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Healthy cities: public health and urban planning
December 31, 2013 8:53 PM   Subscribe

A new Report on the State of Health + Urbanism (pdf) from MIT looks at the relationship between urban planning and public health, with some surprising findings. The cities covered are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Q. What did you learn from undertaking this project?

A. The number one thing I’ve learned is: You cannot prove causality easily, because the issue is so complex. If someone says to you that suburbanites are heavier because they drive more, it’s not been proven true. The studies [on this] are actually fairly soft. If you look at these eight cities, 83 percent of the suburban counties ranked healthier than their central city, using widely accepted health-risk factors. Some public health officials believe that proximity to medical facilities always leads to better public health, but when you start mapping those cities — Houston, for example — some of the worst health is in neighborhoods near the highest density of medical facilities.

Also, the idea of the food desert is largely fiction. There’s access to decent food pretty much across the metropolitan areas. In our cities the proximity to fast food doesn’t directly lead to poor urban health; there’s proximity to fast food everywhere. The question is how you get people to choose the right foods. These are all opportunities for us to build the knowledge base.
posted by gingerbeer (52 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm only on p25 (out of 130) but there is interesting stuff in there:

The bottom line is that there is no conclusive evidence or body of definitive research that concludes one form of density is better or worse than another form.

I'd argue that poor health outcomes are more of a reflection of political choices than directly results of urban form, which is itself an outcome of those choices. I'm curious how they look at this deeper in the report.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:25 PM on December 31, 2013


Also, the idea of the food desert is largely fiction.

I've read several academics - like this one - refuting the idea of food deserts, yet the idea of them endures - here as elsewhere.
posted by smoke at 9:32 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Okay, a paragraph later, this is both simplistic and misleading:

A deep body of scientific research shows that increases in density inevitably lead to a major declines in biodiversity. Stream quality is damaged roughly in step with increasing density/impervious cover. Up to a threshold, more density simply means more envi- ronmental damage for water quality/biodiversity.

Yes, density hurts the streams (or environment generally) where that density happens, but prevents much wider but lower level impacts of low density development. For streams and endangered aquatic organisms in particular, high density development protects other parts of the watershed at the expense of localized total impact.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:33 PM on December 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


I've read several academics - like this one - refuting the idea of food deserts, yet the idea of them endures - here as elsewhere.

This seems to be their key source on the food desert question.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:49 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, the idea of the food desert is largely fiction. There’s access to decent food pretty much across the metropolitan areas. In our cities the proximity to fast food doesn’t directly lead to poor urban health; there’s proximity to fast food everywhere. The question is how you get people to choose the right foods. These are all opportunities for us to build the knowledge base.

I'm kind of curious about this. I feel like the parts of the report that mention food (which I read quickly) are kind of axe-grindy. We have a definition of food desert. I just about live in one.* I do approach food differently than I did when I lived somewhere with better supermarket access. It's true that my neighbours don't just eat fast food as a result, but we do expend more effort on food than we might otherwise. I'll readily believe them that the most influential predictor of health is income, but I am quite put off by the 'everyone has good access to food' attitude. (If I were to make an uneducated guess, I think the (unknown to me) definition of grocery store is playing a role here. They assert poorer areas have fewer fast food restaurants (sure) and more grocery stores, which only makes sense if any shop with a few sad apples counts as a grocery store. If that's the standard, I definitely don't live a food desert.)

(Also, their conclusions for Minneapolis amount to 'stop fucking over North Minneapolis and you might get better health outcomes'. While I'm sure this will come as news to some in Minnesota, it's hardly a shock.)

