Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Vehicle-Dependent Environments"

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.

Brody writes:

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?


David Foster said...

“We’ve engineered physical activity out of children’s lives,” Dr. Jackson said in an interview.

How much of this is really due to housing geography versus how much is due to panicky and status-obsessed helicopter parenting practices? Is the parent who is afraid of a jungle gym at the suburban school playground really going to let his kids wander around on their own in a large city?

Regarding housing and working patterns, see my post he trolley--a view from 1902.

Malcolm said...

Good video on health

"23 and 1/2 hours"

n.n said...

The implication of this study is that the suburban life poses greater challenges to voluntary compliance. The converse implication would be that the urban dweller is superior by virtue of involuntary compliance. This would explain the high rate of liberalism observed among the latter group.

The Ghost said...

Lived for years in an apartment in NYC among hundreds if not thousands of close by neighbors ... no way no how it was healthier than living in the suburbs ...

So why are farmers not the sickest of us all ?

Seems to me that if you live in the burbs taking a walk daily should "cure" what ills you ...

Dennis said...

As more money leaves NYC for other places more friendly to the producers of wealth the more we will see stories of how good urban life is for one and how bad living else where is bad for one. I could take a select walk through NTC with a camera and a day's worth of shooting and provide "proof" that fat and obese people populate NYC at alarming numbers.
And with a little work it would not be hard to destroy the whole underpinning of how well NYC people get a long. Does the word "ghetto" or riots have any meaning here?
These are much like Obama's unemployment numbers just released. It does not represent reality. Given time and one can prove anything if one has enough gullible people who want to believe. Global Warming anyone.
Just what is it that NYC produces that has a "tangible' output that will multiply its value throughout the economy with a high multiplicative factor? The production of an automobile, et al has a large number of third parties from inception to production to after point of sale. Most products have utility even as they age. Can one say that for money that is losing value at an alarming rate due to the machinations that have a good deal to do with NYC.
This is all about taxes and the power that comes with them. So many people have justified their bigotry concerning everything between both coasts that they will believe anything. What utter drivel.

Dennis said...

Let me add that where I live we have 50 miles of bike and walking path that run along the tollway. I walk and surprise, surprise I see all kinds of other people walking Many of use have pools, the ocean and lakes nearby that we can utilize most of the year round.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It looks like this idea was not very persuasive. Since most of you seem to think it's bunk, the odds are increasing that it's bunk.

Still, I am struck by statistics that say that only 16% of children walk or bike to school. Clearly something strange is going on.

I don't think that the good health of farmers proves that suburban or exurban life is necessarily healthier. After all, farmers do not live in the suburbs. They are, I would guess, very active physically. Farmers do not sit around all day. And they are involved in a myriad of social interactions because of their businesses.

On the other hand it's fair to say that many large cities have problems involving crime, drugs, and high levels of rudeness that might compromise the good mental health of those who live there.

I think that the article was trying to compare places where you had to make a decision to go out for a run and places where the structure of your everyday life requires you to be physically active.

Thanks for illuminating the questions.

CatherineM said...

You need to get out more. I grew up in the suburbs and we biked everywhere. I could also leave my bike unchained outside the pharmacy and newstand while I decided which candy bar I would spend 25c of my $2 biweekly alllowance with out fear of it being stolen(back and forth for hours sometimes, to the amusement of the pharmacist, as I picked up and put back candy while deciding). By the way, that's one precious candy bar every 2 weeks. My dad would give me a dime to ride to the newsstand on Sat morning (and I got to keep a nickel) I started walking a mile to school every day at 6 years old with a group of girls. When I moved to a school without a cafeteria, I walked a mile back and forth for lunch every day. We rode out bikes 13 miles through the forest preserve to go to the zoo. I climbed trees. We had a 2 story jungle gym at school that had poles to slide down if you made it to the top (I don't recall anyone getting hurt)I had to be yanked out of the neighbors pool or yard to eat and made to wait an hour before I continued my activities. My mom held me back from knocking on friend's doors before 9am and we were out until dark so we could get lightning bugs. I was out ALL THE TIME. At halloween, we ran house to house across many square miles between 3-6pm (or dark) to bag the most treats and they lasted until easter. We played jump rope in the street and running bases with the whole block with a huge rope 4 kids could jump at a time. I find it hard to believe kids in Manhattan got more excercise and sunshine than I did.

I didn't know any fat kids and we all had cupcakes and treats on birthdays and chocolate milk in school. We had an awesome class mom who baked a treat for every holiday (including flag day!) and we would come in from running are butts off at recess after lunch to a treat on our desk - no one complained that it wasn't organic, had sugar, wasn't kosher or vegan...we just enjoyed it and thought Jimmy was a lucky kid to have his mom.

The big difference is, I grew up in the 70s and 80s when if a kid got hurt having fun no one was sued (poop happens). We ran around, walked to school from Grade 1-12. Now everyone sues and parents tell me there is a pervert on every corner. It has nothing to do with the suburbs and everything to do with the attitudes of adults.

I have lived in NYC for 24 years and you can't tell me this lifestyle is better. Also, I can't stand the "diversity" crap. My life was more diverse in the suburbs than my city friends and cousins. That includes my time in the South (where there is a lot more interaction between blacks and whites than NYC) and Long Island (where parochial schools preferred in NYC by the middle class and private's by the wealthy mean more segregation).
I also knew all my neighbors in the suburbs and they knew me, and I know none in NYC. NYC is one of the lonliest and anonymous places for many people. The burbs also have peace and quiet not a constant rumbling of noise, whirring of traffic, horns and sirens.

