A Placemaking Journal

Fat-tastic! Can Small Thinking Solve Our Super-Sized Problems?

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — more commonly known for crunching global budget and employment numbers  — the United States is on track to be 75% obese by 2020.

3 out of every 4. And if you check with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they’ll tell you to expect 86% by 2030.

86%! Even Colorado, our skinniest state, has become almost twice as fat in the past 15 years.

Parody or prophesy? Maybe both.

You don’t have to be an egghead to look around and see something’s going on. Since the connection between our generally affluent existence and our expanding waistlines was lampooned in Pixar’s mainstream blockbuster, “Wall-E,” in 2008, the prospect of denial — or claiming it’s a fringe issue — ceased to be an option.

We’re packing on the pounds. That much we’ve figured out. It’s driving up health care costs. It’s creating a generation of diabetic children. It’s even killing the planet.

Now it’s time to address the problem in the only way we know how: Find out who to blame.

Special interest groups are more than happy to oblige, and have served up a variety of reasonable boogeymen. It’s processed, industrial agriculture. It’s vending machines in schools. It’s missing sidewalks. It’s tech-driven, couch-potato culture.

That's right. I'm the guy making you fat.

Jeeez. Not since Freddy Krueger has there been such an elusive villain. And not only does such rabid finger pointing fail to take on the complexity of the problem, it also triggers apologists more than happy to step forward and say it’s none of these things. No one’s doing it to us. We’re not even doing it to ourselves. It’s just genetics at work.

In the meantime, the problem gets worse.

Maybe, just maybe, we want so desperately to find our villain that we’re overlooking the possibility that the problem may be a wee bit more complicated. Like, what if it’s not just one of the suggested causes but all of them, unwittingly working together in a sort of perfect storm of negative outcomes?

How could anyone coordinate their defenses against something so pervasive?

The answer lies in reducing the problem to its lowest common denominator. We’ve got a pretty strong sense about the various contributing factors. Now’s the time to look more closely at the commonalities and intersections among them. Scan the line-up of usual suspects closely and you’ll begin to see that all of them ultimately tie back to the patterns of how we build our communities and provide for our food.

Those patterns — fueled by the earth’s creamy nougat center of cheap energy — have been decades in the making and will most likely be decades in the unmaking as well.

But it’s not reckless speculation to suggest that how we design our surroundings, and whether we integrate the things we need, influences our ability to walk more. Or to more easily forge neighborly connections. Or to come together growing, selling and eating more natural foods. And that influences the ways we come to know and rely on one another, which informs how a community can become stronger, which influences how decisions get made and things get done, which drives the economic options available to those who live there.

Long story short, a sprawling landscape of trucked in food and piped in entertainment is not a very good laboratory for positive results. But proper labs are emerging. New Urbanists have invested the past three decades in unearthing many long-discounted principles of community building while the food movement, currently visible almost everywhere you look, has applied equal fervor to the lessons of agriculture.

Now, they’re starting to cross-pollinate their ideas while progressive communities weigh health impacts in their land use decisions. Food and shelter, addressed not at the super-sized level of national initiative but through the everyday decisions and demands of regular people.

That’s good news, and it’s why my (hopefully diminishing) gut tells me the battleground where our war on obesity will play out is not national in scope. Think a little smaller, starting just outside your front door.

–Scott Doyon

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