*Food deserts are defined on the census tract level, though curiously the USDA map of food deserts seems to use neighbourhood boundaries for Minneapolis, not census tracts, and my neighbourhood is so long and thin it actually stretches to within sight of a supermarket. I think if you stood at the edge of my census tract, you'd be under a mile to a supermarket, as my apartment is almost exactly at the one mile mark and it's more than 100 yards to the edge of the census tract. We definitely meet the income criterion.
posted by hoyland at 10:09 PM on December 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


They're trying to do too much and the result is sloppy. It's going to take me a few more hours to read through all of it, but passages like this, about Atlanta, are driving me nuts:

When the transit system is compared with diabetes data, an unexpected correlation appears: higher access to public transit is spatially correlated with higher rates of diabetes. This relationship is likely due to either underutilization of the public transit system, or certain socioeconomic groups that have higher rates of diabetes using mass transit in greater numbers. The locations of fast food restaurants are concentrated in the central Fulton and Dekalb counties with high diabetes rates, but they are also evenly dispersed in the counties with the lowest diabetes rates. While it is commonly acknowledged that fast food is part of a poor diet and related conditions like diabetes, recent research has revealed that fast food access is not causally related to health conditions like diabetes.

They then drop the topic of food. So, essentially they're saying they don't see a link with fast food, so they're just going to ignore what kinds of food the populations in question are consuming outside of fast food, and why they're consuming it. Which is kind of a big miss. Unfortunately, it's research like this--research with huge gaps in it--that they're using as the basis of their position that they don't see a difference based upon density or other factors. They're missing huge controls that need to be in place for the study to actually make any sense.
posted by mrbula at 10:16 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is the definition of 'grocery store' being not what I would expect. (I would go so far as to say 'not what one would expect'.) I got the USDA map to load properly and it gave me census tract-level data. I was informed "This tract does not have a relatively high number of households (0 of 1868 total households(0.0%)) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket." when I am, in fact, a household with no vehicle more than half a mile from what could reasonably be described as a supermarket. (Hey other mefite in my census tract--I'm not forgetting some stealth supermarket am I?)
posted by hoyland at 10:17 PM on December 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Proximity to medical facilities isn't the same thing as having access to them. This should be obvious- in the US at least.

Food deserts weren't discovered IN THESE CITIES. That doesn't mean they don't exist... in Detroit, in rural areas, on native reserves...
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:40 PM on December 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I need more time to look over the rest of the report, but if this is at all indicative of the kinds of analysis and recommendations it contains, I'm underwhelmed:

Several conventional urban design standards for improving urban health were proven wrong in our research. Extremely low-income neighborhoods that have abundant sidewalks also exhibit poor health, while wealthy and healthy neighborhoods like Hollywood Hills have no sidewalks. Sidewalks do not seem to contribute to physical activity levels in several locations. The relationship between designated food deserts and urban health was similarly benign. Beverly Hills and South Los Angeles are both neighborhoods with extremely limited access to fresh food, but Beverly Hills residents have good health outcomes while South Los Angeles residents have poor health outcomes. Proximity to fresh food and health ranking does not correlate and should not be used as a measure for public policy, planning, or design in Los Angeles.

So, because there are plenty of sidewalks and access to fresh food in [otherwise unhealthy] South LA, but fewer sidewalks and grocery stores in the [super-fit] Hollywood Hills, we ought to abandon both of those things as metrics as far as public policy, planning, and design are concerned? This seems short-sighted, at best.

I understand that the study is focused on the larger patterns that make a city or metro area (un)healthy - which, in LA, seems to be air pollution rather than walkability or food deserts. But to come out and recommend - explicitly - that people disregard the latter two issues in future planning doesn't seem warranted to me. It reads as a justification for the kinds of development that have taken place in the last half-century, leading to the disparities in overall health between residents of those two areas - which is actually quite alarming.
posted by Austenite at 10:47 PM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the city I live in I technically live in a food desert in terms of proximity to my nearest grocery store. There also happens to be two whole foods in my town, go figure.
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 10:48 PM on December 31, 2013


I am about a mile from the nearest food store. There are plenty of sidewalks, there's decent public transit here.
How much I will utilize said sidewalks, or public transit for shopping has a lot to do with gang activity in my area, loose, unpredictable, aggressive dogs, and how tired I am.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:56 PM on December 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Eight cities - they studied eight cities.

