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Arguably, my job responsibilities primarily revolve around the implementation of complete streets projects. I say arguably for the simplification of making a point on a blog here, but it’s not entirely overstated. Often times in the process of getting these projects implemented there’s opposition against it – politicians, business owners, even other departments on the same “team” (note the quotes as sarcasm)- for all kinds of stated reasons from the ideological to the lack of technical education. Although my professional expertise factually concludes that most of these arguments are hogwash, partial truths, or ignorance on the topic, there’s always been something much more basic about intelligently designed infrastructure that is rarely described so eloquently as the gentleman in the video below.
When we pay attention to and respect basic human dignity the only choice is to provide a complete set of options for all users… The only choice is equitable access and movement… The only choice is fundamentally simple.
With all the recent news coverage over NYC’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, outlawing 32 ounce sodas, I couldn’t resist the urge to make my own commentary on the topic.
A lot of people are calling the decision one more move towards a “nanny state” where the government is beginning to tell us what we can and cannot do in our personal lives. While I can see their point – after all I wouldn’t want to give up my love of French fries- the situation, I believe, is largely misunderstood.
This is not to say I agree with the decision. Singling out one specific product contributing to the U.S. health epidemic rather than approaching the issue more inclusively leads to a public perception of impropriety or bias by the government. In a world laden with government mistrust that’s no good. It has the potential to harm the overall goal to improve the public’s health. At the same time, an overarching “Twinkie tax” on unhealthy food receives such strong opposition by politicians and the public that it leaves public health agencies and the government alike at a loss for how to deal with the growing obesity crisis.
Americans have proven themselves incapable of making collective healthy choices. (A quick side note should mention it’s not entirely the fault of individuals but the market itself. The U.S. makes the mistake of treating food like any other commodity; the result of which is mismatched pricing of food that makes a fast food burger cheaper than fresh produce.) Instead we most often think of health as an individualistic choice. But with all the obesity related diseases that are not coincidentally at the top of the list of killers in the U.S. …and the subsequent increases in healthcare costs …how can we as a society continue to ignore that we’re in this together? How can we go on thinking our health only affects ourselves?
The research is there. The evidence is in. Sodas, fast food, and all that other junk is killing us. It’s killing us in such large quantities that we haven’t seen numbers like this since the cholera epidemic.. As in before people realized cities need sewers because things like e-coli could make people ill. Humans are animals of repetition. Monkey see. Monkey do. If we see that it’s socially acceptable to do something, we will – by simple passive observation – most likely do it ourselves. If we don’t see behavior as socially acceptable, it’s most unlikely that an individual will go against that social norm. Don’t believe me? Do you think you have defied evolution as a superior being uninfluenced by suggestion? Well then, that would mean the entire industry of advertising wouldn’t exist. (Another side note: look at the number of commercials dedicated to prepackaged and fast food.) Better yet look at what changing the social norms around smoking did to reduce the obvious health consequences of that poor health decision.
The whole 32 ounce soda controversy won’t solve obesity – a fact admitted to by NYC government officials. It has however created the start to an overdue conversation.
Anyone see a recent Arby’s commercial lately? In case you haven’t, next time you are indulging in your secret indulgent TV program (confession: mine is Jersey Housewives. Don’t judge.) be on the look out for one. At first glance it may seem like your average fast food commercial with happy people eating their sandwich and curly fries. But then the advertising jingle has their spokesmodel guy popping out of the Arby’s tag line, singing “It’s good mood food”.
Don’t get me wrong – I have a serious infatuation with all kind of french fries. But Good Mood Food?! It’s enfuriating to me and here’s why: Fast food not only causes the exact OPPOSITE reaction to the tagline due to the horrific nutritional value it provides (Bad Mood Food) but it also – if eaten regularly and/or in combination with other high sugar and fat foods – makes you ADDICTED to it. This means that a person can literally alter their taste buds to where nutritious foods taste displeasurable. Crazy, right?
What, you ask, does this have to do with our built environment? Well as my plannning counterparts and public health professionals can attest, low to moderate income neighborhoods typically have a higher prevelanance of fast food establishments than grocery stores. This contributes to a problem you’ve probably heard before, called food desserts. I prefer the term nutritional dessert because I think it is more accurate, but tomate-o, tomaht-o, it’s essentially the same thing. Anyhow, the food is cheap so low income families can get more bang for their buck, especially when a single mother of three, for example, holds down two jobs and barely has enough time to brush her teeth let alone make dinner every night. What makes it worse is the building disposition itself, smack in the center of some vast, mostly unused parking lot with cars circling it because walking through the doors is too inconvenient. In some regions around the country I can almost pinpoint the income range by the number of fast food joints, their proximity to one another, and if the drive thru has multiple stacking lanes. I’m not sure what is more sick – that fast food product positioning preys on the “weak” or that it goes mostly unnoticed by the public.
