How a better designed city could make us thinner
Monday I spent a few hours at a statewide summit on a subject that seemed a little, well, for lack of a better word, frivolous, given some of the clear and present problems our country — and by extension — our cities and towns are facing. The subject: Healthy Communities Summit. I have to admit, though, by summit’s end, I was much more of a believer. Mayors and civic leaders from towns and cities across Massachusetts where there. I was a little disappointed not to find any representatives from Worcester there (interestingly enough, however, one of the presenters, Dr. Christina Eonomos of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is a product of the Worcester Public Schools system and a former city resident).
In short, the summit was called to address the concern of the ever-rising obesity rate in this country, the tons of money it’s costing us in health care and what cities and towns can actually do to curb the problem. As the city of Somerville’s mayor put it, “We can’t afford not to do something.” What we have been doing certainly isn’t working. As presenter Mark Fenton pointed out, despite diet fads, increase in gym memberships and all the emphasis we’ve put on being healthy, we’re still getting fatter. I couldn’t help but think of the movie Wall-E, in which a futuristic human race is portrayed as so obese and lazy they’ve pretty much lost the ability to walk or do anything without robotic assistance.
So, what’s the solution? Well, as presenters suggested, it’s not so much about doing one thing, but completely changing the way we plan our cities and towns. Some of the recommendations included making sure the question of pedestrian and bicycle access are addressed on every road project and new developmet. That doesn’t neccesarily mean every road will have a bike lane, but that planners consider the option. In short, the idea is to get it so walking and biking around your city just comes naturally. One of the biggest obstacles, of course, is that we’ve made our cities so auto-friendly that walking and biking has become viewed as dangerous. Although I have to say that in working in the Canal District at Worcester Magazine, I found walking around the city pretty easy — on a nice day I’d walk clear to City Hall. Some of our more outlying areas, however, may not be quite as friendly and when it comes to bicycles, well, we could use some improvements there. Does this all sound a little pie in the sky? I thought that at first. Fenton, however, gave a good analogy. He asked audience members to think of their first memory of physical activity. The vast majority of us — I’d say the average age in the room was mid to upper 40s — associated that memory with riding a bike, playing in their neighborhood or in a nearby woods — basically, unstructured outdoor activity. When he aks that question to those under 30 he says, the answer he gets is organized sports — organized by adults and driven there in cars. Our kids are growing up in a world where the outdoors is dangerous and unfriendly. It’s no surprise we’re getting fatter. Fortunately, Worcester has some proactive forces like the Greater Worcester Land Trust, which has worked hard to preserve our wild spaces. But having those spaces is one thing, making it so people can walk out their front doors and feel safe going there is another.