published Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Healthier, smarter growth

For years, county leaders here have considered sound urban planning mainly as a political issue -- an issue tainted by the specter of intruding on personal property rights and free enterprise. As a result, they have regularly rejected calls for comprehensive land-use planning for the unincorporated areas of the county. But as it turns out, the lack of urban planning in suburbia -- here and elsewhere -- is now being acknowledged as a critical public health issue.

Unguided sprawl, public health experts have learned, almost invariably leads to poorer health, isolation, depression, reduced longevity and stunted essential personal growth in children. And that premise is being validated across the country.

Such cautionary findings should prompt the County Commission to make comprehensive land-use planning in the unincorporated areas of the county an integral element of its public responsibility as it embarks on the regional growth planning. The latter effort is due to start soon to address regional infrastructure needs spurred the arrival of Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical and related industrial and residential growth here.

Car-dependency, poor health

Studies confirm what common-sense observation shows -- that the typical suburban pattern of sprawl has made Americans excessively dependent on driving a car somewhere to do almost anything that most people, of any age, want or need to do.

Statistics on the suburban trends are hard to ignore. At the October meeting of the American Public Health Association, New York Times health columnist Jane Brody reported last week, there were nearly 300 presentations "on how the built environment inhibits or fosters the ability to be physically active and get healthy food." The latter point referred to "food deserts" in both suburban and urban areas where stores with nutritionally adequate foods are not found within walking distance.

As one public health expert put it, Brody reported, our "built environment" -- how we design where we live, work, shop and play -- has usually fragmented these components in suburban areas in a way that has "engineered physical activity out of children's lives." It also has isolated adults in places that separate them from friends, family, meeting places and much of the physical activity, especially walking, that adults used to enjoy and take for granted.

Shorter lifespans coming

Unless that changes, Dr. Richard Jackson, professor and chairman of environmental health sciences at the University of California, told Brody, Americans born since 1980 will be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Without adequate provision of sidewalks, bike and pedestrian trails, nearby parks, schools, playgrounds and community-based clusters of retail facilities, suburban families typically become utterly dependent on driving themselves and their children to most everything they need to do.

Jobs and shopping are miles away, often requiring long commute times. Children now rarely walk or bicycle to school, though fully two-thirds of children did so less than four decades ago. The lack of places to bicycle, walk and play particularly thwarts children's need for exploration, growth and development of an essential sense of autonomy.

Just as the distance from many suburbs to friends, family members and core activities inhibits walking and physical activities, it conversely fosters more stay-at-home isolation. That sentences children and many elderly and handicapped people, as well as other adults, to lonely boring hours of sitting, watching television and playing more sedentary computer games and, too often, harmful weight gain.

That, in turn, predictably leads to the demise of their health. Children used to rarely have diseases associated with age and obesity. Now, with obesity plaguing a third of American adults and children, and nearly as many over-weight, growing numbers of children and adults have Type II diabetes, heart disease and fatty livers, Brody reported.

Many studies confirm the downward health trends in the age of car-dependency. In 1970, only one state had more than 20 percent of its population ranked as obese. Now, only one state, Colorado, has a population with as few as 20 percent obese.

A healthier growth path

Fostering a better built environment would not normally encroach on private property. Most of the county's unincorporated rural land, where most of the projected growth here will occur, is zoned in a number of classifications, from commercial to residential to agricultural.

So it is still early enough, though barely, to designate where zoning changes may be made to encourage smart growth and timely infrastructure development before developers swamp county government with requests for re-zoning for speculative development, which is not -- and should not be considered as -- an automatic property right. There is also still time to adopt better rules for development -- to include sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds, school zones, signage and billboard limits, and retail clusters, as opposed to strip-zoning on major corridors. But this window of time for better planning will close rapidly.

Families and developers, as well, should envision, and hold out for, neighborhoods that get the built environment right -- that make walking, safe bicycling, socializing with neighbors, and play areas the norm, not the exception, even near and along major road corridors. The vision of tree-lined boulevards for major corridors, with center green islands and sidewalks and bikeways alongside, should be a priority, not a jettisoned dream.

Cities and counties around the country are moving to make their sterile, car-dependent, suburban areas greener and healthier, more pedestrian-and-bicycle friendly and more people-oriented. For our community's long-term value, for the quality of life that promotes economic growth rather than hinders it, and for the improved health of our citizens, that should be county government's goal, as well.

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gjuster said...

Rather than you telling us all how we should live - why don't we let the individual decide. Not everyone wants to be stacked and packed downtown or on the north shore.

February 5, 2012 at 7:47 a.m.

That's part of the problem, the average individual doesn't have the unitary ability to decide for themselves in a constructive fashion.

There's a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand other people who want to make decisions for how they want to live.

You can either work with the situation, and get as much as you can of what you want, or you can try to fight it, and end up like that one house which ended up with a city built around it, choked off by towering edifices of glass and steel.

But actually, this editorial is about thoughtful planning as much as anything else. With a lack of coordination and forethought, you end up with a complicated snarl that doesn't work as well if you put some consideration into it. It's like building a house, if you didn't plan for plumbing or ventilation before you put it together, then you end up with more trouble adding them. Or just take a house that's sited poorly. A little thought on it could be quite beneficial.

Then there's all the places where people have to walk on the street because there's no curb, let alone an actual pedestrian sidewalk for them to use.

Maybe you want to live in a world where each person thinks only of themselves, but me, I like thinking ahead.

February 5, 2012 at 9:34 a.m.
conservative said...

Let me save the readers a lot of time here. He wants you Lieberal readers to move to downtown Chattanooga for your health's sake.