The other problem is the long-term life of the building itself. Due to the specific use- with a drive thru and often awkward lot postion for traffic flow – the reuse of the building as something other than a fast food establishment is difficult and often unlikely. In a declining real estate and economic climate, it will end up as a vacant building that will further depreciate property values of neighboring businesses. Some hope exists in sprawl repair suggestions from the Congress of New Urbanism, but it takes a forward thinking developer to make such changes. Forward thinking can be hard to come buy in under invested communities.
Of course, there are other factors that go into determining fast food locations other than just income. But next time you are driving through or hang out in a higher income area (besides along the highways) count how many fast food places you see and take a mental note at the number and names of grocery stores. I bet you you’ll find it’s significanlty different than in moderate and lower income areas.
Food for thought.
For my non-plannery friends out there: gentrification is essentially when an “up-and-coming” area, for example, realizes its up-and-coming status, jacks up the rents, and Gap moves into what was previously your favorite off-beat music store. Suddenly you walk down the street and you see a lot more middle to upper class (typically white) people walking around a place you moved to because it had an underappreciated, well-priced character.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had to experience the life-is-unfair feelings that would come from finding out that I was too poor to afford to live in a place that was previously unwanted by most others. That is, until this month. My lease on my apartment is coming due and the management company wants to hike my monthly rent another $50 (It was raised $50 last year too.)! Naturally, I made my case listing the points of grievance I feel do not justify such an increase. The response? They’re at 100% capacity so they’d rather have me move out and make more money off some other poor unsuspecting shmuck than to negotiate with me and keep a good tenant that has proven to pay her month on time and not cause problems for her neighbors. **steam smoking from my ears**
In my fury I did what any normal person would do: talk trash to my neighbors and investigate. One of the great things about being a planner is I know how to access comparable market rates, crime stats, etc., etc.. So in my hunt, not only did I find my apartment complex is overcharging for the age of the building and the area, but also I found out the other reasons behind why the management is so unwilling to meet me halfway. Much of it had to do with property tax and insurance increases. **sigh** I then realized I have NO negotiating room with these blood suckers.
See, my apartment is a hidden gem tucked away where no one (at least until this year) realized that it existed. But besides the market change that now favors rental properties over owner properites, the apartment is situated in one, if not THE, best school district in the city. There are only 2 other rental properties like mine and everyone and their mother (literally) are trying to get space in there now. Since the property has an invisible split between the dangerously crappy neighborhood on the one side and the ridiculously rich on the other (hence, the good school thing) it’s easy to see why this trend is occuring and why my apartment complex is so unwilling to work with me on the rent issue.
I’ve had family members and friends comment to me on how shocked they are by the number of children in the complex and how much older the many of the other residents are. Just goes to show a shining example of where the economic market has collided with increasing numbers of empty nesters and 20-something city dwellers that we hear so much about in the planning field and in the media. And I’m all for a mix of ages and cultures and what not… but it’s made me think that this trend might be a new kind of gentrification.
As a young person I’ve never seen gentrified “up-and-coming” places filled with people my own age but rather the 35-45 (possibly empty nesters too) buying out what us 20 -somethings (and minorities) made cool. But I’ve never seen an up-and-coming place become gentrified by 4-16 year olds. Frankly, sometimes I’d rather have the adults than the kids ’cause kids can be down right annoying – like barking dogs but with verbal capabilities. But that’s neither here nor there.
What do you think? Is the double income family now the subgroup pushing out lower income peeps like myself? Are they the new source of Gentrification?
This quote is really the epitomy of how I view life and work. I think it is why I like urban design and architecture: We don’t have to accept dead-end subdivisions, nasty automobile oriented strip malls, or cookie cutter housing just because it’s how we’re used to seeing things! Our spaces truely influence how we percieve the world and, often, so subconciously that many of us don’t even realize it. Obviously I’m passionate enough about the quote above that I started this blog.
On the personal side of this: I also don’t believe marriage is neccessary; that there should be a desire for a woman to have kids; that I have to be making $X dollars by a given timeframe, etc., etc.. Why? Well, I have a pet peeve around “shoulds”. Translated, “should” stands for the following: fear and lack of imagination. (Wow, what a metaphor to the built environment, no?!) If the things that our society and immediate circle deems as shoulds are your wants, then of course, go for it..but please take the concept I’m trying to stutter through here and apply it in a way that works for you.
