From Food Deserts to Healthy Cities

This generation of American children is predicted to live shorter lives than their parents–quite a shocking statistic. Even more shocking is that we know the reasons why and unlike epidemics of old they are within our control. At the root of the problem is obesity, inactivity, and unhealthful diets all centered around communities that don’t promote the kind of lifestyle that is necessary for prosperous, healthy lives.

What's for lunch? How about some Lunchmeat? Nachos? Pop? Some Ice Cream? A T-shirt? Not the healthiest options at this oasis in the food desert. (Image courtesy of Zol87 via Flickr.)

Many of the statistics are discouraging. “Food deserts” are more common in urban areas, leaving communities devoid of anything except convenience stores and packaged, artificial foods (Cheetos and Pop Tarts anyone?). Children’s lives are also lacking exercise like never before. According to New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, “In 1974, 66 percent of all children walked or biked to school. By 2000, that number had dropped to 13 percent.”

These problems are a result of poor urban and community planning. Many children in suburban areas are confined to their neighborhoods because public transport isn’t available or reliable. Urban children also have fewer free spaces to play or (often) safe streets to walk on.

Jason Corburn, Associate Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley sums it up well: “the major barrier to a healthy city is inequality. Poor neighborhoods are just more toxic and have higher rates of childhood illness.”

This inequality is evident in the community Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. The area has high numbers of African Americans and Latinos and higher rates of adult and pediatric asthma, adult diabetes, and congestive heart failure than anywhere else in the city. The same situation is replicated in major cities all across the United States including New York City, where neighborhoods in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn have double the number of cases of diabetes, asthma and HIV/AIDS.

Where one lives affects health and many areas are failing to keep their residents healthy. Fortunately, the flaws of urban planning have been scrutinized over the past decade and a few particular urban centers have set the stage for future success. Urban Atlanta–a whopping 8,000 square miles where the average resident drives 66 miles a day, is undergoing a change.

As Brody notes, “In what may be the crown jewel in environmental restructuring for better health, the city plans to create an urban paradise from an abandoned railroad corridor over the next two decades, with light rail and 22 miles of walking and biking trails.”

People getting fresh air and exercise in High Line Park in Manhattan (image courtesy of Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia)

This is similar to High Line Park in Manhattan’s West Side, which is a public park converted from a defunct freight rail line. Now it is a model for how cities across the U.S.  can reuse their seemingly “unusable” industrial infrastructure.

Syracuse is another city rejuvenating its neighborhoods. The industrial ghost town has renovated the saltworks district to include mixed-income and energy-saving housing while establishing public parks. Even more remarkable are the community gardens including the Southwest Urban Community Farm, that are located in food deserts. These gardens create a sense of ownership in the community while providing residents with healthy alternatives to fast food.

Communities all across America are at a crossroads. They can continue to expand suburbia, lengthen commutes and heighten inequalities. Or, they can start shifting momentum away from bad planning – one refurbished railroad or community garden at a time. The choice must be made – and soon.

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