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Commentary: Here's the skinny on why we're fat

October 1, 2007

A week rarely passes without news of our obesity epidemic. Fattest-state rankings and the like are a staple of our news diet. These stories are often served with dire health warnings, which politicians invoke when they encourage us to eat less and exercise more. But does anyone really stop to think about why obesity has become our national obsession?

Our infamous rotundness isn't only a byproduct of poor eating habits and a reluctance to hit the gym. Chalk some of the cellulite up to the miserable job we've done over the last 60 years of managing our built environment. It discourages even the most basic physical activity.

If you don't believe it, consider that many of us live in neighborhoods where we're forced to drive two miles or more to get to a store that's only blocks from home. That's the predicament you find yourself in if you live in many a modern American subdivision.

A strip retail center surrounded by acres of asphalt might be 100 yards from your back door, but the fence, drainage ditch and grassy mound that stand between your house and the store eliminate the possibility that you'd walk there to pick up a gallon of milk or a case of pop.

Worse yet, walking wouldn't even occur to most of us. Decades of government-mandated, autocentric development has led to a society where we instinctively reach for the car keys instead of lacing up our walking shoes. To run an errand close to home, we pull out of the driveway, wind through the subdivision, hit the major collector road and possibly negotiate a couple of car-choked intersections before pulling into the giant parking lot.

We burn gas, not calories. The Federal Highway Administration says that Americans use their cars 75 percent of the time when traveling less than a mile.

The president, governor or mayor who tells us we need more discipline in our lives to shed weight probably doesn't even consider that the way we've arranged our communities since World War II made the fat epidemic inevitable.

In the short run, it never hurts to encourage people to exercise, but we need more than discipline to restore physical activity to our way of life. We need a destination we can reach on foot. We need cities and towns that allow us to incorporate walking into the mundane tasks of daily living.

But traffic engineers and city planners don't make it easy. For a few generations now, they've been pushing us into our cars by putting in place zoning laws and land-use standards that segregate houses, stores and workplaces. They've told developers that every retail center has to be surrounded by acres of asphalt and every road has to be designed to move traffic as quickly as possible.

So we drive everywhere. It's how we live. And it's a way of life that does more than pile on the fat. It robs many of us of our independence. Those who are too young, too old or too poor to operate a car are out of luck in any city like ours, where public transportation barely exists. Even if we had it, in most neighborhoods you'd have to drive from home to get to the station.

Cars will always play an important role in our daily existence. But we can't continue to build lives around them

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Mayor James Brainard has made pedestrian-friendly development the hallmark of his administration. Central Indiana Community Foundation President Brian Payne championed downtown's Cultural Trail, which will connect the city's already extensive greenway system. Developers like Hearthview Residential and Kosene & Kosene are committed to building housing in walkable neighborhoods. Unfortunately, such examples are the exception, not the rule.

Next time someone in a position of authority tells us to get off our duffs and exercise or dangles the possibility of regulating what fast-food joints can serve us, remember there's a deeper-seated problem at work here.

Walkable communities are good for our health and good for business. Government should encourage them by doing a better job of regulating what it already regulates: our built environment.



Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com. Chris Katterjohn's column will resume Oct. 15.
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