There are a heckuva lot more cities in this country where the word "urban" is a term the locals are familiar with and, in some cases, there's even an urban planning department.

Imagine that.

Pah.
posted by aryma at 11:20 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


So... a bunch of architects and one freshly-minted planner put together a big report on urban public health with different conclusions to those of actual city planners and public health researchers. Honestly, given the last 70 years of architecture, I'm more interested in what planners and public health professionals have to say about the design of buildings than in what the American Institute of Architects has to say about public health.
posted by parudox at 11:40 PM on December 31, 2013 [20 favorites]


The data is the data. Either they're right about it or they're wrong about it. Others in the thread are making decent arguments; that they only studied 8 cities including the three largest in the nation or that a bunch of the authors are profs in fields related to architecture at MIT aren't among those arguments. I wish we wouldn't be so kneejerk about things that challenge pre-conceived ideas we are invested in.

That doesn't mean these guys might not be wrong. But surely we can do better than to just say "nyah I'm not listening".
posted by Justinian at 11:57 PM on December 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I didn't see much data there. Certainly no hypotheses, no statistical analysis, and little to suggest that the analyses are not a fishing expedition. Not that there's anything wrong with suggesting ideas for research, but you need solid data if you want to make solid claims that run counter to research consensus. Oh, and peer review.

The whole thing is based on straight correlations, and it's permeated with the assumption that if location A has property X and location B has property Y, then any difference between the effects of X and Y ought to be evident in a comparison between outcomes in A and B. The word "control" does not even appear, whereas regressions that control for, e.g., socioeconomic factors are crucial to meaningful analysis.
posted by parudox at 12:23 AM on January 1 [6 favorites]


Food deserts weren't discovered IN THESE CITIES. That doesn't mean they don't exist... in Detroit, in rural areas, on native reserves...

Or the desert. The actual desert is a food desert.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:33 AM on January 1 [2 favorites]


I'm looking at the report's contributors list and I see architects, a city planner, and someone in informatics. Why no public health/urban health professionals? The report makes points about health, communities, and specific aspects of the research - how did this group decide what was priority and how to describe/summarize/interpret the data?
posted by cadge at 1:40 AM on January 1 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of curious about this. I feel like the parts of the report that mention food (which I read quickly) are kind of axe-grindy. We have a definition of food desert. I just about live in one.* I do approach food differently than I did when I lived somewhere with better supermarket access. It's true that my neighbours don't just eat fast food as a result, but we do expend more effort on food than we might otherwise. I'll readily believe them that the most influential predictor of health is income, but I am quite put off by the 'everyone has good access to food' attitude. (If I were to make an uneducated guess, I think the (unknown to me) definition of grocery store is playing a role here. They assert poorer areas have fewer fast food restaurants (sure) and more grocery stores, which only makes sense if any shop with a few sad apples counts as a grocery store. If that's the standard, I definitely don't live a food desert.)

I tend to think the very notion of a food desert is pretty axe-grindy for a lot of folks, who seem to find the concept dovetails well with whatever particular unifying theory of societal woes they like to espouse.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:46 AM on January 1 [2 favorites]


The Atlantic Cities covered this a couple weeks ago, if anyone is interested in a quick overview of the findings.

(I haven't had the time yet to read the actual MIT report—it's possible they may be simplifying + glossing over things as well.)
posted by pinsomniac at 3:37 AM on January 1


The report is a great idea - I look forward to reading it. But most of the criticisms above don't surprise me.

First of all, in this field, lousy methodology is the rule, not the exception. And sadly, it makes no difference wether the authors are architects, planners or health care specialists. I think the main reason is that it is just too political, and it is an evil spiral. It's really difficult to get funding for a real serious non-biased study, so gradually, researchers who want to be rigorous and un-biased find something else to study. Those who remain in the field are never going to admit it publicly, but I've heard more than one of such scholars admit privately that "they'll never bite the hand that feeds them", but also, they are just not really good scholars.
In this case the publisher is the AIA, an organization which encompasses all sorts of architects, but as architects come, most of them work for developers and private clients whose main interests are not necessarily sounder cities. No reason to offend those members, is there?