I’m not saying I’m always the best at this. Although it did spawn me to get my masters degree in a field I wasn’t sure I’d love, get up and randomly move to Texas where I knew no one, plan to up and leave the country on a week notice, I have had a lot of noise in my head these days clouding my mantra and clogging my sense of purpose. So much so that it has caused a motivation slash inspiration problem. Between the recent ethical dilemma at work, the challenge of keeping an affordable roof over my head, and a canceled vacation (unfortunately some untimely and sad deaths in the family blew Aruba out of the schedule), work has… shall we say… felt unfulfilling. I’ve really come back to this quote to bring me back to earth.
The only problem is I think it’s backfiring. Rather than getting myself back in the saddle at my job, I’ve been thinking of all the more unconventional ways that I can live out my passions – IF I could get over the comfort of a 401k and health benefits *sigh*. After all, just because I’ve been told these things make “normal” jobs great, doesn’t mean I SHOULD do it, right?
Right now I think I’m too far in my head to have great perspective on things.. And I’m sorry I don’t have a neat and tidy way of wrapping this up today. I’m thinking that no matter what, whatever this is will push me forward in some way… or at least I hope? Afterall, standing still is just that and besides, a little daydreaming never hurt anyone.
For myself it merely feels good to fess up to these thoughts/doubts/fears/confusion. But I’d still like to leave you with something more concrete to inspire your life or work and maybe get you to view your built environment a little differently today. It’s a sight called The Art of Nonconformity. Yes, the fella who started it is a bit of a nonconformist – and is an inspiration for pursuing your dreams (he is also responsible for the graphic of my favorite quote seen here in this post.) In it he has a 4-Step Encouragement Mantra to keep him going when doubts plague his focus. I’ve modified it below to fit my life. Feel free to do the same.
At the very least, check out this entry from our friends at Pop-Up City . If it doesn’t make you look at the world a little different today, I don’t know what will!!
You read the title correctly… 72 MILLION. Given the total population of the US of just over 307,000,000, that’s about 1/4 of the population. In case your eyes glaze over when numbers and stats are thrown out, imagine all of Texas and California being completely wiped out. Now imagine the City of Miami being erased. Combined, you start getting a better idea.
According to a recent NPR series these 72 million adults (and all Americans for that matter) have had severe shifts in portion sizes and types – with more intake of sugars, fats, and meat. Now, I could go in twenty different directions with this (including the fact that they didn’t show ANY graphics for the amount of automobiles on the road, the reduction in nearby retail and grocers in walking distance, how much unstructured exercise the average American gets, etc., etc.). But for the sake of focus and clarity I think it’s best to stick to how this information reflects on our food system.
The first glaring issue is animal products – meat and cheese. Americans are now eating a sick amount of both. Now, I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian, so I’m not trying to bash all you meat lovers out there. (For full disclosure however, my diet does weigh more towards the vegetarian. It wasn’t by design but nonetheless the switch happened a few years ago and I’ve never gone back.) What I am trying to do is get at the environmental conditions that are being stressed out by producing this extreme amount of animal products.
Think about it. It takes a lot to feed animals. And it takes a lot to grow food to feed the animals. To keep up with demand livestock are given insane amounts of corn (instead of grass) to “beef” them up faster. Typically a cow, for example, has two years of milk production (they could go 7-10 years if grass-fed) before they’re literally worn out from their digestive system not being able to break down corn (see my past post on Perennial Plate for more). After two years, they go straight to slaughter.
Now let’s work backward in the food chain. Think of how much corn has to be grown to keep that many animals alive. Then think about the strain that amount of corn repetitively being planted year after year puts on the soil, stripping it of the top layers, rich with nutrients. If anything else ever gets planted in its place… well if it grows at all, it most likely is less nutritious for us anyway.
Sick and complicated cycle, no?
Second most glaring graphic on the NPR stats is that poverty rates and obesity are directly correlated to one another. From this, I dare anyone out there to argue that food deserts don’t exist. Double dog dare you. It just goes to show that our most vulnerable populations are not being given a fighting chance to get nutritious food. Combine this with America’s diminished relationship with food (and how to prepare the fresh stuff) and increased dependence on packaged, processed garbage… well you see where I am going.
So suggestion for today is to make this week’s grocery store visit a thoughtful one. Make a shopping list that forces you to think about where your food comes from. And for heaven’s sake, please limit canned/packaged/processed foods to maybe a few cans of beans. Your body will thank you. The environment will thank you. And damn it, it’s important.
Don’t believe me? See this article.
This video is from Perennial Plate: Adventurous and Sustainable Eating. It is a great first hand account of farm to market, where the average grocery store shopper is reminded of just how much work goes into bringing us our fruits and veggies.
