Walk This Way

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Think you're happy with your suburban home, shuttling your kids around in the Grand Cherokee? Think again, fat ass. You don't know what's good for you.

Fortunately, public health experts do. USA Today reports:

Many experts on public health say the way neighborhoods are built is to blame for Americans' physical inactivity—and the resulting epidemic of obesity.

The health concern is a new slant on the issue of suburban sprawl, which metro regions have been struggling with for a decade. These health experts bring the deep-pocketed force of private foundations and public agencies into discussions about what neighborhoods should look like.

The argument over whether suburbs are bad for your health will hit many Americans precisely where they live: in a house with a big lawn on a cul-de-sac.

"The potential for actually tackling some of these things, with the savvy of the folks who have tackled tobacco, is enormous," says Ellen Vanderslice, head of America Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group based in Portland, Ore.

A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking 8,000 residents of Atlanta to determine whether the neighborhood they live in influences their level of physical exercise. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey, the country's largest health care philanthropy, is spending $70 million over five years on studies and programs to make it easier for people to walk in suburbs, cities and towns. "We want to engineer routine activity back into people's daily lives," says Kate Kraft, the foundation's senior program officer. "That means we need to start creating more walkable, bikeable communities."

Don't you miss all the routine activity your ancestors enjoyed, like washing clothes by hand and gathering wood for the stove?

Public health busybodies have been attributing obesity to suburban living for a while—Nick Gillespie commented on this in 2001.

Now they are turning to the anti-smoking movement for tips on how to save us with zeal.

NEXT: 10,000 Maniacs

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  1. PLC,

    In a housing shortage, people buy what’s available, as long as it reasonably meets their needs.

    Suburbs more walkable than cities? The article isn’t about people being able to power walk a couple days a week for exercise in their free time, it’s about walking a couple of blocks as a normal part of your daily life.

    I’m not a libertarian, merely an occasional fellow traveler.

    Yes, I’m replacing one form of zoning with another. I subscribe to a fringe religion that believes good laws are better than bad ones.

    Too bad about the exurb story. Planning really needs to be done on a regional basis.

  2. JDM,

    Public policy has made moving to suburbia the only viable option for many people. The suburbs themselves have chosen to limit that option to a preferred segment of the population, leaving the rest to choose among unviable options.

    Yep, pretty diabolical.

  3. Personally, I would welcome sidewalks and mass transit in my neighborhood. Not because of the exercise, but for convenience. It’s much more convenient for me to walk to a bus stop and take a bus to work, even if it takes three times as long as driving. Instead of getting stressed out about the trafic, I can sit down a read a book. Now if I only convinced enough people to demand the same, so that it would become profitable enough for somebody to run such service…

  4. “Public policy has made moving to suburbia the only viable option for many people.”

    “The suburbs themselves have chosen to limit that option to a preferred segment of the population.”

    Exactly what mechanism causes this if not cost?

  5. Joe:

    It’s pretty simple. The burbs are there because it’s what people want. Public policy won’t change that. If people want something else, they’ll make their desires abundantly clear.

    Or are they too stupid to know what they want?

  6. Joe:

    “Yes, I’m replacing one form of zoning with another. I subscribe to a fringe religion that believes good laws are better than bad ones.”

    Fortunately for the rest of us, the majority of people disagree with your conception of a good law.

    “Suburbs more walkable than cities? …it’s about walking a couple of blocks as a normal part of your daily life.”

    I have lived in “walkable” urban centers. Nobody walked to the grocery store or a restaurant, even if it was only a 1/4 mile away. First off, it rains nearly every day from October until July. Why walk in the rain when you can drive? Secondly, who wants to walk a 1/4 mile with all their groceries? Third, in the suburbs I definitely do more walking as a part of my normal life, since I can walk my dog on the woodland trails right out my door step. In Seattle, people drove their dogs to dog parks and then sat on a bench to watch the dogs run around.

  7. I personally like chopping down, splitting and curing wood for the woodstove (our main source of heat in the winter). Anyone who says otherwise is a lazy bastard! đŸ™‚

  8. Jozef – it might be more convient for you to take the bus if there were a bus stop right outside your door and if the bus went straight to your place of business, but this would not make economic sense on a large scale.

    Given the way we live and work, mass traditional mass transportation no longer makes economic or personal sense for the vast majority of people. It’s just old technology that needs to be sent to the scrap heap. Cars are vastly superior for almost all people.