If the particular criticisms above are correct, it may be that it is mainly the privilege of architects working at MIT that shows. I am often surprised at how difficult it can be for some scholars to see what is right in front of them, because they are truly unable to understand it. What hoyland, Austenite and Katusja Roquette all describe is simply not visible to people who grew up in suburbs, went to good schools, and now have good jobs.
posted by mumimor at 3:40 AM on January 1 [7 favorites]


— some of the worst health is in neighborhoods near the highest density of medical facilities.

Johns Hopkins hospital is located in one of the poorest distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore... so I guess having world class medical care in your vicinity actually makes you poor and sick.

obesity (and other bad health indicators) is heavily correlated with poverty in the US. this whole study seems deliberately obtuse: if you want to design against obesity, design against poverty. yet the connection between urban planning and poverty is barely mentioned, even though, for example, there is a long history of using transportation planning to deliberately fragment isolate and demolish poor urban neighborhoods.

having grown up in a food desert, near a highway I want to punch these smug architect fucks in the face, repeatedly. and then build highway interchanges around their houses
posted by ennui.bz at 4:19 AM on January 1 [23 favorites]


The only way that food deserts wouldn't exist in Chicago is if you counted bodegas with a handful of oranges as grocery stores with fresh fruit. In which case they are greatly missing the point.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:45 AM on January 1 [3 favorites]


I live mere blocks from a really fantastic hospital. I live in one of the poorest (and the largest, because it was made that way to reduce our clout on the City Council) neighborhoods in my city. I have insurance. I have been treated at that hospital. No one I know who lives nearby has insurance. The only way they're getting treated at that hospital is via the ER.

People who take public transit are generally poor. That's why their health outcomes aren't as good. If you did a study breaking out the kind of public transit, so that you could check on solely the express bus that runs to the university versus the stops-every-block intra-city line, you'd see a big difference in health outcomes there too.

Grocery stores don't change much if you're broke. I go to the grocery store and pay $50 a week for a single person's vegetables and unprocessed food (not that I'm rich, but I have a steady job with benefits and don't need to have a car since I work nearby). Other people stack up their carts with cheap junk because they have to feed their family on that $50. People who are richer than me go to the co-op and drop $70 on the same stuff, only now it's organic and tastes better.

Also, of course, my neighbors and I live on a really busy urban street and everything is covered with soot. We have to have a raised bed for the garden in back because of the arsenic in the soil. I always wonder what that does to health outcomes.

The moral of the story being that Americans will accept any explanation, any hack for poor public health as long as it doesn't come down to "people work shit jobs with shit hours, it's really stressful and shaming and stress and shame breed bad outcomes; give them some money and vacation and a generation or so to start over". We'll take any explanation as long as it doesn't boil down to "give people money and housing so they aren't so fucking poor anymore".
posted by Frowner at 5:54 AM on January 1 [21 favorites]


Also, their data on Chicago seems to be on the county level? Which seems kind of useless for evaluating urban planning issues that are so tightly linked to poverty.

Maybe I'm missing something huge, but they were comparing Cook to Dupage to Kendal
posted by dinty_moore at 5:54 AM on January 1 [1 favorite]


The whole thing is based on straight correlations, and it's permeated with the assumption that if location A has property X and location B has property Y, then any difference between the effects of X and Y ought to be evident in a comparison between outcomes in A and B. The word "control" does not even appear, whereas regressions that control for, e.g., socioeconomic factors are crucial to meaningful analysis.

