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Fresh air? Times Square?

Families leave green acres for town centers

Two years ago, Susan and Stephen Muller found themselves living in Concord, an epicenter of the 19th century back-to-the-earth movement, the place where Henry David Thoreau ventured because he could be "half a mile from the nearest neighbor."

And for the Mullers, that was the problem.

The Mullers have turned the notion of a healthy, natural form of life on its head, uprooting themselves and their son and daughter to a more densely populated neighborhood in Acton where they can walk and bike more -- as well as keep their champagne-colored Town and Country minivan parked in the driveway more. This move puts them farther from Boston, but hoping for healthier lives in the bargain.

"It gave us the opportunity to live in the center of town," said Susan Muller. "And now our children walk to school, we walk to church, and the Acton Arboretum is in our backyard."

Frustrated with the isolated, car-based existence of the sprawling suburbs, more and more families from Concord to Cohasset, from Newburyport to Southborough, are in search of the same change, local and regional officials say. Sick of driving miles from housing developments to restaurants and strip malls, often through snarled traffic, many residents are looking to make sidewalks, bike trails, and commuter lines their preferred thoroughfares.

The issue has gained momentum in recent months with the release of studies that indicate that sedentary suburban lifestyles contribute to poor health among many Americans.

"We are overly fat, we're overly at risk of heart attacks, and we spend too much time behind the wheel and on the couch," said A. Richard Miller, who has been working to connect the Cochituate Rail Trail to destinations such as the Natick Mall and Shoppers World in Framingham. "Walking is good stuff. It's becoming important not only for people's lives, but for their lifestyles."

In many suburbs outside of Boston, fewer than 8 percent of residents walk or use public transportation to get to work, according to 2000 US Census data. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Bostonians -- in addition to walking much more in their leisure time -- are pounding the pavement at least five days a week.

Big yards and spotless subdivisions attracted many residents to the suburbs. But a thirst for a more urban lifestyle, according to academics and planning experts, is causing them to reevaluate what for at least 60 years has been thought of as "suburbia."

"For a long time, [living in the suburbs] has been a quality of life issue, with the old notion being that the city was dirty and the suburbs were clean," said David Barron, a Harvard law professor who studies development trends. "But now, these old ideas of what suburban life should be like are starting to be questioned. The idea of suburbia as the antithesis of an urban center is just not valid anymore."

Many of the most highly prized homes in suburban communities aren't on the fringes; they're centrally located.

"Most of the desirable homes are located near the town center," said David Parry, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Southborough, who relishes being able to walk to the library or the town hall. That's "an indication that people want to be able to walk to places, despite the fact that they're living in smaller houses on smaller lots."

For practical reasons -- minimizing demands on roads and other resources -- many communities have begun to change their thinking, too. Seeking to promote more walkable, urban-style developments, cities and towns from Lowell to Wayland to Rockland are working to restructure their downtowns to cluster homes, offices, and shops.

In Wayland and Natick, it's about walking.

"While people moving here don't necessarily want an urban setting, people do want to have places to walk and ways to get around town," said Joseph Laydon, the town planner in Wayland, where measures to promote walking are being integrated into the master plan. "By providing pedestrian facilities, it's at least providing an option for people to get out and walk rather than drive."

Neighboring Natick began a program in April to promote walking through a web of town trails. Natick Walks emerged after a health study showed significantly higher death rates from heart disease, strokes, and diabetes among Natick residents than the rest of the state.

In Ipswich, the focus is more housing downtown. The Ipswich Planning Board is sponsoring a new zoning bylaw at a special Town Meeting on Nov. 4 that would allow denser development, including housing, in the town center.

In Weymouth, Abington, and Rockland, the emphasis has been on bringing aspects of daily life -- home, office, and shopping -- to one place. A plan for a massive shopping mall at the shuttered 1,400-acre South Weymouth Naval Air Station was rejected, and now officials in the three towns are discussing thousands of homes surrounded by stores, offices, and recreational facilities. The pedestrian-friendly plan, still in the discussion phase, could go before town meetings in Abington and Rockland and before the Weymouth Town Council by next May.

Lowell is focusing on bringing people downtown to revitalize the business sector. Within the next year, the city of nearly 110,000 plans to add 787 units of housing downtown.

But even as many suburbanites are rethinking their environment, some experts say there is still an appetite for large homes with green yards and plenty of garage space. "Americans don't have one single idea of how they want to live," said Yale University professor Dolores Hayden, author of "Building Suburbia."

"You'll find that the McMansions are growing popular even as other people are reevaluating their surroundings. I see things happening at both ends of the scale," Hayden said.

But planners promoting more walkable communities are citing several recent studies on the health of suburbanites. A study released in April by the Washington-based Surface Transportation Policy Project found that while 71 percent of parents of school-age children walked or biked to school when they were young, only 18 percent of their children do so today.

"You have more and more children who have sprawled out into communities that don't have sidewalks," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency for Greater Boston. "It makes it less and less likely that they will get the exercise that they need."

A study published last month in the American Journal of Health Promotion said obesity, high blood pressure in adults, and suburban sprawl were linked. Researchers, led by the University of Maryland's Reid Ewing, examined health characteristics of more than 200,000 people living in 448 counties nationwide. They found that residents in spread-out communities were more likely than their urban counterparts to be overweight and suffer from hypertension.

"These are very serious problems that have been ignored for a long time, and this [study] really creates the awareness that a lot of how we design our communities can affect people's health," said Peter Lee, director of the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities, a coalition of municipal planners working to encourage healthy habits. "People right now are starting to question where they live and how that affects them."

The difference between the health of those in the suburbs and the city? The authors cited the likelihood to engage in the most routine daily exercise: walking.

Health and planning experts say that it's not that suburban residents don't want to walk. It's just that they rarely have the chance. "When people have an opportunity to walk and bike, they tend to utilize it," Draisen said. "Some towns are starting to recognize this."

A recent national poll found that, if given the chance, 55 percent of Americans would rather walk than drive. Meanwhile, only about 9 percent of all trips taken in 2001 were done on foot, according to the US Department of Transportation.

However, despite the move of a family such as the Mullers -- 4 miles from Concord's town center to close to Acton's center -- don't expect most suburbanites to swap their car keys for Nikes anytime soon, Barron said.

"It took 60 years to get where we are, and it's not going to take two or five years to get out of it," he said. "But there are indicators that we're heading in that direction."

Matt Viser can be reached at

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