By now it’s a known fact that people who live in places that make it easy to walk and ride bikes are, on average, healthier. But do these types of towns and cities also increase cognitive ability? Both of these ideas are being tested by the United States Government in recent years, as traditional neighborhood designs take the place of conventional suburban development on military bases.
Since 1996, the Department of Defense has been working with private companies to create housing that is not only attractive, but also creates tightknit communities. These are important factors for quite a few Service members, especially those with families. For many residents, an action as simple as walking to the public mailbox offers an escape from the confines of the home, as well as the opportunity to meet and interact with neighbors. The same is true for walking to the store or the coffee shop. Especially for the spouses of Warfighters, who live on base for many months without their partners, the ability to walk to everyday can provide not only health benefits, but also a diversion.
To further healthy, social communities, the DoD also adopted a new set of development guidelines this year. It calls for plans to mitigate sprawling bases by increasing density and improving connectivity, specifically for walking and biking. Aside from the higher quality of life that the residents of these bases will enjoy, the guidelines strive for efficiency: proximity to each other, proximity to work, and proximity to the natural environment. Theoretically, having everything close by can save money by speeding up jobs that rely on face-to-face interaction, reducing the time spent in vehicles, and creating healthier residents.
But what does proximity mean for the mental health of the residents? Researchers have found that while children inherit many aspects of their intelligence directly through genetics, large portions of their cognitive abilities and behaviors are learned. Specifically, they are learned from the community that surrounds them. It has been suggested that children who grow up exclusively in rural settlements lack the stimulation of a diverse environment. For children growing up on bases, exposure to a variety of people and stimuli is an important factor in developing their cognitive abilities, and the DoD’s new plans may indirectly support such cognitive development.
While adults can certainly benefit from a stimulating environment, living in a walkable community provides them with a whole slew of additional mental health benefits. Regular walking has been found to improve sleep, reduce depression, regulate anxiety, and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. New design regulations for military bases make getting around on foot easier, safer, and more worthwhile than before.
Although many homeowners enjoy the privacy of large yards, away from the action of Main Street, there is something to be said for living in a diverse, dense neighborhood. Both children and adults can benefit from socializing and walking. As an added benefit, these activities can act as a diversion while they patiently wait for their loved ones to return home.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
- New Urbanism: It’s in the Army Now, The New York Times
- Military planners want to make bases worldwide more walkable, USA Today
- Mental Benefits of Walking, Arthritis Today
- A Review of Literature: The Mental Health Benefits of Walking and Bicycling, Portland State University Center for Urban Studies
- Community Influences on Cognitive Ability, University of Colorado, Boulder