February 5, 2012 at 3:11 p.m.
heneh said...

Why do the Smart Growth supporters think they know best for all of the rest of us? I have had enough of these people demanding that the world change to fit their idea of what is best. This is America where freedom still means something to most of us. I live in sprawl(single home with yard)and love it. I am in much better health than most other people and I have been able to buy food or grow my own as much as I want. I do not want to live without my car but I will be careful not to hit anyone on a bike because I have one of those also. Let people decide for themselves where and how they want to live.

February 5, 2012 at 5:06 p.m.
betweenthelines said...

This sounds AWESOME, maybe the writer needs to focus on the dilapidated areas of Chattanooga, Brainard, Highland Park, etc and look within before proliferating their utopia idealistic vision into the rural areas. Oh yea, I forgot they are 400MM in hole.

February 5, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.
conservative said...

However, I do want to encourage Lieberals to move to downtown Chattanooga and out of the suburbs. The Lieberals who move there would be among their own. They most likely would not be "judged" for their drug, alcohol, and perverse sexual habits. Lesbians might even erect a statue to their Flying Spaghetti Monster god.

February 5, 2012 at 6:06 p.m.

I guess you guys aren't getting how a lack of planning is responsible for much of the problems in those areas you so detest. If anything, a lack of planning will move them closer since you won't have any say in what happens.

February 5, 2012 at 7:34 p.m.
conservative said...

Moreover, by this writer getting Lieberals to move downtown, property prices will fall in the suburbs for Conservatives. More acreage for us and more room. The miserable Lieberals will be crowded in with other miserable Lieberals but they will be happy as well, for "misery loves company."

February 5, 2012 at 7:59 p.m.

How quaint, you think that you're not going to get a subdivision built next door.

Do you want MiniMcMansions or townhouse frolics? You could at least try to get a park or two.

February 5, 2012 at 9:59 p.m.
acerigger said...

happywithnewbulbs,gotta lotta time to waste do ya? (oops,nunmybus,huh?lol)

February 5, 2012 at 11:31 p.m.
fairmon said...

Well so much for life, liberty and the pursuit of what one views as happiness. Those in government will decide for everyone. They will determine what is best for each and plan accordingly. Who believes they will limit themselves to infrastructural issues and only where appropriate. So much for personal property rights which is a fundamental principle of the constitution.

February 6, 2012 at 4:56 a.m.
timbo said...

Hey, Harry Austin....Why don't you worry about where you live (Sequatchie County) instead of dictate what the rest of us residents of Hamilton County do with our land.

Chattanooga is run by a bunch of no-nothing progressives who couldn't plan a flea circus.

If Harry really cared about our health, he would quit writing this stuff that makes our collective blood pressure much higher.

February 6, 2012 at 11 a.m.
conservative said...

Want to see how healthy Lieberals live when they gather in cities. Just look at OWS crowds when they occupy a city. They don't bathe, public urination and defecation,living in filth and squalor in their surroundings. See anything "smart" and "healthy" about their "plan" ?

February 6, 2012 at 11:40 a.m.
conservative said...

The three main characteristics of Lieberals are they are liars, hypocrites and socialists. If this writer truly believed it would be healthier ( a lie) for him to live downtown ( his socialist "smart" plan ) he would be living downtown, wouldn't he? He instead prefers to be a hypocrite.

BTW getting assualted or shot downtown is unhealthy.

February 6, 2012 at 4:49 p.m.

The main characteristics of conservatives are that they are dishonest, unfaithful and arrogant. If they truly believed in what they claim to follow, they'd not waste so much time attacking others, but instead work to improve things in some way.

Oh wait, no, we see how they behave, with nothing more to offer than vitriolic postings that reflect hate and acrimony. How does that contribute to public discourse? Do you think you're convincing anybody of anything except that you are an utter bastard?

But really, you don't even seem to possess much reading comprehension, not once in this article are you told to live downtown. Which is really becoming quite posh now, believe it or not. You're just confusing it with other areas.

February 6, 2012 at 5:41 p.m.
conservative said...

It is obvious to me that if this writer were to somehow persuade large numbers of people to leave their quite, peaceful, roomy property to move to downtown here that the increased demand for city property would necessarily skyrocket and the cost for it as well. A Lieberal could bet his latest government check that promoters of any "smart" growth plan would profit handsomely from property owned by them or their cronies downtown.

Always follow the money.

February 6, 2012 at 7:27 p.m.

In that case, it'd be the suburban developers and the predatory banks. Haven't you seen Sons of Anarchy? Watch for more former farms turned into 200k townhomes set on a postage stamp of a yard.

Why are you so hyper focused on the downtown that you don't see the figurative wolf at another door?

February 6, 2012 at 8:14 p.m.
conservative said...

Of course these "smart" growth planners will plan on getting you out of your car and on public transportation. You might be fortunate enough to sit next to a "homeless" person who keeps shouting obscenities and the stench will just be a bonus. If you insist on keeping a car in spite of the "smart" planners you will pay dearly for parking because all land will cost a small fortune. However, the "smart" planners will surely manage to keep their cars for they will live in the suburbs.

February 6, 2012 at 8:46 p.m.

The same suburbs where they're planning on having sidewalks and supporting public transportation?

But hey, do you drive on all private roads, or do you rely on public ones? Do you enjoy a haphazard street map where roads end up meeting in irregular ways? Do you like having no sidewalks and being made to drive miles to the cluster of big-box stores full of Chinese imports?

I guess you'd scorn the founding fathers for hiring a French planer to design the capital too.

February 6, 2012 at 9:12 p.m.
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