Monday, October 26, 2009

Fat People Don't Walk

This week's newspaper column:

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I noticed something on the streets of the city that’s very peculiar in modern-day America – the complete absence of morbid obesity.

A little background: In 1791, President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant, a prominent French architect and city planner – to lay out the new capitol city on the banks of the Potomac River. L’Enfant envisioned the city as a series of parks connected by diagonal avenues on an overlay of a regular rectangular street grid. Each neighborhood would have its own green space and business district; the distance between each would be determined by practical walking distances. Obviously, the ease of traveling great distances quickly by car was not a factor. So Washington, like every city designed before the advent of the automobile, became and fortunately still remains a very walkable city.

Conversely, as new development in the United States has sprawled across the suburban countryside, so have our waistlines. How common is it to see an overly-ample “waddler” dropped off at the front door of Wal-Mart?

One might protest and argue, “But you can’t expect a 300-pound grandma to walk all the way across a hot, tree-less parking lot, can you?” That’s a good point, but this may be a chicken and egg -shaped question. Which came first – the weight gain or the inactivity?

Since moving from Washington, DC to Mississippi, I’ve picked up about 40 or pounds or so. Some of that extra weight is due to age and the classic fat-filled diet of the American South, but I suspect the majority of extra poundage is a direct result of walking less in my daily routine.

While in DC, I walked 6 blocks every morning to the Union Station metro, rode the train for about 15 minutes, and walked another 3 blocks to my workplace downtown. In the evening, I reversed the routine. At lunchtime, there were plenty of restaurants to choose from in the immediate area –all accessible to “foot-traffic,” and on a nice day, I could stroll over to one of many parks in the area to enjoy lunch in an urban green space before walking back to the office.

That routine alone amounted to about two miles of walking every day. Add to that a multiplicity of errands made possible by virtue of a walkable infrastructure, and each day included several built-in cardiovascular workouts.

In today’s world of city planning, walkability seems to be, at best, a faint afterthought and certainly not the first thing most politicians and planners think of when thinking of city infrastructure. Real estate developers claim that being forced to build sidewalks on street-facing building lots is cost prohibitive and nobody likes the idea of higher taxes to see to it that connected sidewalks are the norm.

But with obesity-related health care costs escalating through the roof, isn’t that alone a reason for rethinking our investment – or current lack thereof – in walkable infrastructure?

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