if you feel like you’re on a European vacation

4. Third places. Sociologists refer to the places we spend the most time by numbering them. Number one is your home, two is your workplace. For many modern day Americans, it has ended there. But traditionally, human communities have encouraged “third” places. Not surprisingly, third places were often the local tavern. But they can also be street corners, parks, cafes, coffee shops, libraries, or even that long-lost corner grocery store.Out in Aurora, a newer neighborhood called HomeTown attempted to recreate the corner store by putting all the mailboxes near a deli/general store. The idea is that neighbors will get to know one another and create a stronger community if they see each other every day.

____Third places may be hard to spot on your first visit. If you stop somewhere and know you’ll be back, you might have found one. 1 point.

5. Safety. Some people would argue that unsafe neighborhoods make all these things impossible. The other side of that coin is that these things can make crime go down. Neighbors who know one another watch each other’s property. Neighbors who are outside put “eyes on the street” and prevent crime. Sidewalks with a vibrant pedestrian life help keep petty criminals at bay.Healthy attributes by themselves cannot solve the high crime issues in some Chicago neighborhoods, however these basics can not only help keep good neighborhoods good, and they can make them great.

____Your Realtor is not allowed to discuss neighborhood crime rates, but information is available online (try the City of Chicago Police Department’s crime map. If the neighborhood has a high crime rate, subtract all points).

How to score:
3 or fewer: If you buy here, you are giving up a healthy neighborhood for what is inside the home. Hope it’s worth it.
4-6: This area has potential. If the home is what you want, the neighborhood could work.
7 or more points: Congratulations! You’ve found a healthy neighborhood. You’re going to love it here.

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