  9. PLC,

    The suburbs that I have lived in (mostly in the US South) were very difficult places to go walking in, without getting run over by a car. Of course now that I live in rural New England, ten miles from the nearest town, I can walk just about in any direction without worrying about cars. My biggest worry are the bears. That’s why I carry a loaded .357 with me. đŸ™‚ I will never live in a suburb again, if its possible.

  10. Croesus – it sounds like we have more in common than one might have thought. I’ve lived in rural New England (CT & VT, as well as upstate NY), the suburban South (near Atlanta), and I also carry a .357 – and while we do have bears in my neighborhood, our biggest worry is the cougars. A guy delivering top soil to my yard actually saw a cougar walk through my side yard in the middle of the day.

    I know that there were lots of big roads around Atlanta suburbs, but there were also plenty of nice places to walk/run where you don’t have to worry about getting chased by gangs of street thrugs (as happened to me when I lived in downtown Atlanta).

  11. JDM, The public policies have distorted the costs, as well as the benefits. My point.

    Steve, If you consider price a reasonable estimate of what people want, then they want to live in townhouses built to the sidewalks of mixed use cities. Ever look at the Real Estate section of the Boston Globe? Seems to be some pent up demand for urban housing in good neighborhoods.

    PLC, First, people walk in London. Second, if no one walks in cities, then who’s projecting all those holograms in Boston, NY, San Fran, New Orleans, Washington… Third, urban areas do need more trails and park space. Support your local railtrail program!

  12. joe,

    Of course they have. If you agree with that, then you must agree that you are saying that public policy has made the costs both comparitvely high in the suburbs:

    “Public policy has made moving to suburbia the only viable option for many people.”

    and comparitively low:

    “The suburbs themselves have chosen to limit that option to a preferred segment of the population.”

    That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  13. PLC sez: “Given the way we live and work, mass traditional mass transportation no longer makes economic or personal sense for the vast majority of people.” That’s because of the way our neighborhoods/towns/cities/regions have been developed.

    Studies have shown that mass transit will capture a significant % of trips that originate and end within a ten minute walk (2000 feet) of a transit station. Within that radius are about 290 acres. At 20 units per acre (a mix of single- and two-family houses on 6000 square foot lots, tilted towards single family homes, with a few 8-20 unit apartment buildings here and there), that’s 5800 households, with 1-3 workers per household. Traditional neighborhood design cuts non-work trips by allowing bike and pedestrian access to destinations, and cuts work trips by making public transit economically viable.

  14. Joe – there are 300 million people living in this country. About 50% of them live in the suburbs, with 25% living in the city and 25% living in rural areas. I think that this is a fair indication of the relative attractiveness of these modes of living.

    Of the 25% who live in large cities, only a portion live in “walkable” cities. Take the extreme example, which would be NYC. In NYC, only 40% of people commute to work using mass transit (buses, trains).

    If your fantasy is to force everyone to live in neighborhoods modelled after NY or Boston, you’ll find that you will have to do so at the point of a gun.

    When you give people the freedom to choose how to live their own lives, the majority will choose the suburbs. Even if you don’t personally know anyone like that, it still remains true.

    You can show people all the fantasy pictures you want, but we live in a real world where density equals higher crime, higher taxes, longer commutes, more congestion, dirtier air, less space, less convience, less quiet, fewer families and children and dogs, less trees, less wildlife, etc.

  15. Oh, I see your point. No, wait, I still don’t get it. How does forbidding all but the most expensive form of housing to construct(large lot single family homes) make prices artificially low?

  16. PLC,

    Well, I’ve never lived in Atlanta, but I have lived in Hunstville, Al., and Mobile, Al. – both are notoriously bad places for pedestrians to walk, etc., and they have little green space. Also their downtowns have suffered the fate of most downtowns in the South – they are dead. If you want to go shopping, you head out to the strip malls with the big box stores.

    I love rural VT, though the government is far too “welfare state” oriented for my tastes sometimes. Though this is the easiest place that I’ve ever lived in to own a gun.

  17. Joe:

    So what? You have proved my point. People live where they want to live. People do what they want to do and eat what they want to eat. There are some economic modifiers in all that, but that’s pretty much the deal.

  18. 20 units per acre! Are you out of your mind? Who in the hell would want to live where there are 20 units per acre? The “new urbanist” neighborhoods around here are more like 4 or 5 units per acre and they still look crowded. And the vast majority of people drive everywhere.

