Monday, July 27, 2009

What do fruits and vegetables have to do with urban planning?

Today I tried to imagine the perfect city. There were plenty of bikes and pedestrians everywhere and a marked absence of private vehicles. There were shorter blocks and more mixed uses of land. And there were farms: block-sized farms full of apple trees, kale, beans and carrots.

Then it got me a-thinkin': just how much space does it take to feed a person/family/city?

The answer is that it depends on what those people/families/cities are eating. Turns out that the production of meat is wildly more inefficient than the production of vegetables. Not only that, but animal excrement (i.e.: shit) pollutes that other stuff that is necessary for life: water.

So what does this all mean? Well, I guess it depends on the purpose of the city. If cities are to be places for efficient living, then perhaps what the citizens eat is as important as what transportation decisions they make. And as no city exists in a vacuum, it is also important how the choices of the city affect the surrounding suburbs and farmland.

Cities should promote life. They are centers of life, where people concentrate to work, play, sleep, eat, reproduce and live. Should they not then, also be places where life-affirming activity is concentrated? Where space is maximized for farmland and physical activity? Or are they just amusement parks for those with enough wealth to afford the high rents and tourists looking for the perfect picture (and the perfect steak)?

In order to build and maintain the perfect cities of the future, we need to make the right decisions: for ourselves, for those around us, and for those to come. In this broader sense, cutting back on meat intake is as important as riding a bike or taking public transportation. In another more specific and tangible sense, growing and eating food from the land that we live on gives us a greater connection to the land and reminds us that we inhabit a real space that is capable of generating and sustaining life.

UPDATE: turns out some hotshot from the Washington Post is one of the 5 people that read this page. Check out his article on meat consumption and its effect on global warming. Not the same point I was trying to make above, but its all related.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Public Health

We often think of the public health in mechanical terms. What is the average life span? Which diseases are most prevalent? How can money be made by selling health to people? How much does it cost to provide "health care"?

I suspect this train of thought is simplistic.

It is driven in part by big insurance and its dollars and cents approach to health (and life); driven also by the legal system, using the adversarial system as a means toward rewarding those made ill by other's negligence, but also succumbing to the ideal that money can heal and punish; driven by the business of medicine and the view that health may be bought and sold.

But of course it may, you might think. Those with money can afford to live in safe areas and purchase healthy food, live in well-built homes, buy the latest drugs and health-fads, and pay for insurance and hospital visits. This consumptive view of medicine and health, however, ultimately has a deleterious effect. It reduces public health to a budget line and obscures our understanding of what the public health is.

At its foundation, better public health is both easier and harder to achieve than universal health care and cheaper prescription drugs. It is easier in the sense that it may be reduced to simple concepts: we should create living environments that promote life and wellness, where ample shelter, fresh food, and clean water is available and people have the opportunity to engage in physical activity and nurture positive relationships. It is harder in that it requires a holistic and multi-modal understanding of health that reaches far beyond the hospital and the insurance companies' balance sheets.

Public health has as much to do with things like walkability, bike lanes, farmers markets, crime reduction and open spaces as it does with access to hospitals and advances in pharmaceutical technology or surgical procedures. We limit our understanding of public health if we conceive of it in purely medical terms. Instead, it will benefit urban areas to think about the public health impacts of every decision, particularly decisions regarding transportation and public space.

Several years ago, I spent a few months undertaking research for a paper on the importance of walkability towards creating and fostering urban relationships. My thesis was not revolutionary. I merely argued that walking brings people in closer contact with their cities, that it is more democratic than driving, and that a pedestrian friendly city will ultimately be a better place to live than an auto-centric city.

An idea that I tossed around in my head but never committed to paper was the life:death ratio. When making public decisions, I thought, we should think simply about whether our plans nurture life or risk harm, disease, and death. It seems obvious that walking environments promote life and don't increase death or disease, but that auto-centric environments lead to more carbon dioxide, more obesity, more unnecessary fatalities. Of course it is also true that automobile technology and open roads allow emergency personnel to react quickly to fires and heart attacks, but that is why we have the ratio. The ability to give and sustain life must be balanced with the susceptibility for disease and death.

Walking up Scott street the other day, from Lower Haight towards Alamo Square, I noticed a freshly planted tree and for a second envisioned the potential of the road before me and before us all. I saw trees in strange places, scattered down the middle of the road, and imagined the flow of bikers multiplying as the parked cars vanished to their place in history books. I saw a space that was public and open, one that promoted life and activity, a street where children could pick fruit from trees and people could walk to their neighbor's house without the threat of anything more imposing than a stream of bicycles and pedestrians.