[Featured Blog] Obesity, Cars and Suburbia | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Featured Blog] Obesity, Cars and Suburbia

Good column today from Ellen Goodman, especially for those of us interested in urban planning, the creative class, and all that stuff (Philip and Todd, I'm looking at you). It gets at the notion that one of the reasons Americans are getting fatter is because we spend more time in our cars. And we spend more time in our cars, because we live far away from work, shopping and school. This part caught my eye:

"Last fall we were treated to a sheaf of studies showing that the waistline expands with the distance you live from neighbors or from work or from the market. The farther out you live the less you walk, the more you drive, the more you weigh."

and:

"The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation redefined sprawl itself as a public health menace. It's not just the landscape that disappears with each cul-de-sac subdivision, it's the body shape. Urbanites are on average six pounds thinner than their suburban cousins."

I'd love to see more of that research. Discuss.

Previous Comments

ID
77635
Comment

I've actually seen studies relating to this... And found them very interesting. Will see if I have any of my older links tied to this topic in my DBs...

Author
kaust
Date
2004-02-10T13:29:23-06:00
ID
77636
Comment

This is heartening news. I mean, that someone is looking into the connection between urban planning, affordable housing, commuting, work, and our health etc. Not only does having to commute great distances to work (more than half an hour by my definition) endanger our health, it also contributes to disruption of family life. If you spend two hours or more commuting every day, throw in actual time spent at work, and add a few hours per week for grocery shopping and the like, when the hell are you supposed to play legos with your kids, cuddle with your honey, or make it to the gym?

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-10T14:24:06-06:00
ID
77637
Comment

Well, this is a subject I also have some interest in, as: 1) my undergraduate degree is Bachelor of Public Administration with a focus on city planning and mgmt; and, 2) my commute is 40 miles each way every day (yuck). As to whether sprawl is in and of itself a "public health menace" there are opinions on both sides. People seem to forget you can't get something for nuthin'. There are always consequences to our choices.

Author
Fielding
Date
2004-02-10T15:56:03-06:00
ID
77638
Comment

So, Fielding, what's your point?

Author
kate
Date
2004-02-10T17:09:48-06:00
ID
77639
Comment

Sprawl causing health problems: There are multiple aspects of this, Air Pollution I don't think anyone questions that increased auto exhaust is a huge (though by no means exclusive) culprit in air pollution. But as Doc Brown in Back to the Future would say "Let's think Fourth Dimensionally" (the 4th D being "time". Probably the [sort of] simplest, yet one of the most profound line ever spoken on celluloid over the past generation. I'M SERIOUS!!!) Cars are definitely less pollution today per vehicle of a given weight than in the past thanks to better automotive engineering. Still, the sheer increase in the # of cars on the road PLUS the increased commuting distances likely negate these engineering improvements. However, the really 4th Dimensional part of this is the improvements in Hydrogen-powered engines (powered literally by "The Just Add Water" fuel!!). If H-powered cars come to pass (and I think they will in right at one generation), then that will substantially improve the air quality - if you don't mind excessive humidity in cities thanks to water vapor being the exhaust material (I doubt Mississippians will even notice that down-side though ) Obesity I certainly find the notion of exurban sprawl causing obesity plausible, though this is only so given that all other things are equal. Taking the entire family for a jog or (better yet from the kids' view) parents playing physically exhaustive sports with their kids. Both activities would burn up more calories for the whole family and there's more quality time. So while admittedly sprawl probably makes it more difficult to keep a trim waistline, it's not an insurmountable obstacle to a healthy weight. Personally, I put more worry in the more conventional complaints about sprawl: air quality deterioration (at least until we get lots of H-powered cars), stress (road rage and long commuting times, you know), lack of enriching brain stimulation due to the need to concentrate on the road (esp. worrying about bad drivers!), and probably a few others I overlooked. (Even though I wouldn't call my area a model of New Urbanism, it's thankfully still fairly "cool" and convenient for an area developed 40 or so years ago. LOTS of places here in the Dallas-Ft Worth Metroplex are MUCH worse!!) To Fielding, Are there any "walkable" neighborhoods somewhere along the Gulf Coast? I think it's certainly an idea whose time has come. Also, you might be interested in commenting on Todd's article and my response/ideas about what I think Jackson ought to be like?

