Designed for Disease

Have you ever stopped to consider that where you live might be making you overweight? Perhaps your lack of will-power isn’t totally to blame, but rather, some of the responsibility falls on the design of your community.

According to Robert Ogilvie, Ph.D., Program Director of Planning for Healthy Places, our cities are “designed for disease.”  I couldn’t agree more with his assertion.  During his presentation at the National Community Development Association’s Region VI conference, Dr. Ogilvie shared sobering statistics on American obesity as well as obesity in children.  In particular, he noted that about one-third of U.S. adults are obese, with another third considered overweight.  And, the number of obese children is climbing steadily each year, with many southern states taking the lead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these statistics.  First Lady Michelle Obama has gone on a much-needed mission against childhood obesity, and chef Jamie Oliver has attempted to start his own ‘food revolution,’ complete with an inspiring TV series.  However, it seems that no matter how much education we have about nutrition and good eating habits, an environment that promotes cheap, fast, and fried seems to be winning the battle against our health.

Could it be that we have trapped people in cities designed for nutritional failure?  The times I personally feel most powerless against awful food is when I’m traveling.  My company has sent me to several training courses and conferences over the past year, and it’s during those times I eat the most restaurant- and fast-food.  More than that, though, I feel discouraged as I drive through smaller Texas towns and discover that their best food options are from Dairy Queen or the local diner.

The answer to designing our cities against disease is not an easy one.  Shy of some political miracle, drive-throughs and convenience stores will still litter our landscapes, pushing “foods” that only chemists could identify its contents.  Without wise planning we continue our long commutes, being tempted by every donut shop and bakery in our path.

But, what if we lived in real places?  Places where we could walk to accomplish our daily tasks.  Places where, by walking, we naturally avoid the cookie-cutter food establishments and are, instead, offered healthy, tasty choices and actual food ingredients.  What if we lived in places that promote walking and biking over driving?  Imagine the improvement in quality of life we’d experience.

Even in the environment we’re given today, we can still take steps to redesign our lives against disease.  Consider a route to work or school that is least littered with temptation, and take it.  Park further from the door, and walk to your destination.  Consider switching from weekly grocery store visits to shopping twice a week.  This not only gets you walking more, it gives you the freedom to purchase more fresh foods which can be eaten at their peak, rather than relying on boxed or canned options.  Plan your meals and food budget, so that you look forward to eating at home, rather than defaulting to convenience options.

The concept of ‘saving place’ means little if we aren’t saving the people who live there.  What do you think we can do to design for delight instead of for disease?

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