This, a thousand times over. I finished the report last night and just got more and more frustrated as I read. There are spurious assertions left and right, many of which are meaningless without controlling for income or other factors. (In the sidewalk example mentioned above, of course the wealth of an area overrides the presence/absence of sidewalks in controlling health outcomes, which doesn't at all answer the question of what sidewalks do or don't do for health.) They use the wrong geographic scale of analysis repeatedly (as in dinty_moore's comment about county vs census tract data, say, or in my comment above about rivers and needing to consider the impact at the watershed level).

This is crappy, sloppy, and at times even simpleminded, and the frustrating thing is that it will probably be used to justify a while set of regressive and crappy policy decisions.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:04 AM on January 1 [10 favorites]


Food deserts weren't discovered IN THESE CITIES. That doesn't mean they don't exist... in Detroit, in rural areas, on native reserves...

To be clear, Minneapolis does have food deserts. My particular census tract doesn't quite meet the definition, as I detailed above.

(Minneapolis people, in case you're wondering, it looks like north of Dowling between Penn and the river/Marshall?, between 38th and 42nd just east of 35W, then a long, thin tract along Park/Portland from 34th to 42nd, what looks like those neighbourhoods right along Olsen Memorial Highway, plus one or two others that were harder to describe. In theory the Seward Co-op expansion will take care of those two along 35W, except for the not-so-small issue of the Seward Co-op's prices.)
posted by hoyland at 6:10 AM on January 1


Maybe I'm missing something huge, but they were comparing Cook to Dupage to Kendal

I thought they had looked at city of Chicago data, but they then did draw that totally incomprehensible figure* comparing Cook to DuPage to Kendall, but it seemed (to me last night anyway) to be suburban Cook County, not Chicago.

*I can't help put think they had someone who really understood R's (or whatever's) plotting capabilities and so made all possible plots, without thought to whether they were intelligible. Okay, I'm not a statistician, but I have no idea what those polytopes were trying to tell me. Given that I know what a polytope is, I'd kind of hope there'd be enough explanation in the caption for me have some idea of what sort of thing the plot was trying to tell me.
posted by hoyland at 6:16 AM on January 1


I know of course that 'anecdote' is not data, but I think a lot of public health stuff is tough to tease out just looking at broad swaths of data like this.

SoHo and Harlem might look the same from a food-desert standpoint, but what the data doesn't show is that the grocery store in Harlem that's within a half-mile of your house might have kind of gross produce half the time-- and even if you can try to pick and choose at the store, sometimes you're going to come home and find that a major component of the meal you were planning to make is just totally rotten and unusable. (This was a few years ago-- apparently there's a Whole Foods there now. If, you know, you have the budget for it.)

People generally do what's easiest. If you go to a rich neighborhood in NYC, it's much harder to eat badly. There are fewer fast-food places, and there are a ton of delis where you can get a relatively healthy meal for a decent price. When I worked in SoHo (or where I work now on the Upper West Side) it's easy to get a hummus, sprout, and cucumber wrap, or a salad with grilled chicken and half a dozen vegetables. I don't even know where I would buy french fries if that's what I wanted for lunch.

On the corner where I got out of the subway where I used to live in Harlem, on the other hand, you could see at least 2 fast food chains, one fried chicken restaurant, and at least one pizza place. Yes, it was certainly possible to eat healthfully there, but what's easiest has an impact on what your 'default' is when you're tired and stressed.
posted by matcha action at 8:26 AM on January 1 [2 favorites]


I think it's a provocative report, and I'm going to bookmark it because it relates to the stuff I'm working on right now. Yet I agree that it appears, immediately, to be attempting a kind of synthesis for which there isn't really good comparable data, and so its conclusions are shaky at best.