    A bus will never be as convient as a car in my driveway. I can leave whenever I want, go where-ever I want, come back whenever I want. I don’t have to worry about the homeless drunk in the next seat or the bus breaking down or the driver flipping out. I can set the temperature to whatever I desire, the seat is more comfortable, I can listen to whatever I want, as loud as I want. I can roll down the windows or roll them up. It’s all my choice. CARS=FREEDOM.

  19. PLC,

    Probably depends on what you want. I’ve lived in Portland, Or., and I liked the mass transit system they had there. I still owned a car, but I mostly commuted to work in downtown PDX via the MAX. Then again PDX is a city with a lot of parks and the like, and the only city I’ve ever lived in that I found pleasant.

  20. PLC,

    You’re assuming that people who move to auto-dependent suburbs (please don’t say “suburbs” – some are very pedestrian and transit-friendly, and so should be counted in my column) are doing so out of a love of suburban land use patterns. In fact, perception of school quality and crime are #1 and 2 in driving home choices.

    I don’t need to force anyone to do anything. The success of New Urbanism and the quality urban environments that have sprung up in the past few years demonstrates that there is considerable pent up demand among the American public for these choices – choices which have been denied to them by 20th century suburban zoning policy. As these choices become better known, the momentum is building – and the sales figures prove it.

    “You can show people all the fantasy pictures you want, but we live in a real world where density equals higher crime, higher taxes, longer commutes, more congestion, dirtier air, less space, less convience, less quiet, fewer families and children and dogs, less trees, less wildlife, etc.” I wasn’t referring to fantasy pictures, but to actual neighborhoods that have been successful for decades.

    Few of the factors you list are inherent in an urban land use pattern. Those that are – the ones related to population density and encountering other people – are simply matters of proper design. Not everyone shares your Ayn Rand horror of encountering other human beings.

  21. PLC,

    I’m quite sure those New Urbanist developments have far more units than you believe. Either that, or they’re just smaller-lot conventional subdivision. New Urbanism is not about building cookie cutter subdivisions at a denser scale, but involves a completely different way of laying out the community.

    People unfamiliar with planning and landscape design often have unrealistic visions of what density figures really mean. Those used to looking at single family homes on one acre lots usually don’t realize that, with the woods behind the house, they’re really only seeing a tenth to a fifth of an acre.

    No one’s going to take away your car. But wouldn’t it be nice to have other choices when it breaks down, or when the highway is closed, or when it’s a nice day out?

    As for the people who ride busses, the bus has become the mode of last resort, and is primarily used by very poor urbanites. If they were a realistic alternative for most people, the demographics of the ridership would change, and busses wouldn’t have such a bad rep.

  22. joe,

    My last post didn’t make a lot of sense either. The two quotes were reversed.

    You agree that cost is the mechanism by which public policy influence peoples housing decisions. So when you say:

    “Public policy has made moving to suburbia the only viable option for many people.”

    You are effectively saying that the costs in the suburbs have been lowered compared to the types of places people would actually like to live.

    And when you say:

    “The suburbs themselves have chosen to limit that option to a preferred segment of the population.”

    You are saying that costs have been comparitively raised in the suburbs (by the white devils apparently to keep out the darkies,) so that the masses of people who would otherwise want to live their cannot.

    You need to choose one or the other.

  23. Now I’ve gotcha. It’s not the lowering of costs in the suburbs that I was referring to; it is the ickyness that cities have been allowed to sink in to that makes them a nonviable choice for most families. I’m not saying we should make people move to East St. Louis as it is now; I’m saying that if we make East St. Louis as nice as it once was (it was once quite nice, I’ve read), then people will move there of their own free will.

    The provision of highway access, charging higher utility rates to urbanites to fund extensions, etc…all the subsidies that have created the suburban experiment…lower the cost to live there for those that can afford single family homes on large lots, but not enough to allow those who can’t get a down payment together to move there.

    As for your sneering racial reference…zoning was upheld by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler. The case was about stopping a Chinese laundry from locating in an all-white suburb. Think that was a coincidence?

  24. Joe – I’d say the general “ickyness” of cities is an inevitable result of density.

    Density is the enemy – sprawl is the answer!

  25. Apparently, it’s also the answer to the Chinese Problem…

  26. Its everyone and everythings fault that people are fat, but its never there own fault.

    “Its genetics,” bob said as he eat three Twinkies dipped in chocolate while drinking a 3 litter Mountain Dew.

  27. Here is my anti-obesity ad:

    “If you consume more calories than you burn, you will become fat. Now if you’d like to be thinner, you know what to do. If you don’t care or just enjoy consuming calories, have at it. You may die sooner than your friends and you may not, and unfortunatly you are physically less attractive to others and heavier men have their penises obscured by layers of fat so they are smaller in appearance. Also, there is no God.”

