Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Does Sprawl make Johnny fat?

   Suburban sprawl is blamed for environmental degradation, excessive energy consumption, and the disintegration of the social fabric.  Now sprawl is linked to another problem:  that America’s kids are too fat.  See reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Public Health Association.  A concern is that the low-density, automobile-based culture traps kids at home and encourages them to do nothing but play video games and munch on snacks all day. 
   It’s certainly true that auto-reliant suburbia makes it hard for some kids to walk or ride their bikes to school or the malt shop.  I’m in favor of laws requiring sidewalks, encouraging pedestrianism, and creating bike paths. 
   But sprawl is not the the chief culprit here.  After all, an attraction of suburbia is that it’s supposed to be good for kids, of course.  The famous (or infamous) opinion of Justice Douglas in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas in 1974, upholding a town’s outlawing of group houses, included the striking passage that, “A quiet place where yards are wide …are legitimate guidelines in a land use project addressed to family needs….  It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quite seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people ….” 
   So why aren’t kids enjoying the outdoor blessings of the suburbs?  Here’s an empirical test:  Drive through a suburban neighborhood outside of school hours and take a look at the plentiful playgrounds.  Chances are that you won’t see many kids playing.  If you do, it’s likely to be a rigorously organized event with parents in attendance. 
   A bigger problem than sprawl, I suggest, is that today’s social and family culture discourages spontaneous play and exercise, in contrast to years past.  Television and video games are more charismatic than pick-up basketball or splashing in the creek -– both in suburbs and in the city.  And today’s parents are close-to-paranoid about letting their kids head to the park without adult supervision; many parents don’t even let their kids play in the front yard, out of fear of child-snatching or other horrors. 
   Sprawl doesn’t stop kids from keeping fit; people do.


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In Massachusetts, it is common for subdivision rules and regulations to not require the construction of sidewalks in suburban subdivisions. The lack of side walks on suburban roads creates a real danger for children who wish to bike ride or rollerblade.

Posted by: Domingos R. Santos Jr. | Apr 20, 2006 9:36:27 AM