Though I haven't perused it in detail yet, I also believe that it would be helpful to situate this paper within a professional schism that has been taking place over the last decade between architects and planners who espouse smart growth/ New Urbanism and those who have embraced a new, aesthetic-design-driven and still vaguely outlined philosophy known as landscape urbanism. This is one of those internecine battles which is shockingly vicious and personal at its interior, and the fields have basically retreated into these two camps. Landscape urbanists accept sprawl as inevitable and believe in creatively reimagining urban scale to blend the natural and industrial in ways that are rarely 100% clear, and haven't really been tried yet in any testable manner. They look on the smart growth/New Urbanism crowd as nostalgic, sentimental, antiquarian and prejudiced toward dense urbanity.

So this work looks to me as an attempt to strike at the heart of principles taken as central assumptions by New Urbanists and thus to gain traction for Landscape Urbanist approaches, rather than an independent analysis. It's an academic volley, in other words: something New Urbanists will have to combat by producing additional research, not a neutral estimation of real-world conditions.
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on January 1 [37 favorites]


Interestingly, this was a student-staffed project, the subject of a graduate class.

Here's the great Atlantic Cities reporter Emily Badger on the report.

Ultimate upshot: we don't have enough information about what design interventions make people healthier. We have some gut sensibilities which may or may not be borne out in data, and we have some surprising discontinuities which should send us back for more research.

The main missing component in the analysis seems to be just plain wealth - wealth and maybe the leisure time to exercise or the time to devote to shopping and food preparation.
posted by Miko at 9:15 AM on January 1 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the background, Miko, I wasn't aware of this strife, and your links suddenly make sense of a lot of papers I've seen back when I worked with funding. IMO, both sides are sloppy with data and methodology, but they have different sets of political backers, who don't care.

Some years ago I saw a very similar report made by the New Urbanism side.

They seem to share the conviction that problems like health and crime and general urban decay have little to do with poverty..
posted by mumimor at 9:52 AM on January 1


The word "race" pops up twice in this report (not counting in citations). TWICE.

North Minneapolis has "seven times less parkland" than the rest of the city. "Seven times less." Jesus. I wouldn't let a uni freshman get away with that. My God. Fucking architects think they can write about anything.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:20 AM on January 1 [6 favorites]


People who take public transit are generally poor.

IN THE US IN THE US IN THE US. Aside from NYC, IN THE US.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:23 AM on January 1 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I take issue with "we don't know nearly as much about urban planning and public health as we think we do."

We know lots.

It's just really fucking hard to change the everyday behaviors that have a huge effect on people's health, especially with piecemeal interventions.

We know that Environmental Factors as a big fucking sweeping whole have a tremendous effect. We also know that a scientifically rigorous approach of boiling it down to the effect of its component parts rarely yields valuable information, and we shouldn't be surprised by that - because it's prohibitively difficult to measure environmental exposures, and harder yet to control for them.
posted by entropone at 10:39 AM on January 1


Fucking architects think they can write about anything.

Architect's disease?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:16 AM on January 1 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure casting the state of planning as Landscape Urbanism vs. New Urbanism is very accurate, except maybe among some academics. New Urbanism and (especially) Landscape Urbanism are nichey theories of design. Smart growth, on the other hand, could be reasonably said to be industry-wide best practice at this point. It's not particularly contentious.
posted by threeants at 11:55 AM on January 1


IN THE US IN THE US IN THE US. Aside from NYC, IN THE US.

And the DC metro area. According to the 2012 Metrorail Passenger Survey (PDF, slide 15), 60% of riders have a household income greater than $75,000. Only 11% have a household income less than $30,000.
posted by djb at 12:03 PM on January 1


Based on nationwide data from 2007 (PDF), in the US, the poor ride buses, the middle class ride trains:
Incomes of transit riders differ by vehicle mode. Only 20.8 percent of rail modes trips are made by persons from households with annual incomes less than $25,000 while 43.4 percent of bus riders are from households with these lower income levels. Conversely, 30.3 percent of rail mode riders have incomes of $75,000 or more while only 11.5 percent of roadway mode rides are taken by persons with these higher household incomes.
posted by djb at 12:15 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


The longer America ignores the impacts of rising income inequality and refuses to acknowledge the increasingly class-based structure of our society...the more humorous studies like this will become insofar as they lump the poor with the wealthy (contrasting South LA with the Hollywood Hills!? Come on.) The well-off increasingly opt out of public services and meet their needs in the sheltered bubble of the private sector...