Author
Philip
Date
2004-02-10T20:51:01-06:00
ID
77640
Comment

Couple of things here. First, the RWJF has made this stuff a priority. This is good. Getting professionals in the public health arena and professionals in the policy/planning/built form arena to talk about physical activity and community design is long over due. The nitty gritty is interesting and where the problem seems to lie. RWJF suggests (go to www.activelivingresearch.org) that traditionally designed neighborhoods (New Urbanism, Smart Growth, traditional neighborhood design, just plain old fashioned pre-WWII neighborhoods) promote active living. Well, they only do that if the neighborhood is full service -- ie. real live stores where you can buy stuff, civic and social institutions, schools, etc... all within walking distance. It's my hope that the RWJF effort will get public health people, for instance, talking about local, neighborhood scale economic development so that many of our older neighborhoods can get back to their full-service level. Otherwise, we're just talking new "walkable" suburbs. Last thing, the MS Dept. of Education has a grant from the Bower Foundation in Ridgeland to (http://www.state.ms.us/frameset.jsp?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mde.k12.ms.us%2F) create an office of healthy schools. From the press release, there's no indication that the new office will be able to address one of the biggest barriers to healthy, active kids: we don't build schools near to where people live any more! Why? State regulation of school siting and construction. Throw in our basic land use "operating system" of zoning by use and not form, and our rush to the most inefficient densities possible -- of course our kids are not as healthy as they could be. More later

Author
md75
Date
2004-02-11T15:33:20-06:00
ID
77641
Comment

Philip, as far as "walkable" neighborhoods along the coast go, the two main ones that come to mind are downtown Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis. Both places have experienced mini-renewals thanks mostly to the casinos. Small restaurants, art galleries, shops and churches are located within a short distance of older neighborhoods. I grew up in Gautier, which is lacking in any cohesive city center or downtown, but parts of Pascagoula and Gulfport have that unmistakable "neighborhood" feel. Love them or hate them, the casinos have encouraged a subtle growth down there over the past decade that has had some surprising results. Jackson County, which said "NO" to the boats, has seen amazing growth and an influx of folks who work in Harrison and Hancock Cos. (where the boats are) but don't neccesarily want to live around them. And there are quite a few progressive thinkers, some in leadership positions, who are and have been planning their communities for long-term accessibility and, for lack of a better term, easiness-on-the-eyes. And they aren't neccesarily concerned that all new construction include thousands of dollars in brick, a la Madison The City. With the new Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O'Keefe museum being constructed on the beach in Biloxi (Gehry's only work in the ENTIRE SE!) and the Hard Rock behemoth breaking ground yesterday, the coast seems to be settling into its new skin nicely, balancing the gaudy and glitzy with the good.

Author
Jay
Date
2004-02-11T15:38:44-06:00
ID
77642
Comment

I just reread this thread and realized my comment was a little off-topic and part of it was convoluted. The coast is full of sprawl, evidenced in my statement about people commuting from a non-casino county to work. My point was, and is, that there are some great communities scattered around down there. And I only see good things on the horizon for everyone.

Author
Jay
Date
2004-02-11T15:43:21-06:00
ID
77643
Comment

Jay, I thought your comment was good. I don't see this as a two-sided issue as Fielding alluded to (Like Kate, I'm not sure I see your point, either, Fielding; perhaps you could elucidate). When I read your first post, Jay, I thought of the times we've stayed in a friend's house in Bay St. Louis and walked all over and rode bikes. Yes, that is amid sprawl around the town, but I think part of the point is for people to be determined to make their spaces better, and to choose to live in friendlier places, and not just accept this idea of driving 40 miles two times a day in a dangerous gas-guzzling monster vehicle to live in a gated community without sidewalks. That just can't be healthy for people. That doesn't mean that everyone who lives outside cities live that way, but Jackson is surrounded by evidence that many do. I also think people should work in places where they can get out and walk during the day for lunch and to interact with people. We're about to move into bigger offices in an area like that where we'll be surrounded by small, locally owned businesses -- and sidewalks. I can't wait. We did run a story a while back that is relevant to this thread about a Smart Growth report, I think it was called. Here's the link: http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/comments.php?id=1639_0_9_0_C

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2004-02-11T15:53:30-06:00
ID
77644
Comment

