Not in my front yard! (photo courtesy of myfoxdetroit.com)
I’m one of many, many Americans who have the dubious distinction of having grown up in the suburbs. Though I can understand the thought process of some who live there – More land for your money! Lower taxes! Better schools! Everybody’s just like us! – I hated it. HATED IT. Especially where I lived, there was nowhere I could go on foot other than to the local high school. Which is cool for about all of five minutes. The closest grocery store and shopping area was a mile away on a road with no sidewalks where people (myself included, in my teenage years) regularly drove 20 miles above the speed limit. Not exactly a good destination for a middle-schooler on foot.
I drove through that part of town this past weekend to show my son where I used to live. It was the first time I hadn’t been over there to deal with something from my parents’ old house (cleaning 33 years of stuff out of the place has been over for a couple of years, thank goodness) and the first time in ages I wasn’t on autopilot driving through. All I could think of was “how on earth do people LIVE here?”
Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’ve just lived in a city too long, but I like walking to the coffee shop and the bus stop and having a major supermarket (and in two weeks, a brand-spanking-new urban Tarzhay) within a mile of my house. I like walking there on sidewalks that actually exist, I like riding a bike there easily, I like driving there, I like being home quickly from work in 20 minutes on a bus that someone else drives so I don’t have to. Yes, I do like driving sometimes, but I like even more the fact that I don’t HAVE to. I can still function in society if I were to suddenly become carless tomorrow. Which is probably why I’ve lived within the city limits for 16 years now and have a graduate degree in planning. So I admit that I’m a little more extreme than most. But still….
Who doesn’t want their kid to walk to school? Who wants to make their kids fatter? Who wants to prohibit the planting of vegetables so that the neighborhood kids don’t know where tomatoes come from before they end up in ketchup? No one I know. But, alas, we live in a society where all of those things happen – and, as it happens, all things have been talked about (especially the last thing, those poor defenseless tomatoes) this week:
- The Safe Routes to School Program unveiled a new “walkability” checklist to determine the community value of a school – in part because “one phenomenon we battle everyday is kids’ inability to walk to school – or anywhere – because it’s too far” (sound familiar, childhood?). According to them, school siting away from existing populations, or residential siting away from existing schools, “has helped contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has proclaimed.”
- Yeah, that pesky obesity epidemic. Sick of hearing about that one yet? Me neither, because it’s getting worse. The catchy title of this year’s report F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011 highlights both adult and childhood obesity. More than two-thirds of the 50 states have adult obesity rates over 25%. Twenty years ago, no state had a rate over 20%. Childhood rates aren’t quite as alarming, but this interactive map from last year shows that all states except one have childhood obesity rates less than 10% (yet another reason I feel compelled to move to Oregon). So at minimum, one out of ten kids are overweight. In my state, 15% of all kids are overweight. But not being able to walk to school has nothing to do with it, right? Neither does having the ability to grow your own food and learn that food doesn’t just come from a grocery store. Nothing at all.
- Which leads me to the worst story of the week, as far as I’m concerned. Have you heard the one about the woman who is being sued by her city for growing vegetables in her front yard? Sadly, it’s not a joke. Gotta love complaining neighbors in small towns who don’t think raised garden beds are suitable for front yards, even though the municipal code specifically exempts vegetables from the prohibition of random things in yards. Yes, I’ve checked. And what struck me in this story (after thinking that Oak Park has nothing better to do than to declare war on vegetables) is what this supportive neighbor said: “I have a bunch of little children and we take walks to come by and see everything growing. I think it’s a very wonderful thing for our neighborhood.”
So let’s take away maybe the only place kids can see things growing that they might one day eat in a neighborhood because it’s not suitable. Thinking back on my childhood, I don’t remember any of our neighbors growing gardens, just my parents. Is it typical of suburbia to want things so ‘just-so’ that they don’t want people eating from their yards? That’s certainly the stereotype, and there are many documented cases of kids not having a clue where food comes from.
I know this post may be wandering, but it also proves a point – everything is connected. If my kids don’t know where food comes from and the difference between processed and non-processed foods, and they can’t walk to the bus stop or to school because of safety or land use issues, it seems pretty inevitable that they will end up overweight. I’m doing my best to keep that from happening – and it’s so foreign to me that people, especially planners, who are supposed to think of the interconnectedness of systems, don’t get it. Then again, there’s a reason I don’t live in places like that.