FAT City

By Sorkin, Michael; Renwick, Danielle | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

FAT City


Sorkin, Michael, Renwick, Danielle, Americas Quarterly


The growing urbanization of the planet has bred bad habits of consumption, along with poorly designed transportation and service networks, that are wreaking havoc on our personal and environmental health-not to mention aesthetics.

The planet has reached a weird moment: overweight people now outnumber those who are malnourished. Obesity, particularly among children, has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., as has diabetes. And the problem is spreading around the globe, a plague correlated not simply with increased prosperity but with the forms of our accelerating urbanization. This doesn't necessarily mean that "over-development" has superceded underdevelopment as a global issue, but it suggests that global inequality is growing in newly perverse ways.

Change, though, is possible. In the U.S. and throughout the Americas, this will require not simply dramatic adjustments in diet and lifestyle but also urban planning that focuses on the design of new transportation and service networks, on careful management of density, on reinforcing neighborhoods, on reducing the spatial privileges of class, and on a far healthier relationship to the natural environment. Until now, such planning has too often been the victim of the fragmented and dysfunctional politics of our undisciplined, overweight cities.

Studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that a primary villain is urban sprawl and its enabler, the automobile. Their collusion is characterized by rampant suburbanism and by low-density patterns of land use that make mass transit both economically and logistically impossible. And because we walk less, we are less healthy. But this is not simply a function of urban form. Obesity is disproportionately a disease of the poor in the U.S.-a paradox that arises directly from the dominance of an industrialized fast-food system that offers the most degraded form of nutrition at low prices, laced with corn sugar to seduce, and supersized to suggest value.

The growing unhealthiness of urban lifestyles is a global problem. The world's urban population is growing at the rate of one million people a week and half of this growth is concentrated in slums, where the lack of access to transportation, goods and services, a proper diet and adequate living space has aggravated existing health problems-even as it ironically gives slums a lower ecological footprint. These inequities within cities are often ignored in the debate over carbon caps-with its clash between exponents of calculation by absolute emissions (where China leads) and per capita emissions (where the U.S. is champ). But an urban-oriented approach to environmental change must be aimed at achieving greater parity at the individual level. This will mean a kind of conceptual capping and trading in which hyperconsumers will ultimately be obliged, in effect, to switch some of their "credits" to the poor, even as the aggregate is driven down.

Such a convergence can only take place by redeveloping cities with a view to reducing their impact on the environment, which means a global rethinking of what a good city should be. One of the most popular initiatives enacted by President Barack Obama's administration has been the "cash for clunkers" program, offering incentives to car owners to trade up from their old gas-guzzlers to more fuel- efficient models. While increasing the proportion of low-gas-mileage cars on the road will surely have positive effects on the environment, the exponential increase in cars on the road (the U.S. program does nothing about absolute numbers) can only reinforce the destructive urban pattern that so vexes us. Indeed, the "shovel-ready" imperative of the U.S. stimulus package, which is oriented toward the reconstruction or repair of existing transportation infrastructure, reinforces existing patterns rather than striking out in new directions.

Transportation is crucial to rethinking our urban infrastructure. …

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