The Obesity Epidemic: Help from unlikely places

By Nick1962 Latest Reply 2012-07-02 19:49:02 -0500
Started 2012-06-28 15:33:44 -0500

It’s no secret by now one of my “pet” causes is the obesity epidemic. I know, I know obesity isn’t the cause of diabetes, however, if you see any article with the word “obesity” in it, you can bet 99% of the time “diabetes” will soon follow. In an article entitled “Growing Pains” in this month’s Architect Magazine, it’s apparent that the issue is being recognized beyond just the healthcare community.
The article cites some very depressing numbers and trends for us Americans.

Since the beginning of time, when organized city planning was developed, the need for “green space” or outdoor activity has been recognized as a necessity for healthy living. New York’s Central Park was and still is one of the greatest examples of a well planned community greenway. Contradicting this however, was the thought that cities should group all their services such as work, medical, shopping and entertainment in one area known as “downtown” or “uptown” or the “city center”. For the longest time this idea seemed to work. You’d plan your trip downtown for the day, maybe take in a movie, shop for the family’s clothing needs, maybe grab some dinner, and then head home. Most doctors’ offices were in the center city.

The problem started when cities started getting larger and expanding out past their original core. Getting “downtown” now meant climbing in a car, or using public transportation to reach it. Sure we had the corner grocery and hardware stores, but starting in the 70’s, many were being phased out of existence by the big box stores which often meant travel by car to reach them. This started a trend of increased pollution due to increased traffic, and since land was then becoming a profitable venture, city parks started disappearing in favor of revenue generating housing space. The few city parks that were left were typically located in the original city core and rarely frequented by those living in the suburbs. As a result, folks living out in the suburbs stopping taking advantage of the green spaces and exercise started declining. However, folks were still making their daily trip in from the ‘burbs to get to work, go grocery shopping and the like. All this commuting was contributing to a worsening pollution problem, so designers started looking at ways to curb that. The obesity issue wasn’t even a blip and their radar.

Urban planners noticed the need for change and realized that offering “satellite” services such as small clinics, hospital-independent doctor’s offices, and other services in the suburbs lessened traffic. Residential planners also brought back the concept of greenways in their subdivision developments. Now groups like Fit City are incorporating themselves with designers to provide healthier living options through healthy urban design. In fact New York City now has a new set of “active design guidelines” adopted by the New York City Department of Planning and Construction, which encourages “Urban design strategies for creating neighborhoods, streets, and outdoor spaces that encourage walking, bicycling, and active transportation and recreation.”

I live near one of these planned developments. It truly is a nice area. At its core is a series of commercial shops, restaurants, a movie theater, a grocery store, a wine shop, a drug store, a chiropractor, dentist and other miscellaneous stores all surrounding a greenway that’s designed for pedestrians. Most of the commercial shops have reasonably priced apartments above, but if you want to walk a block or so, the core is surrounded by townhouses, and outside that are small single family homes. The whole complex is ringed by a walking trail, so it’s quite easy to walk to the grocery store or get in a 5 mile jog without ever having to get in your car. The commercial core has very limited on-street parking (in fact the streets are so narrow they discourage car traffic), so parking decks and lots are nicely hidden but accessible. This also means that if you are an outsider, if you want to catch dinner and a movie, you have to park and walk to whatever restaurant and theater. It’s really kind of nice. Weekend evenings the greenway is always buzzing with folks going to and from the restaurants, stopping to sit afterwards at a wine bar or having an after dinner coffee on a bench. Teens also tend to congregate at the end with the theater, but since there is so much adult activity, they are unusually well behaved, and of course the girls are all trying to outdo each other so most are very well dressed (and insist their boyfriends do the same).
It really is a city unto itself, and we enjoy visiting. Last trip we stopped at one of our more favorite “healthy” restaurants (Zoe’s Kitchen), then walked over to the spice shop for some fresh cinnamon. There was a kitchen wares store nearby (I needed a new spatula) so we popped in there too. Then I remembered my love of port wine, so we stopped at the wine shop too. All this was accomplished in about an hour, whereas if I had set out to do these tasks individually (in my area) it would have been at least two hours by car, with another two spent in parking and the actual shopping itself.

