Is Montgomery Obesogenic?

By on 20 June, 2011 in City Living, Food, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Let’s say you’ve never been to Wal-Mart. Let’s further imagine that you’ve never been to the DMV, the court house, or the hospital waiting room. In fact, let’s presume that you never really even leave the house and never interact with your fellow human beings … you know, the general public.

Even if you sit in your house all day long using the Internet to read Midtown Montgomery Living (among your various favorite online sites), you are still likely to know that Montgomery (and Alabama as a whole) could shed a few pounds. You know this because the news media loves to report on America’s fattest states — and, according to the various sources of public health data cited, Alabama always scores among the least fit. And Men’s Health in 2010 ranked Montgomery the 28th fattest city in the country.

There are at least a dozen valid reasons for this and probably a dozen more open to reasonable speculation: our summer heat makes it too hot to exercise, our refusal to fund public transportation means that people drive everywhere, we lack sufficient sidewalks, our traditional Southern diet of meats and fried things (and vegetables spiced with meats and then fried) creates obesity, etc. Chief among these is our old enemy poverty, with its resulting lack of education and free-market-driven food deserts. Poverty means (too often) poor choices about what to eat, along with lack of access to healthy food.

But there’s an interesting new study that points to potential causes of obesity, and it’s a subject we frequently tackle here at MML: urban planning. A new study out of Toronto suggests that the design of neighborhoods may also be a major factor in obesity and its resulting destructive effects (diabetes, heart disease, etc.)

Look, we’re as skeptical as anyone of the mass media’s idealized body forms. Shattering the for-profit beauty myths is certainly a valid enterprise. But we’re also aware of the personal and social costs of guzzling high fructose corn syrup in a world where exercise is compartmentalized as a leisure-time hobby of the middle and upper classes. There should be a special kind of collective shame about what passes for grocery stores in the poor parts of town. And the controversy over higher standards (and higher costs) for school lunches ought to be front page news instead of, well, whatever the latest celebrity distractions are these days.

We do our best here at MML to cover urban planning issues in Montgomery — tracking the use of smart code, historical preservation issues, and the ongoing development and redevelopment doings of various city leaders. We’re not suggesting that our city change its name, as Hunter Thompson once proposed for Aspen, Colorado. But the suggestion that there are public health implications to neighborhood design ought to further push people towards increased involvement in reshaping the city we live in.

Montgomery’s Development Department is continuing to push the city’s redesign effort further. This coming week they’re hosting another Idea Factory from 5-7 (at One Dexter Plaza) – this one about the future of the Riverwalk and the development of that bluff area above the Urban Farm, looking toward Maxwell. Not coincidentally, the Development Department’s also just released its Request for Development Proposals for the City-owned property on Maxwell Boulevard that overlooks the Alabama River and Downtown. You can read a copy of the RFP (it’s a PDF, and it’s large – be warned) by clicking here.

All this buzz about smart growth is about more than just access to high-end brands and lofts that could make the pages of Architectural Digest. It’s also about an amazing opportunity to create a city that’s not obesogenic, a city that recognizes that public health is a public good — and therefore a public responsibility. Here’s hoping we get together to make not just nice buildings and sidewalks and bike paths, but also the collective interest in welfare that’s truly what makes a community healthy.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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