Don't Blame the Suburbs for Obesity


One of the major demographic trends of our time remains flight from the city to the suburbs. But as the suburbs have grown, so has criticism of suburban life. Commentator Nick Gillespie says, however, that the latest ill blamed on suburbia is based on thin evidence.

So now the suburbs make you fat. At least that's according to the Centers for Disease Control. Richard J. Jackson, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, told The Washington Post, "We're coming to the conclusion that land use, urban design and the built environment are much larger factors in public health than people have really appreciated."

What with their big lawns, lack of sidewalks and sprawling shopping districts, goes this line of thinking, suburbanites don't walk anywhere anymore. Instead they just become tubs of lard with all the attended illnesses. And this is no small matter as census data show more Americans now live in suburbs than they do in urban or rural areas.

Unlike the bulk of allegedly bulky suburbanites, the CDC is not taking the slide into chubbiness lying down. Instead the agency is spearheading efforts to fight the fat. One goal is the creation of a national obesity map that will document geographic trends. Another is a $4 million Atlanta-area study in which 800 people will strap on global positioning devices. That way, says a CDC spokesperson, we can tell if you cross the road for shade or because there were more shops or because there's something to avoid like the sidewalk stops.

As a child of the suburbs, and as someone who's been trying to lose 20 pounds for years now, I object. For most of the 20th century, the suburbs have been an all-purpose whipping boy for everything that's wrong with American society. The suburbs are plastic, we've been told at least since the 1920s. The suburbs are Potemkin villages filled with sterile and conformist gray flannel husbands on the one hand and oversexed, bored, Stepford wives on the other. The kids are rotten there, too, lacking either the street smarts of their urban counterparts or the clean living skills of their rural cousins. And now comes the final insult. Suburbanites are not simply shallow but overweight, too.

Enough is enough. Stereotypes aside, researchers are finally acknowledging that the suburbs are increasingly filled with all sorts of people living all sorts of lives. As Rutgers University's James Hughes has put it, "The suburbs today are really cities in horizontal form. All the economic functions that were once in cities are now in suburbs." As for making people fat, all I can say is that I packed on my pounds while living in a crowded city, not in a sprawling suburb that was perfect for long, late-night runs. But the real reason I gained weight, and I suspect this is true for many others who have grown thick in the midregion, had less to do with where I was living than with what I was eating, which was just about anything in sight. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The fault for our flab lies not in our suburbs but in ourselves."

WERTHEIMER: Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason magazine. He comes to us by way of WMUB in Oxford, Ohio.