NY Times and libs need to get over it. The suburbs are awesome.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Actually, I grew up in the suburbs too... though many years before Catherine did. And my experience was quite similar to hers.

Surely, you could walk to a store or to school. And you could ride your bike anywhere.

But, apparently, in many of these places today that is no longer the case.

Perhaps the article was referring to more exurban communities, beyond the suburbs, where it is impossible to walk or ride anywhere.

If so few children today walk or bike anywhere any more there are probably many reasons. Bad urban planning will probably find a place on the list.

Dennis said...


Great point about the South. That is why there has been an outflow of Blacks from the North to the South. Though I am older I had a number of the same experiences that you did growing up. There were a number of Southern women who would mother a young boy who had no mother.
I can remember moving to western Massachusetts to live and work on my uncle's dairy farm for a couple of years. It did not matter that one used electric milkers the cows still had to be striped. Even in 38 below weather we were still out, skating, sledding and getting all kinds of exercise and yes we did have to walk 2 miles to catch the bus to go to school because the bus could not get to the top of the mountain during winter. The one thing I noticed is the lack of manners that existed and the emnity between groups.
The problem I would suggest is that video games, et al keep a lot of young people busy and the world has become a much more dangerous place In some ways I do feel sorry for a number of these young people because the only acquaintance they have with nature is some park and what they see on the Smithsonian channel. They have no idea what it takes to get food to the table. Is it any wonder they have no respect for anyone outside of an urban environment or just how tenuous their existence really is if the current financial systems begin to fail. Their very survival depends on the people they have been brought up to hate.

miriam sawyer said...

This is hogwash. The wonderful amenities that used to exist in cities is no longer there. Everything worth doing with some few exceptions--arts organizations like museums, mostly, which have a lot invested in buildings-- has moved to the suburbs along with the people.

Most suburban people work and shop in the suburbs. They don't commute to cities.

I've lived in both suburbs and cities. Cities are a lot tougher to live in.

CatherineM said...

Maybe they are talking about the exurbs, or rural areas, but Jane Brody and all the other "urban areas and public transit for everyone" crowd leave out this: these areas existed with personal vehicles as a common mode of transport since WW2. The burbs exploded with the GI Bill. So why weren't we all fat/unhealthy then? Why is it only the last 20 years? That's not an easy answer (perhaps it was Brody's promo of high carb & sugar/low fat diets?). I think these zealots came to their conclusion first and worked backwards.

Also, you can be just as "isolated," if not more so, in a large city. They talk about safety in riding your bike to the store if it's a "long distance" and I think, how safe is it to ride your bike in NYC? I do it in Queens, helmet on, and with many near misses because of drivers who don't see me because of so much going on. Even getting to the West side/Riverside paths - I walk my bike to that. However,even those paths and Central Park are dangerous because you have the leisure bikers/runners (me) and those who like to pretend tey are on the Tour de France. It's like Times Square for leisure!

I would also like to add that these public transportation zealots rarely take it themselves. Mike Bloomberg for example, the occaisional subway ride for the photogs is BS - he takes a helicopter to the Meadowlands and to his private plane for pete's sake. Fine by me, but don't force shitty dirty "takes forever to get there" because of all of the stops public transit on me. Green is only for the masses?

Trailer Dweller said...

Read up on Agenda 21, folks. That is the one-world-government, new world order elitists' plan to herd ALL of us into hi-rises in the cities so as to better manage the masses by denying us personal vehicles (high-speed rail, anyone?) under the guise of reducing the "carbon footprint". For the record, I HATE cities myself and wish I could live even farther out in the country (can't afford to buy the land).

Dennis said...


The more one can limit people's ability to move about on their own the more one can control them. The unions and people like that petty martinet want to be called the Mayor of NYC, can affect other's ability to live. Control the price of gas and you control more people. One can stop rapid transit rather easily, but it is much harder to stop large number of people who can move themselves around.
Sadly most "blue" urbane dwellers are unaware of how many of their freedoms they have already gotten use to not having. How else does one explain their easy acquiescence to the mayors of cities like NYC, San Francisco, et al?
It would not be so bad if they keep their latent desires to be slaves to themselves.

CatherineM said...

Dennis - or look at AAA's lawsuit against the Port Authority for tolls being used to fund the WTC and everything else and not maintaining the roads. I'm glad someone is fighting against the abuse because most NYers are sheep! They'll just keep paying, never questioning where the money goes. And Bloomberg will say, "you don't have to have a can live by a bus and train schedule and take twice as long to get there while you breath foul air and waste hours below ground due to signal problems/sick passengers/police activity/fire on the tracks. Sheep.

Dennis said...

Once one has people on a schedule, not that meets the person's requirements or life style, one can control how they by groceries, go to stores, et al. It is all the little things that slowly move out of the decision making process that each individual has and is controlled by the actions of a centralized government.
It is why I state that many "blue" city urban dwellers are already slaves. They may get some choice, but a large percent of that choice is controlled by others. One only has to stand waiting at a bus stop for a certain time to realize how little control they actually have.
One of the hardest problems we have is keeping transplanted NYers from trying to create the same conditions they ran away from.