I’ve watched many of the episodes in this series and I must say it’s given me a new-found appreciation for organic – not just because of the health benefits but also because of its economic implications. The amount of work and the few who are brave enough to do it on such a small, small financial return is an unfathomable lifestyle for most surbanites and urban dwellers. With the amount of natural threats (mosquitos, weather, bacteria, etc.) that can plaque even the most hearty crop (see the cranberry and the rice episodes at Perennial Plate), it’s no wonder most turn to chemical treatments to protect their livelihood. And let’s not forget the financial security that large corporate producers provide to farmers. The machines and the land and the experienced labor are all so expensive – economies of scale make a lot of sense to both the farmers and us, the consumers. We get to eat practically free-of-charge at the expense of those who grew it for us.
Think about it. How much do you think your food is really worth? Scratch the organic part for a sec. Just add in labor, cost of land, hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars worth of equipment, packaging and shipping (how much does an avocado cost to get it from South America to a grocery store in New York?), and we get expensive food. Now, add in the organic part with its uncertainty and risk…. see where I’m going? Food is expensive.
Yet, because we want to go into our grocery stores and see piles and piles of fresh food at our finger tips AND at “good” prices, this stuff gets subsidized like crazy. The laws of supply and demand in combination with manufacturing/economies of scale let us turn a blind eye to its real cost. Unfortunately for us the more we rely on mass production the less nutritious and environmentally friendly our food becomes. A need for packaging creates reliance on oil to make plastics; Plastics wrap food; The use of plastics is not reduced. Shipping causes increased vehicle miles traveled and therefore, more air particulates. Mass produced fruits and veggies cause less soil turn over and therefore strip the land of nutrients.
I think of the kids in poor neighborhoods that don’t know where their food comes from, that don’t know what a tomato is, and that reference their last vegetable intake as the fries from McDonald’s. I think of the moms and dads in middle class neighborhoods working their butts off to put food on the table who just cant afford to make the switch to organic. I think of me and those just like me, just starting out in my career, who really want to subscribe to the organic/local craze, but need to pay rent on time and still have some money left over to go have drinks with friends from time to time. And then I wonder if it’s truly an issue of “can’t” rather than “will”.
One thing is for certain. In order to align our supposed values around food (as manifested in eating local and organic) with price point, we are going to have to come to grips with its real costs. That will mean a major shift in how we consider other cost of living factors like housing. Are we really willing to be ok with less square feet for the sake of healthy food? Are we also willing to settle for eating foods within seasonable availability (i.e.- foregoing strawberries in the winter ***gasp!***).
I know people seem mad over local, including participating in community gardens or joining a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) but at the end of the day we have to change our priorities slightly; to consider how our food is grown and brought to our plates; and to reflect the respect for that process in the prices we pay. Trust me, I’m not a fan of paying twice as much for grass-fed, organic milk than for mass-produced skim, but at the end of the day I know I’m supporting the farmers who got it to me and not the company who made their work cheap. And not to mention respecting the animal who made it possible (on average cows in mass-produced dairy farms last 2 years. That’s a third of the time that local ones do before heading to slaughter).
I’m a work in progress with this. In fact I plan on eating barbecue today and pretty sure they’re not grassfed, let alone local meats. I can say, however, that I’m much more conscious of my purchasing power. I’m making small steps in finding the happy medium between my wallet and my conscience.
How about you? What barriers do you have to going local? organic? Is it all price point? Is it convenience? Or is it just not a priority for you?
It’s about what is known in the land of urban wonkery as “complete streets,” and it is a concept that is becoming more and more prevalent around the country.
That’s right. Today I’m loving the online site GRIST (also in my links page) because, among other things, they’ve promoted my name! Check out the specific link here. The video is from another favorite site called Streetfilms (listed in the links page too). Check it out.
My first truly profound ethical dilemma of my career has official arrived. I wish I could fully describe the details of it – see how it fares against other people’s war stories. Unfortunately that is a luxury I don’t have at this moment. Hopefully it suffices to say that it has felt like someone killing a puppy right in front of me. Perhaps it’s a sign of youthful innocence stolen or, less dramatically, a very large disappointment. Either way I’ve found myself in and out of long periods of silence trying to wrap my head around recent events; to answer “Why-did-you-do-THAT?”-like questions; and more importantly to answer “What-do-you-do-now?”-like questions. Afterall, it’s in the answer to “What do you do now?” that is the true test an ethical dilemma… not to mention personal character.
What would you do if you were caught in an ethical dilemma? How far would you be willing to stand-by your principles?