One of the (many) fabulous things about NY is the fact that it's a very walkable city. Recently, a cousin who lives in Phoenix asked me with no small amount of condescension how I managed to live my life without a car. She couldn't figure out how I went grocery shopping, played with my kids, etc. without a car. She also saw this as an obvious reflection of my financial situation/social status: "Everybody who's not poor has at least one car. And the truly affluent have several." I asked her why she thought she needed a car to play with her kids. :-) Needless to say, she's got a few pounds on me because apparently she and her kids DRIVE to the park. Anyway, the thing about this issue that troubles me most is the decreasing amount of affordable housing in urban centers. Only the most affluent can afford to live within a "healthy" distance of work and community services like dry cleaners, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. The poor and the people who do the service jobs that really make a city vital are being pushed out into the 'burbs and the outer buroughs. The impact this has on family life is disturbing. Kids who need more time with their parents get less because the parents spend all their time on the subway or the other commuter trains. My example is NY-specific, but I'm wondering if the same dynamic plays out in smaller cities like Jackson. Anybody? I'm a big fan of Gehry, but I wonder why we can't seem to learn the urban planning lesson that has been played out in cities around the world for thousands of years (architect/art historian cum writer, here). The healthiest, sustainable neighborhoods--and by extension cities--are those whose members are economically diverse. People often assume that the best neighborhoods are the toniest. But that ignores an obvious problem: Pockets of extreme wealth necessarily mean pockets of extreme poverty somewhere else.

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-11T18:14:00-06:00
ID
77645
Comment

Nia, Your point with the affordability of housing in urban areas is well taken. There's a mismatch between where new service jobs are being created and people to fill them. This is not all that new though -- since the beginning of the decline of blue-collar manufacturing jobs in the early 1970s and the rise of service jobs. Mono (or near mono) income communities are subsidized through the expenditure of public funds for roads, through the mortgage income tax deduction, incentives produced by municipalities (zoning regs, for instance), and an investment industry that is interested in the status quo (which they perpetuate by saying "we're just funding developments that people say they want.") In the 1930s, the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (part of the FDR efforts to revise/revive the homeownership market) refused to provide federally backed mortgage insurance in neighborhoods that had mixed uses, mixed incomes, and ethnic/racial diversity. They literally mapped US cities and suburbs and drew red lines around what we would call diverse, sustainable neighborhoods. Of course redlining is now not part of the legal/investment landscape anymore, but the investment community looks around and says, okay, a new Fox Trot subdivision on a farm in a growing suburb is a safe investment, especially when the locality is ready to bankroll a new school, another investment bank is funding a Target and a Home Depot down the road, and the existing zoning ordinance doesn't need any changing to develop the thing. Think about the flip side in a urban area -- you've got land assembly, zoning changes, heterogeneous populations and incomes, the need to provide a range of housing types, funding for commercial/retail development, parking (because although we publicly fund roads, transit is characterized as only working with subsidies). The world is upside down. And, on the Gehry thing, think about what's being taught in architecture schools. Gehry is great, but there should probably be a bit more Leon Krier and less Gehry.

Author
md75
Date
2004-02-12T11:30:19-06:00
ID
77646
Comment

Yes, it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world. It's been (quite) a long time since I graduated from architecture school so I had to go back and look up Krier. But his work and philosophy are amazing. "The City Within a City" is a dead on with regard to this discussion. Krier postulates that a workable city, whether large or small, is only sustainable if it is divided into autonomous regions, the size of which is determined by its walkability. Investment banker M&A folks and city councils shouldn't be allowed to pass any zoning laws until they've read that piece. But then what do we do about the Wal-Marts of the world? I've got no huge problem with Target and stores like it, but Wal-Mart is in a class all by itself thanks to its predatory business practices.

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-12T11:47:07-06:00
ID
77647
Comment

The big box in a sea of asphault is not walkable, Target, Walmart, Old Navy, or whatever. I agree, though, with the predatory practices of WalMart. I understand Walmart has a bunch of empty stores in metro areas all over. The march outward has passed then by too. On Krier, the interesting thing is that there's a bunch of others who have said the same thing, Mumford, Jane Jacobs (when are we reading that?), Clarenc Perry (the elementary school should be the center of a neighborhood), Ebenezer Howard (Garden Cities), and the New Urbanists (who all like to cite Krier). For the most part current zoning laws exist to fix a city that no longer needs fixing (the over-industrialized 19th C city). But, zoning ords have been around for ever, are part of the status quo, and are therefore not read, not updated, nor, best of all, thrown in to the trash.

Author
md75
Date
2004-02-12T11:56:57-06:00
ID
77648
Comment

md75: Point taken on the Krier factor. However, I think in this instance there is no better architect for the job of designing a museum dedicated to George Ohr, the self described "Mad Potter of Biloxi." Gehry's shapes and forms for the separate buildings, along with his deference to the landscape and the centuries-old oaks look quite impressive in the models that i've seen. Mr. Krier's work is astounding. But in reality, we've got to bring this thought past exclusive, wealthy developments (such as Seaside and Windsor) and into everyday, existing cities. And I agree, the way to do this is to vigorously teach Krier and his contemporaries in "New Urbanism" in today's architecture programs.

