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Thursday 02 May 2002

Causes of American Obesity

The Guardian runs a column today that looks at the causes behind Americans’ tendency to be, well, fatter than people from almost everywhere else on Earth.

Because of its British perspective, it hits upon what I think is a major cause, one usually neglected in American assessments:

For a start, in some parts of the country, Americans have eliminated not merely the need to walk, but even the possibility of it. “I’d love to be able to walk to the store, pick up some milk and come home again, but our towns don’t really allow that,” laments Mary Gilmore, a dietician in Meridian [MS].

It appears to get the cause of this wrong, though. The column goes on to say “American developers, meanwhile, can put up houses however and wherever they want, and communities are becoming ever more car-oriented.”

This is patently untrue. American developers — developers outside rural areas, that is — are actually under quite complex controls as to what they can build. Left to its own devices, I think the market wants mostly dense mixed-use buildings, of the sort that make up very large parts of Manhattan, London, Paris, and other cities built when market forces still determined what would get built.

The population at large seems to like this kind of arrangement: nearly all urban environments — save those built in the USA after WWII — follow this pattern. Developers like this too, because it maximizes their profits. Pity then that it’s actually illegal in most places in the United States to build to this pattern.

Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II in the 1940s — during which time little housing was built in the United States — the conventional wisdom was that density == slum. Returning veterans were desperately in need of housing, and the quickest, easiest, and, at the time, most appealing option was to build the American postwar suburb.

The first of these were at least functional; Greenbelt, MD (actually built by the WPA before the war), Levittowns in NY and PA, Park Forest, IL, and dozens of other early post-war suburbs were, for all the derision they attract now, semi-autonomous towns. The residents were meant to work in the city (which tye got to, usually, on a commuter train), but they could shop and be entertained in their own little suburb. These early suburbs didn’t have a lot of real estate that you could call mixed-use — the shops and movie theater were in the middle of town, and apartments and houses in neighborhoods surrounding them — but the residential and commercial areas were within walking distance of one another, and it was possible to walk between them because the shops were at the center, meant to serve the local residents, rather than to serve people flying past on the highway.

Over time, though, our happy little suburb changed. The first change was in zoning laws and building codes. After the little suburb had filled with people, shoppers would often find that they had no place to park their cars while visiting the town center. Rather than accept this as a reality of life (and thus encourage customers to walk to the shops, and retailers to spread shops around the town), well-meaning planning boards began to require more and more parking spaces for a shop or shopping center of a given size.

This made it difficult or impossible — and certainly uneconomical — to build small shopping centers that catered to just the people in the immediate vicinity. If you assume that most people are going to drive to your shopping center, and if you are required by law to build a large parking lot, it’s in your interest to assume that everyone will drive to your shopping center, and to build it on the edge of town with a huge parking lot.

This gave birth to the mall as we know it in America.

And the mall as we know it — I include here both enclosed malls and large strip-malls of the kind where you find large supermakets — because of its size and cost, gave rise to the dominance of national retailers whose entire business model depends on scale, on selling millions of items to thousands of people, every day. Unless the entire population of our little post-war suburb buys something from them every day, they do out of business; so they have to locate on the highway not just because the land is cheap enough to build their giant parking lot there, but because they have to draw from a very large pool of customers just to stay afloat.

Now, I like malls. I don’t have anything against them. In my utopian dense suburb, there’s no Macy’s, no Best Buy, and no giant furniture store, and that’s a problem. The dense suburbanites pay more for clothes, electronics, and furniture on Main Street because the small shops there can’t operate on the same slim margins as the bigger companies; and this is a problem.

And I like cars; I have six of them myself. In my little dense suburb, though, car use is discouraged because it’s inconvenient. Driving from point A to point B takes less time that trying to find a place to park in convenient proximity to B. You’re better off walking; and maybe the money you save on a car can offset some of the higher prices on Main Street.

So I don’t propose that people stop shopping in malls, or that they stop driving their cars. My objections are not the usual huge-corporate-malls-are-soulless rants, or the cars-destroy-the-environment bleats you usually get from the tree-huggers. I am interested in human happiness and productivity, and it seems to me that our current system does not maximize either. We have cars, but we spend our time stuck in traffic because everyone has to use a car for every trip, every transaction of their daily lives. We have giant malls with ample parking, but even those giant parking lots are often full because everyone has to shop in the same place; we’d be able to park closer to our destination on Main Street.

The problem is that there’s very little choice in the American suburban experience. And the reason there’s very little choice is not because the market has decided that it won’t bear the cost of diversity and choice, but because well-meaning but horribly misguided regulators long ago equated density and mixed-use environments with undesirability, incredibly copious evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

The “anti-sprawl” movement in the United States would seem to have the right idea. Unfortunately, their answer is more regulation, and protection of “open space” that will in the end probably wind up fostering more sprawl. It seems pretty clear that the government’s role in this should be to quietly step aside — at all levels — and let developers build what the community wants. In the United States we believe that the market will always find the best solution (even if we don’t always practice what we preach) to any given problem. Yet when we’ve got a problem, the proposed solutions usually involve taking matters every further out of the hands of the market.

Posted by tino at 11:58 2.05.02
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I am an a obeise person myself so i know what its like to be taunted day in and day out about my size, and I just feel that these children should not have to go though alll this pain and suffering the goes on every single day for obese children around the world. I therefore feel that there should be a separte school system for these obese children so that they will not have to be riticuled for something they have no control over. After all they are only harmless children.

Posted by: HOlly at December 16, 2002 06:20 PM

Doesn’t it seem as though an “obese school” would end up with the same sort of stigma as fat camp? I mean, really. If you tried to send your kids to obese school, I bet that kid would put up with a lot of torture before he or she’d consent. And at that point, the damage is done anyway.

Posted by: Your Mom at March 27, 2003 03:00 AM

I don’t think any child wants to be “banned” from society. How would this seclusion help them on in later life. It is not as though they will always only be with other overweight people. School is a time to prepare for the world, harsh though it may be. Acceptance must be taught in school in order to create productive citizens in and out of school.

Posted by: Brad at December 10, 2003 02:26 AM

We are trying to buy a recliner rocker for a person that weighs 500 lbs. Any ideas ??

Posted by: Joe Bodnar at February 4, 2004 07:02 PM

We are trying to buy a recliner rocker for a person that weighs 500 lbs. Any ideas ??

Posted by: Joe Bodnar at February 4, 2004 07:02 PM

We are trying to buy a recliner rocker for a person that weighs 501 lbs. Any ideas ??

Posted by: joe budabi at April 14, 2004 09:27 AM