    Okay, so that last bit didn’t have anything to do with it, but it is my make-believe ad.

  28. Big lot subdivisions, with no stores within walking distance, are the result of government interference with the market, by way of zoning laws. When given the chance, developers love to built, and the public loves to buy, housing and commercial space in real neighborhoods, but they often forbidden from doing so because of this 1920s-era social engineering scheme. True lovers of small government would be all over this problem, and would be pointing out that the lack of physical activity that results is one of many negative outcomes of this big government policy. Yet because it reflects badly on the United States of Generica, Reason constantly slams this line of thinking.

    What is it about sidewalks and neighborhoods that you people hate so much that you’re willing to ignore your stated ideals?

    And what does fire wood have to do with anything?

    You need to stop defining your opinions in opposition to what “those people” think.

  29. I happen to like bike trails and side-walks.

    Honestly, I’m a bit amused at the the vitriol leveled at a group that wants to make it easier (and more fun) to exercise. No one is going to take your car to get you off your fat ass- they would just like you to have more options if you choose to take your tubby self for a jog (for instance, to go to a library, park, shopping, center, etc, rather than to wander the streets of a subdivision). It seems odd that libertarians would be so dismissive of greater choice.

    All of the anecdotes in the world don’t change the fact our nation is facing a coming health crisis- 10 y/o’s with Type 2 Diabetes, for instance.. (Mr. Gillespie, I’m talking to you.).
    This will affect everyone in the country, regardless of your own personal weight, through lost wages, lost productivity, insurance premiums, wear and tear, and most importantly, lower quality of life. The CDC would be remiss in its duties if it DIDN’T investigate prevention as well as cure.

    The mocking jokes about laundry and wood stoves just seems like a Libertarian version of “Bush is stoopid” i.e. knee-jerk. The key concept is “choice” (ie. choosing physical exercise)- harkening back to when people didn’t have those choices isn’t an argument, it’s straw man.

  30. hey Joe, let’s stay on topic here. Fact is, there’s a bunch of “professional do-gooders” who think they can run our lives better than we can. We’re all big boys and girls and intelligent enough to make informed decisions about what we eat, how and where we travel, what we buy, where we live. Any chance we can be left the f*** alone to do that?

  31. The thing that concerned me most is the quote about “tackling some of these things with the savvy of the folks who tackled tobacco.” Does that mean suing developers? On second thought, we could sell tickets to that….

  32. Ditto what joe said. People used to live near where they worked, shopped, etc. In the 1920s a progressive idea called zoning was introduced and subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court as a constitutional interference in the free market. The idea was that centralized planners and experts would plot out where the factories would go, the houses, the stores, all for the benefit of public health and morality. (It’s not an unreasonable idea – who wants to live down the street from an oil refinery?)

    Anywho, this artificial scheme (in part) gave birth to the suburbs and this rather strange way we live where you need a car to do the simplest thing like go to the store and buy some bananas or something.

    The fact that no one walks anywhere anymore probably does play some part in the Great American Chunk-Out of the last couple decades. (Although personally I bet a diet increasingly based on highly refined carbohydrates has more to do with it).

  33. Steve,

    “We” who? Did you decide how your neighborhood would be built? Nope, the government did it for you, with the developer following its cues. If you live in suburbia, they took away the choice of you and neighbors to walk to the grocery store, in what amounts to a do-gooder scheme related to economic segregation and the superiority of driving to walking and public transit.

    Why are you against people having the choice to drive less? You sure you want to be on the side of the social engineers? You’ve always struck me more as the antisocial variety.

  34. Joe – the fact is, most of the population growth in this country is occuring in the suburbs because that is where people want to live, not because of zoning laws. Governments are currently using zoning laws to try to counter this trend as best they can, but they have been failing and they will continue to fail because a majority of people WANT to live where they can have a nice big lawn, see the stars at night, and have some peace and quiet after work.

    The anti-suburb folks want to use the power of government to “force” people to live in politically correct neighborhoods, by using growth management plans, which limit the areas available for new development in the suburbs. These plans always fail, because people will go to great lengths to avoid these “neighborhoods with sidewalks”.

    Also, I sincerely doubt that suburban living has any causal effect on obesity. When I lived in urban neighborhoods, most people still drove to the grocery store (even if it was only a 1/2 mile away) and there were a lot more fat people around.

  35. “a majority of people WANT to live where they can have a nice big lawn, see the stars at night, and have some peace and quiet after work.”

