From Food Deserts to Healthy Cities

"Food deserts," marked by convenience stores instead of supermarkets, leave residents with few nutritious options(Photo credit: Zol87 via Flickr) 

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.

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 in or, in many instances, safe streets to walk on.

Jason Corburn, Associate Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, sums it up well: “[T]he 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 Bayview-Hunters Point community 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 elsewhere 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 a person lives can have a profound effect on their 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 mile area where the average resident drives 66 miles a day, is undergoing such 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.”

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 United States can reuse their seemingly “unusable” industrial infrastructure.

Syracuse is another city rejuvenating its neighborhoods. The former industrial ghost town has renovated its 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.

Nina Keehan | Sustainable Prosperity | May 04, 2012

Homepage image: New York City's High Line Park, once an elevated rail line, is now an example of sustainable infrastructure. (Photo credit: Cameron Scherer) 

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