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Are Our Cities Making Us Fat?   (July 12, 2005)

We all know walking is good for us, but what if there's no place to walk? That's the conundrum facing most urban Americans: we know we're too sedentary, but there are no conveniences or pleasant promenades nearby to draw us out. And so we get in our car to drive to the gym or to a regional park for our walk. Our suburban neighborhood might not even have sidewalks, much less a practical destination within walking distance.

Meanwhile, residents in older city neighborhoods around the world--Kyoto, Bangkok, San Francisco, and as depicted here, Paris-- get their daily walk in simply running the errands of everyday life: commuting and shopping. This neighborhood market in Paris is typical of the many such small markets, drug stores, bakeries and cafes which dot every block of the metropolis. (The suburbs are a different and more auto-centric story.)

You can place the line at 1900--cities planned and built before 1900 are still liveable for pedestrians, while those based on the ubiquity of automobiles are unliveable without a car and an infinite patience for traffic. Even older communities in famously car-centric Southern California are walkable; you could live in either Pasadena or Santa Monica, for instance, and live quite well with comfortable shoes and a bicycle if you worked somewhere in town--as people used to do.

Liveability relies on simple features--broad sidewalks, a preponderance of narrow streets which pedestrians can cross without risking their lives, a street-level aggregation of utilitarian retail and service businesses, and transit nearby to facilitate moving people efficiently without having to provide parking for every single-passenger vehicle which makes its way into the neighborhood.

There is nothing magical about these practicalities, but urban planning for much of the 20th century seemed designed to destroy each of these elements in turn. Now there is a movement in the U.S. to redress these idiocies which goes by the name of New Urbanism. A trend I have written about in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine called "transit villages" is New Urbanism at its best: and I mean best both in terms of the conveniences provided to the village's residents/owners, and in the reduction of traffic congestion afforded everyone living in the urban zones nearby.

Transit-oriented development (a.k.a. TOD) is another simple idea: take an existing transit hub--subway station, bus terminal, commuter train stop, etc.--and build a housing and retail complex close at hand.

If you don't have a transit hub, then you can always use an existing downtown served by transit. This idea has completely transformed Honolulu's once-decrepit Chinatown district. Now all the area needs is more housing and some office space so people could live and work downtown.

This is not a new idea; I recall Tony Hodges, our candidate for the House of Representatives in Hawaii, explaining the enormous environmental benefit of bringing workplace and housing together, back in 1976.

Though traffic congestion and air pollution are the usual evils trotted out to explain the benefits of transit villages, you could add health; the biggest reason "French women don't get fat," as the recent book title proclaims, is not what they eat (lots of meat and cheese, horrors) but that they do their errands on foot. Perhaps it is not the French people who should wear the plaudits but their eminently walkable cities and villages.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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