Tuesday, 19 February 2008


I am pleased to note that leading think tank the International Obesity Task Force, has backed my calls for a revolution in urban planning to halt the growing obesity epidemic (!!).

In previous posts I argued there was a fundamental contradiction between the pressures put on individuals to take responsibility for their health and weight issues while the social structures which surround them act simultaneously to discourage exercise and encourage over-consumption.

Decrying the "“obesogenic environment” promoted by most modern cities, the task force says simply encouraging more leisure activities is not enough to compensate for the sedentary hours we spend in our cars, at our desks, or in front of the tv.

It believes advocating more leisure activities and healthy eating is insufficient to combat the problem, and that governments must take far greater responsibility for "sustained additional changes to town planning and transport”.

Oslo and Amsterdam were both cited as examples of 'slim cities' where the built environment discourages car use and promotes walking and cycling, which in turn lowers obesity rates.

I'd like to make further recommendations in this regard. I've never liked suburbs, seeing them as sterile ghettos for social climbers, enclaves of the priveliged, and dull dull dull. Now I have a more objective reason to hate them, since living far from the office, school, or whatever means people rely on the car for just about everything.

It's clearly better for us to reinvent suburbs as out of town villages, with proper local shops (not just giant shopping malls off the motorway), decent rail access to the city centre, and schools within safe walking distance for kids. After all, we don't just need better public transport so people can cover fifty miles a day. It would be much better if everything were just that bit more local.

But how can that be engineered? Simple, I reckon. Petrol is getting dearer by the minute, and oil levels have already peaked. The resulting downturn in production should make cars a lot more expensive to own and run (think 1973 oil crisis). Which will make it unprofitable for businesses to locate themselves in the middle of nowhere, to transport goods long distance, and for people to live far from the office.

There's also an environmental factor which should be taken into account. At the moment it's houses that are unaffordable (though thankfully not houses in city centre slums, which is the end of the market I'm currently aiming at with my baseline salary). But why should cars cost nothing when they are ruining our physical health and the environment? The polluter should certainly pay in this case.

If people werent so fixated with car ownership - if they couldnt afford it - the revolution would take place almost instantly. We could relocated offices from those horrible retail parks to places employees might actually want to spend time after hours, next to parks, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, other people they know.

I can vouch for the extra productivity this will produce. My best ever job was at the Scottish Parliament, in the centre of Edinburgh, where me and my pals would spend lunchtime hiking around Holyrood Park, feeding the swans, or sitting in a ruined chapel at the top of hill having a picnic.

Sometimes the whole team would go sit under a tree brainstorming and planning. Or we'd go for a quick hours shopping on Princes Street, returning at a fast trot so as not to be out the office all afternoon. It made all the crap of the working day fade benignly into the distance, and us healthier and happier in the process. And then we got to walk home, past the magnificent Old Town architecture, to our central apartments.

It could be the norm, not the exception, if government made the incentives right.


Tristan said...

How about this:
Get government out of this, tell the priggish middle class authoritarians where to shove it and let voluntary human interaction sort things out.

Rather than admonishing us and 'planning for thinness' (whilst at the same time criticising it as making impressionable people starve themselves/depressed) which of course will lead to other undesirable side effects leading to a spiral of regulation and intervention in our private lives, let people take responsibility for their actions rather than coddling and infantalising them.

Consider This said...


I agree with you up to a point but isn't it government decisions on town planning/road building that put us in this situation in the first place? Most people don't have any kind of choice about how they get to work/whether they sit around at a desk all day. That is the system they must work within to pay the bills. I'm sure farmworkers a century ago had different complaints - like too much outdoor activity, not enough time to rest. But there is a happy medium. Of course, how people deal with their 'own time' is their own business, but when it comes to structural issues (the proper preserve of govt I think you'll agree) it's important it gets on top of the issues. Just to recall, we're talking about building safe bike lanes and making it safe for kids to walk to school here, not anything anymore sinister. It seems to work for the Dutch. Why shouldnt it work for us?