    Untrue. The biggest reasons, by far, for choosing newer, auto-dominated suburbs over cities or inner ring suburbs, are good schools and low crime – neither of which is necessarily related to big lots, strip malls, and single family zoning. These correlations are the result of public policies that favor new growth over redevelopment. In Europe, the suburbs are where the poor people have to live and crime is high, and urban neighborhoods are desirable – again, because of public policy.

    However, this dynamic is so old (80+ years) that the land use pattern and socio-economic factors have become blurred in the public mind, much as a person who’s only seen black cats will think that all cats are black. If you ask people where they want to live, a large majority will talk about suburbia. If you show them pictures of different neighborhoods, solid majorities pick places with sidewalks, narrower roads, neighborhood stores, and pedestrians. Beacon Hill, Georgetown – these are the types of neighborhoods you’re arguing against, and which modernist zoning forbids.

    Of course, some people choose a rural location with actual wide-open spaces, but suburbia has never been anything but a pale imitation of the real thing.

    “Governments are currently using zoning laws to try to counter this trend as best they can…” I wish. Zoning, for the most part, remains mired in the 1950s.

    “…but they have been failing and they will continue to fail…” Kentlands, Celebration, Haile Village Center…Traditional Neighborhood Design has been a resounding success virtually everywhere it’s been tried.

  36. I would dispute PLC in people wanting to avoid neighborhoods with sidewalks. The most overpriced neighborhoods around DC are in Arlington County, where there are sidewalks. And also, because of that, bars you can walk to, etc. without risking your life. The people I know who live further out do so because they can’t afford anywhere closer. Most would prefer to have a neighborhood you could walk somewhere without getting rundown by a car.

  37. Weather you like those kinds of neighborhoods or not was not what i saw as the main idea in the post.

    Your personal choice on what type of neighborhood is your own, and i dont really care what your choice is, its your own so who cares.

    Its the idea that those neighborhoods will somehow fix americas obesity problem or somehow put a dent into the problem is absurd to me.

  38. Obesity in the USA is certainly caused by a number of contributing factors. The lack of everyday physical activity is almost certainly one of them. Both times I’ve traveled to Europe, I’ve lost weight, in spite of a richer diet and having my normal exercise routine disrupted…because I walked all freakin’ day. (I realize, I probably walked more as a tourist than I would as a resident, but still…)

    That said, the notion of forcing neighborhoods to be more pedestrian friendly is absurd. The only places in the States where people on a large scale opt out of using a car for everything are are where using a car is too much of a hassle and/or prohibitively expensive (like Manhattan). And if Manhattan had had its big population explosion after the automobile became widespread, it’d probably look a lot more like LA, Houston, or Atlanta.

    Thank God for little miracles…

  39. Once again – if people did not want to live in “sprawl” or “auto-dominated” suburbs, the market would handle this problem over the longer run. People’s desires were not created by zoning laws. Most Americans do not desire to live in a high-density neighborhood. If they wanted to, they could. They choose not to do so, of their own free will.

    All the zoning laws in the world do not change the fact that each person has a choice of where to live in this country.

    I live near Seattle. In Seattle, there are plenty of walkable neighborhoods at various price points, ranging from single family homes on 1/8 acre lots to high rise apartments and condos. The city, country, and state governments have been doing everything they can to entice more people to remain in the city. They have subsidized development and re-development, they subsidize firms which build or locate businesses in the city, they spend tons of(the suburbs’) money on art, theatre, zoos, stadiums, trains, buses, etc. On the other side, they put a growth management boundry on the suburbs, they delay any approval of new construction, they refuse to build adequate roads or infrastructure for the suburbs. And yet, over the last ten years, the population of Seattle grew by only 5000 people, while the population of the suburbs grew by 250,000. I’d say that that is people voting with the wallets.

    There are plenty of places to live in Seattle. Vacancy is high, prices are LOWER than in the suburbs. But most people, in fact the vast majority of people choose the suburbs. Why? Because of clean air, lack of crime, good schools, big lots, quiet, it does not matter – it is their choice.

    Also, the reason people in Europe are less obese than Americans is that their food is so much more expensive. Food is cheap and easy in America, so it’s cheap and easy to get fat. This has nothing to do with where you live.

  40. Joe:

    I’m not against anyone who wants to drive less. I’m against anyone who wants to tell me how to run my own freakin’ life. I don’t tell them how to run theirs. No, I didn’t decide how my neighborhood would be built, but I made an informed decision to live there, thank you.

