Zoning and obesity – an American view

Over the past decade, academics and public health policymakers have begun to make the case for the connection between zoning and obesity. In 2003, three professors at the Georgetown University Law Center argued that many of public health’s greatest advances in the 19th century (e.g., public water and sewerage systems, building codes and the separation of noxious uses from residential neighborhoods) depended on changes in the built environment. But in the 20th century zoning has propelled a separation of uses and an almost complete reliance on the automobile to move people to wherever they need to go. This, in turn, has resulted in a sedentary lifestyle that is increasingly seen as a major contributing factor in the chronic ills (e.g., coronary disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, obesity) that are our most serious pubic health issue.

Another front in this debate is the so-called food deserts – areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Many poorer inner city neighborhoods have no chain supermarkets where the greatest variety of foods and lowest prices can be found. The same phenomenon can be found in isolated rural areas of the country. The USDA has even created a food desert locator website though some recent studies have called into question this thesis.

The respected Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, just released a report entitled “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation”. The report outlines a comprehensive strategic plan to combat the underlying conditions that have given rise to the epidemic of obesity in the nation. One of the recommendations that has caught the media’s eye is to limit zoning for fast-food restaurants. The report identifies three features of the built environment that influence public health and specifically obesity: (i) transportation infrastructure, (ii) land use patterns, and (iii) urban design. Some of the policies that the report suggests local communities consider include:

  • Landscaping and lighting to improve the appearance and safety of pedestrian corridors;
  • Tax incentives to developers include sidewalks and trails;
  • Requiring pedestrian access to all uses;
  • Encouraging bicycling for recreation and commuting;
  • Increase proximity of residential areas to workplace and shopping so trips can be made on foot or by bicycle; and
  • Making school athletic facilities available to the public at large after school hours.
The report’s authors note that changes in the built environment take many years to get to the point where they will make a measurable difference in public health.
I’ll end with a recent local incident that highlights the collision between local zoning and our more recent interest in public health which includes not only exercise but also nutrition. Two years ago a Burlington, VT, couple built a homemade hoop-style greenhouse on their front to extend the growing season for their vegetable garden. All was well until a neighbor complained and now they have been cited because the hoop houses are a “stable structure” and the raised beds constitute a “retaining wall”. One of the enthusiastic gardeners responded, ”This is Vermont, for goodness sake . . . We’re all about sustainable living.”

Front yard green houses





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