Author
Jay
Date
2004-02-12T11:59:29-06:00
ID
77649
Comment

Unfortunately most architecture programs in the US do not include urban planning and socioeconomics in their undergraduate programs. You can only get that kind of instruction in graduate programs. And even then, "pure design" and urban planning are considereed separate disciplines. We need to rethink architeture and its responsibility to its users in general. Elementary schools as the new town center? That's my kind of neighborhood! In that case, I think I'd put the grocery store/farmers' market right across the street. On another side could be a huge park/community center. Then we'd need the theater/film forum. And of course, we must have a diner. Where to put the mayor's office?

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-12T14:08:28-06:00
ID
77650
Comment

Wal Mart's Empty Stores It's not just in metros either. Same thing in small towns. I've seen two such cases in N. La. (maybe the other one was in SE Ark., but that's just an incidental detail though). Urban Design Here's one pieceI wrote in response the other day to Todd's story last month. Nia Excuse me if I'm confusing points, but your statement that whoever gets more money got it off the backs off someone who had to give it up I find a bit off target. Perhaps in the pre-industrial era it was that way, but today we create resources faster than we can use them (South Asia's "Green Revolution" of the 70s - tremendously increasing their crop yield. Even the creation of computers and software themselves are resources.) The price of food these days (relative to the average person's paychecks) is incredibly low, to the point where farmers are losing their land - and not just because of faulty business practices. It's because the inflation-adjusted price of these crops is so cheap while production costs have risen that farmers find it difficult to make a profit. I know plenty of people who've lost money this past year farming. the price of the absolute essentials in life has dropped dramatically relative to income - barring real estate and sprawl (which ought to be fairly easily controlled - just buy or build a smaller house -- which gets into zoing regulations, i know; but still just a side point).

Author
Philip
Date
2004-02-15T15:31:44-06:00
ID
77651
Comment

To illustrate my point about a few people making ridiculously large amounts of money off the backs of others, Philip, I'll use your example. Farmers lose their farms not because the price of food is too cheap, but rather because giant agribusiness corporations unfairly distort the market to make prices cheap. They make money only by economies of scale, so they have to make 500x amounts of corn in order to make a profit so they can pay their top executives million-dollar salaries. What do they care if the market can only absorb half of what they produce, thus driving down prices? Their top folks are still getting paid, and the small family farmers in your example, people like my parents, can't make money on their small farms because they aren't big enough to achieve the economies of scale that large corporations do. That's why the family farm and the lifestyle that accompanies it are all but dead in the US. Have you seen the articles in papers nationwide lately about how the Plains and some parts of the Midwest are basically becoming ghost towns? Agribusiness has driven family farmers out of business so young people no longer stick around--they all leave for the city.

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-15T22:26:12-06:00
ID
77652
Comment

Nia, Next time I talk to one of my brothers, I'll run what you said about farming to see what they think -- and give you their reactions. As for you asking about affordability, it's a little bit of a problem in Dallas, though not quite on the scale that it apparently is in NY. Part of that has to do with Dallas being a fairly cheap city for its size (my 640 sq ft apt would normally cost only $650 mth, although I lucked up out here when I saw a special and pay only $535/mth - and 2 months rent free besides!). There are still some areas in the city where you can get mid-quality (not a euphamism) valued at $120K (excluding interest). Still, housing is somewhat cheaper in the burbs, so this is a disturbing trend. The city may still have many of the usual urban problems you hear about, but at least its city's total population has not dropped over the past 20 years, so thats a hopeful sign where tax potential is concerned. On the other hand, as you said, it does make the City a little more expensive in which to live. Mixed income zoning is definitely an idea whose time has come - but somehow I get the feeling our habits are so entrenched (namely class snobbery) that it will take decades to undo. Plus government policy overhauls are essential - you and ex are right about that (more mixed use zoning just might work! If its now hip to live in lofts near or in downtown for younger people, then why not expand the concept further and have mixed income neighborhoods like I suggested)?

Author
Philip
Date
2004-02-16T02:25:18-06:00
ID
77653
Comment

Philip, I'd love to know what your brothers think. Keep me posted. Better still, have them blog, too! md75, I don't know if this still happens anywhere else, but in NY, I think redlining happened up until the past decade, maybe less. And it likely still goes on but is simply hidden or disguised as "underwriting guidelines."

Author
Nia
Date
2004-02-16T11:30:18-06:00

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