    BTW, I’ve lived in the burbs and currently live in the city. Overall, I prefer the city (I think).

  41. Weight loss is up to the person, changing their enviornment wont do it if they dont want to loss weight.
    So yes even if one can walk or bike in an area unless they want to they wont.

  42. PLC,

    The issue isn’t really suburbs vs. city. It’s about one kind of suburb vs. another, and suburban neighborhoods built around principles of Tranditional Neighborhood Design (the design that the hallowed Market settled on before the meddling of elitist zoning) sell very, very well. I’ll bet quite of few of that 250,000 moved into New Urbanist developments, and quite a few more would have done so if they had the chance.

  43. Steve,

    You made your informed choice among the options that were available to you. Those options were artifically limited by car culture zoning, and the induced decline of urban neighborhoods.

  44. I love this thread!
    Sprawl is the effect of zoning. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. But zoning doesn’t allow new cities.
    People are not as obese as the government says. The obesity statistic comes from a survey, not a study. No one was weighed, nor measured. They were asked, and the results skewed to offset an assumed bias in reporting one’s own dimensions.

    If we need more exercise, these busybodies will not solve the problem by providing walking shoes to the indigent, but instead by imposing costs on the indignant.

  45. Joe:

    I’ll agree that the suburban neighborhoods built around the “New Urbanist” dogma are selling very well. But, so too are the traditional single family homes on a large lot.

    I would personally never live in a place like Redmond Ridge or Snoqualmie Ridge (two gigantic planned “urbanist” neighborhoods out here), but I can understand why some people might like to live there. At least its better than Seattle.

    There are two issues – first, I find that the suburbs are vastly more conducive to walking than are the cities, so blaming sprawl for obesity is absurd. Second, the “new urbanists” are primarily just new elitists who wish to dictate how others live. They don’t want to make it possible to built these “mix-use” neighborhoods – they want to make it mandatory. You’re just replacing one form of zoing with another.

    Another example of people voting with thier wallets – around Seattle, they put up a growth barrier to prevent sprawl. Fortunately, they only extended it to the edge of King County, so now developers are building brand new “suburbs” over a mountain pass, more than 60 miles away outside of the small rural town of Cle Elum. That is how desperate people are to be able to live by themselves on thier own piece of land.

    As a true libertarian, you must recognize that growth management plans are an immoral imposition upon our freedom, correct?

  46. “The intent of the zoning to which you refer was to create residential neighborhoods for the middle class and up, into which working class people could not afford to move.”

    “You made your informed choice among the options that were available to you. Those options were artifically limited by car culture zoning, and the induced decline of urban neighborhoods.”

    So all these neighborhoods were diabolically designed to keep people out AND artificially force people to move to them? Those planners must have a genius I cannot fathom.

  47. Joe –

    “Isn’t the way we treat the most vulnerable supposed to be the measure of our decency?” No, it is not. This kind of thinking leads to assinine laws like the ADA. It is also the reason why public schools fail. We spend an inordinate amount of our time and resources on the slowest, worst-behaved 10% and give short-shift to the other 90%.

    “how free is someone in a subdivision that can’t drive – a kid, an old person…” I was never so free as when I was growing up in a suburb with 1 acre minimum zoning. I could get on my bike and ride anywhere I wanted; I had plenty of fields and woods to explore; I didn’t have to worry about getting hit by a bus or kidnapped or sold drugs or anything. My childhood was glorious and free – because of suburbia (and we were not rich).

    “Someone whose closest store is in a strip mall three miles away has less freedom of choice.” What if they want to be free to live as far away from shopping as possible. I don’t want any stores in my neighborhood.

    If someone wants to live near shopping, etc., good for them, feel free. Just don’t tell everyone else that we have to live like you as well.

  48. Joe,
    In 99.99 percent of nature, “the most vulnerable” are the ones that get eaten first.

  49. Joe,

    That’s a bit of an oversimplification. There is more than one way to measure a society. Most importantly would be how it treats the vast majority of its people, not the tiny minorities. Most people in America have cars and can afford to drive them. It would be a bit silly to mandate all neighborhoods be constructed around either the rich or the disabled/disadvantaged. You are right however that it is important to consider how we treat such people. By allowing choice in development of neighborhoods by maximizing the freedom that builders and their customers have to made decisions, we will most likely get housing solutions that suit all types of people.

