It’s a sad and bitter irony. It’s a best-laid plan gone wrong.
It looked like a solution. It has become a major public health problem.
It was a modern version of the American dream. You could escape from the city, turn your back on the ugliness, the pollution, and the transfats. No longer would you have to suffer the indignity of rubbing shoulders with the teeming masses of humanity on overcrowded city streets or on packed subway cars.
The frontier beckoned and more and more Americans bought it.
Every man wants to be the king of his castle. Every woman wants the same.
As opposed to, say, Japan or England, America has lots of land. Developers happily constructed suburban and exurban communities filled with mega-mansions, rolling green lawns, and endless commutes. Banks happily financed it all.
Americans wanted to escape the anomie of the big city, but we seem to have produced a new form of exurban anomie, one that fosters bad health habits.
For a time these communities were Happy Valley. Now, the experts have discovered that these “vehicle-dependent environments” are making us sick.
Jane Brody brings us the bad news in The New York Times:
Developers in the last half-century called it progress when they built homes and shopping malls far from city centers throughout the country, sounding the death knell for many downtowns. But now an alarmed cadre of public health experts say these expanded metropolitan areas have had a far more serious impact on the people who live there by creating vehicle-dependent environments that foster obesity, poor health, social isolation, excessive stress and depression.
Brody calls it a modern version of what most people consider the good life.
It’s not quite a return to the state of nature, but it is close enough: the state of nature with amenities; the state of nature with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.
A clean environment, fresh air, a nice lawn, less traffic, fewer people… life as an extended vacation, life as an escape from industrial ugliness. Unless you have to commute to your job.
Even if you do not suffer the stress of commuting to work, these new communities are so bad for your health that they are going to reduce the lifespan of the average American.
In cities you can walk anywhere, find nearly anything you want, run into lots of people, eat healthy or unhealthy as you wish. Cities oblige you to exercise more, eat healthier, and to socialize more.
Surely, the cosmopolitan metropolis presents its own challenges: among them the difficulties of dealing with people who come from so many diverse cultures.
Yet, a city obliges you to do so. Those who succeed at it become more socially adept.
Living in a big city is not all fun and games. Living in such close proximity to other humans increases the risk of catching infectious diseases. The suburbs solved all of that… up to a point.
Brody captures the irony:
“We’ve become the victims of our own success,” Dr. [Richard] Jackson [of UCLA] said of the public health mission that cleared cities of congested slums. “By living far from where we work, we reduced crowding and improved the quality of our air and water, which drove down rates of infectious disease.” But as people have moved farther and farther from where they work, shop and socialize, the rates of chronic diseases have soared.
Chronic diseases are those associated with a sedentary lifestyle in isolation from very many other people.
Considering that people have wanted to settle in these bedroom communities to give their children a healthier lifestyle, it is sadly ironic that children suffer the most. They count as those most dependent on vehicles that they are too young to drive. They cannot go anywhere without being driven.
Public transportation has not kept pace with the expansion of suburbs and exurbs. Nor are there enough sidewalks, nearby parks and safe places to walk, cycle or play outdoors in many, if not most, towns. Parents spend hours in cars getting to and from work; children are bused or driven to and from school; and those who can’t drive must depend on others to take them everywhere or risk becoming socially isolated.
In 1974, 66 percent of all children walked or biked to school. By 2000, that number had dropped to 13 percent.
The statistic is shocking. It does explain why so many American children are overweight and malnourished. Far too many of them cannot pass the most basic fitness tests.
“We’ve engineered physical activity out of children’s lives,” Dr. Jackson said in an interview. “Only a quarter of the children in California can pass a basic fitness test, and two in seven volunteers for the military can’t get in because they’re not in good enough physical condition.”
Evidently, this is going to keep urban planners busy for quite some time. Brody reports on a number of projects in different American cities that are designed to help people be more active and more social.
Still, what is going to happen to the exurban communities that are now seen as their own special kinds of health hazards? Will they turn into ghost towns? And what is going to happen to the financial system that lent out the mortgage money that bought homes that fewer and fewer people are going to want to buy or to live in?