Architects are looking into fresh ways to make some attempt at helping in the fight against obesity. Things like changing stair design - "Changing stair design to encourage their use requires a set of interventions on both architectural and legislative levels to create physical environments that support active living," according to an article in the June issue of Southern Medical Journal. Most staircases in building are hidden from view and usually associated with fire escapes. By moving them out in the open, and making them an attractive option (and hiding the elevator), many people tend to use them more. These little things add up.

Many folks think that the obesity epidemic is just a topic limited to healthcare and the diabetic community. After all, they’re the ones who see the effects for the most part, right? Well, apparently it goes way beyond our little world. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on who you’re talking to), there are enterprising designers out there who will be very effective selling this concept and will make a good amount of money by cashing in on that 20 pounds I still need to lose. Truthfully though, if he can get me to do it, he’s earned his paycheck and more in my book.

Here’s a few more links on the topic:

How urban design can fight obesity
To Fight Obesity, Use Homes and Cities as Exercise Machines
Using Design to Fight Obesity
A New Design Movement That Can Help Us Beat Obesity
Designing Schools to Help Fight Childhood Obesity parts 1 & 2

11 replies

red flower lady
red flower lady 2012-07-01 01:53:25 -0500 Report

I really miss seeing people walking down the side walks or riding their bikes and children outside playing every where. I sit out on my porch and read and the little girl(8yrs) accross the street is always out playing daily with three of the neighboring girls. They play with dolls, sprinklers, slip and slide, bikes, scooters that use the feet to move, etc and not cell phones, computers or other gadgets that make people lazy! It is wonderful to watch, and the girls are of normal weight for their ages. We have too many malls, and not enough green space and afterschool and weekend events for kids/adults that are free or low cost. I have read where some cities throughout the US are not going to open their community pools due to budget cuts and are also cutting back on park programs, so what do kids do. They will stay indoors eating, mostly out of boredom and playing video games or chatting on the computer/cell phone. How sad we have become:(

Nick1962 2012-07-01 09:30:17 -0500 Report

I used to live in a neighborhood like that. Our houses were so close together we could each sit on our own porches and converse in a normal voice, and passed beers between us on summer nights. My dining room window faced my neighbor's kitchen window and we'd frequently chat house to house. I lived on an alley that wen't back to te middle of the block where there was a neighborhood park with a wading pool. They stopped staffing the pool in the 70's and it was completely removed in 1980. Sure do miss that.

Anonymous 2012-06-30 00:54:13 -0500 Report

Nick here they are referred to as Town Centers with shops. Some are restructured shopping malls. We also have a huge park with swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, picnic pavilions, a frisbee section, play grounds, a conservatory and a Zoo and it is the most underused park ever. There are no concerts or events to make people want to use it. People simply don't go there for picnics. You have to rent the Pavilions and get permission to use the baseball diamond. Nothing is done to promote its use. The zoo entrance fee is expensive yet they have all kinds of events in the zoo.

James Rouse built Columbia, MD. It is a series of housing developments that are villages and each village has a center. The have a hospital, mall, a lake that I would not stick my foot in and a concert area. It is expensive to live there. You still need a car to get to the village center in your village. Each one is different. You couldn't pay me to live there.

I live in an underserved section of the city. We are fighting to have homes rehabbed and just picked a developer. We have corner stores and some sections have business strips. What I like about where I live is that I can walk to two stadiums, the symphony hall, two theaters if I want to see a play, two hospitals and the State Complex… all are within a 7-10 block radius. I don't walk to any of them if I have to walk back at night. I am not afraid but some of the streets are too dark for walking at night and there are not a lot of people out at night. I have walked at night in Vegas, New York, Honolulu, New Orleans and San Francisco because there were a lot of people out and about. Better safe than sorry. I will walk to a supermarket 3 blocks away depending on the weather.

The problem is that more and more people move to the burbs and a mall or supermarket could be 2 miles away. There are a lot of fast food restaurants and 7-11's and gas stations that are convenience stores. People walk to those if they are close to them.