    Full disclosure: lest you think I’m a heartless libertarian ‘fend for yourself’ bastand (maybe you still will I don’t know), my mother is legally blind and has to take the city bus to work. However she and my father have accomodated the situation by choosing to live where public transport is available to get from their house to her workplace. I certainly wish she had more options (the bus routes aren’t the greatest in the Detroit area) but I also certainly wish more that she could see better. I know that regardless they have found a solution that allows them to get by. I am all for policies that encourage more options for people in this situation. What I am against is expecting the rest of the world to be built around the few folks who happen to be in an unfortunate situation to the detriment of the majority.

  50. I live on 5 acres in the East Texas piney woods. Wal-Mart is about a 2-mile walk from my front door, but fuck it if I’m gonna walk to Sam’s House. We have 300-pound feral hogs around here that would scare the shit out of your yankee bears and cougars. Some of these ol’ boars have scrotums that measure 11 inches or more across. Wait a minute, I’m getting off track here…

    Oh, yeah, housing density. Our subdivision is one of 3,000-foot manors on 5-acre lots. I can see my neighbors’ houses, and can wave to them if I see them out in the yard, but I don’t have them in my face all the time and I only have to interact with them if I want to. The guy across the road bought a double lot, and we face the 5 acres he left wooded. If I want to walk out on my front porch day or night and piss on the rhododendrons, no one is the wiser, and actually, no one around here cares.

    Pissing off my front porch whenever I want. That is the true measure of freedom. Just try to do that in your urban jungles.

  51. Children, elders, the disabled, and low income people do not constitute a “tiny minority.” The conceit that this is a society of overwhelmingly upper middle class, able bodied, working aged men lies behind the last three responses, and demonstrates the conformity to existing power structures that lies behind libertarianism’s anti-authoritarian pose. The ferocity with which you assail any attempt to alter the status quo is quite remarkable.

  52. Joe – according to Consumer Reports, 92% of households own at least one car, including 75% of low-income households. I’d call 8% a tiny minority.

    American society is overwhelmingly middle-class, able-bodied, and suburban. This is not a conceit, it is a fact.

  53. PLC,

    I never claimed that cars were anything but ubiquitous. Reread the post.

  54. Joe,

    My first responsibility is to me and mine. If that is the status quo, so be it. I do what I can to help “the most vulnerable”, but I will not restructure my life for them.

    When I was a journalism student in the 1970s, Woodward and Bernstein were our gods, Watergate our Illiad, and our goal in life was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

    After a few years in the real world, we learned that the “comfortable” were the ones who (A) bought advertising in newspapers, (B) patronized the advertisers in newspapers, and (C) subscribed to newspapers. In other words, it was the “comfortable” who paid our salaries. If the “afflicted” ever even bothered to pick up a paper, it was an abandoned copy left on a park bench. And in many cases, it was the “afflicted” who brought their afflictions upon themselves. I imagine that’s still the case.

  55. PLC: When I lived in Atlanta, I walked for 20 minutes to the nearest MARTA station. Here in New Jersey, I used to walk for 15 minutes to the nearest bus stop before they canceled the line and I had to dust off my car. They canceled the line because of people with your attitude: “If it doesn’t stop in front of my door, I’m not interested.” Who knows, maybe that article was right after all – people really forgot how to live an active life.

  56. It seems kind of silly to try and fix problems cause by zoning with more zoning. How do we know that the ideal neighborhood from before zoning is still the ideal neighborhood today. For one thing, houses are larger, meaning less population desnisty, and hence fewer customers for local stores within walking distance. Of course, most people have more free time now and more money to spend, so maybe it evens out.

    The best thing to do would be to get rid of zoning laws and let things work themselves out.

  57. These ‘urban vs. suburban’ posts seem to generate the most controversy, at least between a couple of opinionated folks (PLC & Joe in particular). To me this has gotten off track of the issue: should the government be trying to ‘force’ a particular lifestyle on people? Obviously PLC prefers semi-rural suburbia (as do I) and Joe prefers the ‘traditional neighborhood’ semi-urban suburbia. There is nothing wrong with either of these choices.

    Can’t we simultaneously accept the notions that 1) previous urban planning and zoning has contributed to sprawling suburbs, and
    2) Market demands of actual consumers has contributed to sprawling suburbs?

    I have no issues with ‘new urbanist’ developments made by private developers in response to market demands. I think in the absence of social engineering to produce one type of community or the other, both PLC and Joe are right. Many people will choose a new urban development over the typical suburb, but the majority of Americans will probably prefer traditional suburbs. If we clean up the cities more people will choose to live there as well. Part of ‘cleaning them up’ will require elimination of restrictions on multiple use and bureacratic red tape within the city that prevents redevelopment, and reform of the social and legal climate that leads to high crime rates (eliminate drug laws that encourage crime, eliminate welfare programs that encourage irresponsible lifestyles, privatize schools or implement vouchers to improve education). I doubt that last event will occur anytime soon so I guess we’re stuck with suburbs of one type of another. Which will be more popular is going to be dependent on the market.