Issues of planning / poverty / public health in the US need to be hung on the framework of inequality. What we actually have in the US is more like 2 or 3 completely disparate societies - each with drastically different needs and different interfaces with the public good...and I think it would be interesting to see how each of those classes interacts with urban planning...

There is one society that is addressed by the media, advertisers and the internet - this society is lower-middle-class up to wealthy and is increasingly opting out of the concept of the public good entirely. The library? No thanks I'll use Amazon. Public transporation? And ride with the people that make me uncomfortable, not to mention a commute that takes more time away from working my ass off? No way. Working out in public-spaces and parks? Uh...thats what my gym is for lol! These peoples values are generally shaped by the wealthy entrepreneurial class above them with whom they (wrongly) identify with and aspire to. Even if they can't afford to opt out of public services completely - they would rather not do so if they had the choice...They still believe they could be that family of four in the car commercial that somehow owns a two-story picture perfect New-England colonial even though we've established the breadwinner works at an office in the previous scene. (Also what is the father doing pulling into his driveway from work before the sun has set?)

The other society is large, largely ignored and barely getting by. They work shittier jobs, They rely on the public good. They are talked about a lot in the New York Times, but few NYT readers rub shoulders with them. They rely on the metro, the library, the park (even if it is just a quiet place to drink away their troubles). They have no stake in the popular conversation but silently provide raw data to social statistics.

Then of course there is the stratosphericly wealthy entrepreneurial / business class cohort who have rescinded any form of public service entirely except for maybe roads and the military and police. They have, since WWII, framed any sort of civil or public services as sort of gauche. They are also keenly aware that their workers have less time to utilize public spaces so why waste money on that option?

I think this study says far more about the class-structure of the US than it does about effective urban planning meeting the needs of the people. I am of the opinion that inequality / class increasingly needs to be the FIRST lens through which any society-wide issue is looked at.

How can we do 'X' better for cities vis-vis our societal classes and their increasingly different needs relative to one another. That is how I want to see our problems examined...to stop pretending like our demographics exist and operate as they did in 1955.
posted by jnnla at 12:24 PM on January 1 [11 favorites]


Issues of planning / poverty / public health in the US need to be hung on the framework of inequality. What we actually have in the US is more like 2 or 3 completely disparate societies - each with drastically different needs and different interfaces with the public good
The society addressed by the media/advertisers/internet is a close fit for what Last Psychiatrist calls the aspirational 14%: “they have some money, wish they had a lot more, and want an ethical rationalization for their envy.” The largely-ignored and barely-getting-by are playing a totally different game in society, what Charles D. Ellis calls “a loser’s game” in his paper on money management, a game determined by the actions of the loser, by scarcity, and by limits. The saddest thing about poverty and inequality is that it creates two (or more) sets of rules and criteria for success. Both have their ups and downs, but the clear difference despite superficial similarity really messes with people’s heads.
posted by migurski at 12:52 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


Smart growth, on the other hand, could be reasonably said to be industry-wide best practice at this point. It's not particularly contentious.

It's definitely directly challenged by the Landscape Urbanists and their sympathists, and while their movement is confined mostly to the academy and a few elite firms right now, I expect it will continue to spread as people trained in it enter practice.

And then there's the irony that, no matter how accepted smart growth )(which came right out of new urbanism) is as best practice, we continue to build sprawl at increasing rates. What we know and what we/municipalities do are two different things.
posted by Miko at 1:11 PM on January 1


I think the language of smart growth has become the current standard -- good luck finding many comp plans or master plans that don't have the key phrases in them, for example. But I think we are a long way from it being the actual standard of practice -- as Miko notes, you just have to glance around to see the lowest forms of sprawl being planned, permitted, and built even in places that are considered to be models of urban planning.

