Open Space Seattle:2100

Monday, October 24, 2005

Weight and the Environment

Part of the focus for Open Space Seattle:2100 is to envision a healthier city for all of the populations within Seattle. And for that reason a recent article in the Seattle Times is fascinating in its diagnosis and hopeful for the future. Author Cara Solomon notes:

“More than half of King County residents are considered either overweight or obese. A new survey by Public Health has found the highest obesity rates are in South King County.”

University of Washington researchers and others are beginning to document how environmental factors are contributing to that health crisis, and their research is showing a correlation between obesity, income and the preponderance of fast food restaurants and cheap, unhealthy food in low income areas. Part of this can be explained, as the article suggests, with the simple recognition that doughnuts have more calories per dollar than fruits and vegetables, making them more attractive to low-income populations looking to put enough food on their tables.

But there is another side to the story as well. How is the environment designed to encourage exercise and healthy living? In low-income areas, both the lack of open space and the current uses of that open space contribute to a dehabilitating cycle. Dr. Odette Sueda sees the results of this lack of healthy environments everyday.

“Up to a half of Sueda's patients at the Columbia Public Health Center in South Seattle are obese. Some of them can't afford bus fare to a community center, she said, let alone sports equipment. Outdoor exercise is sometimes the only option they have, Sueda said. But when she suggests it, parents sometimes resist. They talk about hypodermic needles in the grass, or parking lots with broken glass, or strangers roaming around, looking like a threat.”

The situation is replicated throughout the county/country in low-income communities, but here we are fortunately beginning to do something about it:

Public Health-Seattle & King County has spent the past year working with academics and architects, city planners and transportation experts as part of a new Overweight Prevention Initiative.

The county's anti-obesity initiative is attempting to deal with fears of crime by recommending longer hours for schools and community centers so residents can exercise indoors. It's also trying to expand a "Safe Routes to School" program, a partnership with the police department to get more kids walking.

A local pedestrian group called Feet First has been working on ‘walking audits’ with residents in Seattle and South King County, documenting everything from faded crosswalks to missing sidewalks, then taking that information to city officials. Their work has already inspired Seattle's Department of Transportation to move some neighborhoods to the top of lists for improvements.

It's all part of a new focus on "walkability." Most people will simply not set aside a half hour, three times a week for exercise, the researchers say. So it's crucial that the streets themselves encourage activity, in their appearance and their design.

In the Delridge neighborhood, the old High Point project is a sprawling community of beaten-down barracks. The wide streets encourage speeding cars. The sidewalks are broken. Crime has been a serious concern. But block by block, the project is being transformed into mixed-income housing. New houses are painted in reds and greens and yellows, with windows and porches that look out on shared lawn where children play. Streets are narrow, sidewalks are wide, and landscaping serves as a buffer between them.

There are plenty of new amenities within walking distance, including a library and a public health center. And the city is trying to lure a large grocery store there soon.

It's all just good, healthy design, said Tom Phillips, the project director. It's not so much a step forward, he says, but a step back — to a time when communities were not built around the car.”

That about says it. “It’s all just good, healthy design.” What we are trying to achieve with Open Space Seattle:2100 is also just good, healthy design, but we are also looking at the ecological, economic and social aspects a century into the future to press for a comprehensive, revamped cityscape that harkens back to a time that cities embraced the pedestrian scale to create cities for people, rather than cars.


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