    BTW in the town in Michigan where I live, formerly a very rural area, they are building several of these ‘new urbanist’ type developments, complete with townhomes, apartments, a fake ‘downtown’ with shops, some green space, and single family homes that have a pedestrian space in front with the actual driving roads and garages in back off of an alleyway. I am interested to see how it turns out. Seems like a pleasant place to live but I personally would not choose it. In any case everyone who lives here commutes to the larger nearby cities to work (Lansing or Detroit) and the only way to get there is by car. Also the best places to get groceries and other household necessities are Meijer and Walmart, which are several miles away crossing many busy roads, so I doubt the community design in and of itself will encourage people to walk more in their day-to-day activities unless they consciously decide to exercise (which kind of defeats the purpose of the busybodies in the USA Today article).

  58. Tom,

    You seem to be living a genuine rural life, which is quite different from the automobile suburbs in question. You can’t piss off your front porch in a cookie cutter subdivision of half acre lots, either.

    PLC – go to Toronto or Beacon Hill and tell me how icky they are. Then look at the rotting auto graveyards and nasty shacks in many rural areas. Density and ickyness are independent variables.

    Madog – some zoning will always be necessary. But the answer to the sprawl/lardass problem requires a lot more cutting than adding. But yes, this is a problem of not letting developers build what they want. When offered to option, they have jumped at the chance to build New Urbanist villages. Why build 150 feet of road and utilities per unit, when you could build 20 or 50?

  59. Oh, one more point: automotive culture has also contributed to suburban sprawl, but last time I checked automobiles were a technological innovation that improved people’s lives by giving them more freedom over where they live and work. You can argue all you want over the governement’s role in subsidizing their use, but the fact remains their existance would have lead to some of these choices we now make regardless of government involvement. That said, I would support privatizing roads or other means to make automobiles compete in a true free market with other options, and that could alter the urban/suburban/rural population pie chart.

  60. joe,

    Maybe Toronto is so nice because there aren’t enough Chinese laundries there to have forced all the “preferred” people out to the suburbs.

  61. All you fatties better recognize, cuz you ain’t gettin’ no shorties that’s fo sho.

  62. I’ve been to Toronto and Beacon Hill. In fact, I’ve been just about everywhere in Canada and the United States. And I’ve never seen a city I didn’t despise from the moment I arrived until the moment I departed.

  63. PLC,

    New York’s ickyness was no hindrance to Walt Whitman’s poetry. đŸ™‚

  64. It isn’t the ownership of the car; people in well designed neighborhoods own and use cars, too. They just have more choices, and as a result, more freedom. Someone with a corner store four blocks away can choose to drive, walk, or take the public transit that is economically viable in that neighborhood. Someone whose closest store is in a strip mall three miles away has less freedom of choice.

    That said, how free is someone in a subdivision that can’t drive – a kid, an old person, a disabled person, a mother whose family can only afford one car, which Dad has to drive to work? How many choices do they have? How much is their opportunity limited?

    Why are the people who can afford to buy and use the expensive toys always the yardstick for free-marketeers? Isn’t the way we treat the most vulnerable supposed to be the measure of our decency?

  65. CASE IN POINT: A 420-pound man is suing McDonald’s because he got turned down for a job in his neighborhood, and he believes it was due to his weight. A spokesman for McDonald’s said, “Of course we don?t want him working here. We want him to be eating here!

  66. “My first responsibility is to me and mine. If that is the status quo, so be it. I do what I can to help “the most vulnerable”, but I will not restructure my life for them.”

    Exactly so Tom.

    The liberal “do-gooders” are constantly attempting to pass off their incessent desire to control other peoples lives, property and wealth as a virtue.

    Their constant yapping about “the common good” is nothing more than shorthand for “everyone should be required to live according to my preferences”.

    That is exactly what all the squawking about the suburban “sprawl” is about. The fact is that the suburbs wouldn’t have been built out if there wasn’t a demand for it. The demand wasn’t “engineered” by govt zoning laws, as some here seem to think. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

    The idea that urban living is somehow the epitome of human existence merely because some self-appointed “expert” elitists proclaim it to be is laughable.

  67. Great blog. I’ll be coming back again

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