It is easier to walk to the corner store to get junk food to eat while sitting on the sofa in front of the tv or computer. However, to walk just for the exercise can be a stretch for some people.

Nick1962 2012-06-30 19:30:39 -0500 Report

Yeah, as i go around to different towns I see so much potential in the old, unused city centers. Rouse was ahead of his time, well i think more like born too early. I read his biography. A lot of his ideas were mimicked, but too much of it was tried to fit into a budget and poorly executed, so a lot of those "suburban living centers" just became eyesores as the main city swallowed them up.
Where I am now, there is no such thing as "walk to" anywhere. We have a great, vibrant uptown area, but like New Orleans, certain areas are iffy after dark.

Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2012-07-01 17:33:35 -0500 Report

Our downtown center is a wasteland to what it once was. It thrived with shoppers and business owners. The next wave was Asian entrepreneurship. They brought in cheap merchandise from clothing to appliances to furniture. At the same time Malls were being built and people flocked to them for better merchandise. Trying to compete, the Asisan business owners brought in even cheaper merchandise. People still went to the Mall and now our downtown shopping district is a ghost town. Department stores are empty other stores are being rehabbed. The idea is a mixed use community. Condos and lofts are being built over some of the bigger buildings with retail/business offices on the lower floors.

One department store was converted about 15 years ago and residents were lured in with rent incentives. Many started moving out once the incentive period ended. Some rents went from 500 to 1500 a month. The problem with living in the area is that what businesses remain close at 6 pm and the streets are empty. If you live in one of those buildings and opt for public transportation. You could be the only one on the street down there. Depending on where you are, you need either public transportation or a car to go to dinner or to the Harbor. From downtown you can walk to the Harbor in 15-20 mins but still there would be very few people out and about.

I don't think planners who plan business and residential areas take into consideration that there are some people who would like to walk to a restaurant or theater in a safe environment or who would like to take a walk after dinner. They build areas that are not conducive to that kind of lifestyle.

Nick1962 2012-07-01 18:36:39 -0500 Report

You are so right. Up till now, much of the urban planning has been speculation - build it and see if it works. Add to that the "priveledge" factor, those who have more money tend to move out of that core because of the lower income stigma. My old hometown was exactly like that. they had a vibrant downtown area, but had the big idea that paving it all over as a pedestrian mall was "chic". They closed the streets, put in a nice brick paved center, and ringed it all with parking lots. If it was raining or cold (which it usually was), you often had to walk a block or two to get to the theater or drug store even if you took public transportation. Before that, because people were constantly coming and going, if you arrived by car, you could usually find a decent space near your destination and almost all busses would drop you off at the nearest corner.

Then, just like you said, the big name anchor tennants moved out due to lack of business and rentals in the area went low income, and the once nice city park with a nice band shell for weekend concerts was nothing but a hang out.

They did finally re-open the streets, and business picked up. Lower cost restaurants went into rehabbed furniture stores and the like. I was able to volunteer on a rehab project that turned an old shoe manufacturing factory into low/medium income housing. It was a great project and gave folks real pride of place. It had great access to the harbor where folks could walk their pets and kids, plus they had access to downtown restaurants which were affordable to them. A couple families also got together and pooled their money to open a coffee shop in an old corner pharmacy. They work hard, but all are now financially independant. A group of concerned citizens also found financing to rehab the old theater, and that little coffee shop is in a great position (less than a block away) for before and after performance business.

The city still has a long way to go, and will always remain a bedroom community, but it is coming back.

Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2012-06-30 20:53:42 -0500 Report

A group of friends and I walked from the Farmers Market to Canal Street after dark in New Orleans. We stopped at Cafe DuMond. Was uneventful.

Columbia is being built up with strip malls with upscale stores with a section of restaurants. You still can't really walk anywhere. I don't like the area.

Nick1962 2012-07-01 09:32:32 -0500 Report

Spent 2 weeks in New Orleans (pre-flood) and never really had any problems, but then i ran about 275 lbs, so the kids didn't mess with me and the hookers decided to take a pass on this boy.