The report in this FPP seems to me to mark a new direction in the old "sprawl is good vs sprawl is bad" debates (within which New Urbanism was only one perspective, albeit an important one). They are intersecting public health studies with land use in order to argue against many of the tenets of New Urbanism (and other pro-density proponents) such as walkable streets, transit-oriented development, etc. Personally I think a lot of it is spurious because (as stated above) they get a lot of things wrong and misuse evidence, but definitely this needs to be understood as coming out of several long-standing academic and practice debates.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:33 PM on January 1


The data is the data.

Data requires interpretation to be anything more than a collection of arbitrary points. It would be pointless to discuss data without interpreting it (except I guess for thinking about certain comp sci problems). This is kind of like saying, "words are words" or "numbers are numbers"; data points are just empty signifiers. The meaning is dependent on data integrity and quality, context, precision, quality of interpretation--so many other factors. "The data is the data" as a way to dismiss skepticism of how data are aggregated and interpreted is a tautological non sequitur.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:14 PM on January 1 [2 favorites]


Planners who drink the New Urbanist Kool-Aid and posit that it's the solution to sprawl need to reconcile that perspective with two critical implementation issues NU has yet to address satisfactorily: first, the densest transect zone doesn't mandate structured parking, which is unrealistic from a market perspective, and second, sticking the parking behind suburban retail/mixed use projects may make for a more urban pedestrian experience but still results in a land use pattern where the land devoted to cars > the land devoted to people.
posted by carmicha at 2:20 PM on January 1


It's almost as if health is multifactorial and we haven't totally figured out how to harness the power of massive amounts of data.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:43 PM on January 1 [5 favorites]


saulgoodman: You're misreading my point. I wasn't saying the data doesn't need to be interpreted, I was saying that the objections to this report need to actually grapple with those interpretations and not simply resort to ad hominem about architects or objections that the report "only" looked at eight cities including the three largest in the nation. Most people have indeed been objecting to the author's interpretations and I was only objecting to the few who were not doing so which immediately preceded my comment.
posted by Justinian at 3:00 PM on January 1


Ah--thanks for the clarification, Justinian. Misunderstood your thrust in that comment.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:28 PM on January 1


That this study can be favorably interpreted by both the left ("it's the inequality") and the right ("it's the bad decisions") makes me think that the one thing it is not is axe-grinds.
posted by MattD at 9:48 PM on January 1


Interestingly, this was a student-staffed project, the subject of a graduate class.

I thought so. Where are the names of the graduate students? Nowhere in the actual report, as far as I can tell. Yet another fluffy report created by an architect profiting off of his students' work.
posted by suedehead at 2:25 AM on January 2


Ultimately, the thrust of the thing is "we need more research."
posted by Miko at 5:51 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Food deserts weren't discovered IN THESE CITIES. That doesn't mean they don't exist... in Detroit, in rural areas, on native reserves...

While we're on the subject of Detroit's food deserts, check out this blog. It is a project by a local blogger who explores the grocery stores in the so-called food desert.
posted by angryostrich at 9:17 AM on January 2


Having experienced life with both mom-and-pop corner stores/bodegas and massive suburban mega-markets, I do think that there is a big difference in the choice and variety available in a big market and the usually somewhat limited selection of a mom-and-pop. And I don't think that's insignificant. Our mom-and-pop, for instance, sells green and red peppers, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes mostly. Also lemons, oranges, and apples. Though you can eat more healthfully by incorporating these foods than not, it also doesn't represent great seasonal variety, nutrient variety, or interesting possibilities. And one of the things about people, well, most people, is that they tend to respond with interest and effort to the chance to add variety to their diets. I think it's something that the "food desert" discussion needs to acknowledge - the presence of a token amount of fresh food is not a great spur to increasingly incorporating it into your diet.

The places on that Detroit blog look mostly pretty good, though.
posted by Miko at 9:24 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


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