Smart Growth Types’ Dumb Rhetoric

Linking suburbs to obesity just an attempt at social engineering

Is moving to the suburbs bad for your health? The American Dream of owning a home where you can raise a family is under attack because it doesn’t mesh with new “smart growth” plans for dense cities where everyone lives downtown and walks or rides light rail.

The dream house that we work so hard for is being blamed for everything from obesity to air pollution. Now, instead of parents blaming fast-food restaurants for their kids’ weight problems, “smart growth” groups are blaming the suburbs for our nation’s obesity and health woes. Some of the anti-suburb sentiment is downright ridiculous, not to mention highly unscientific.

The Sierra Club’s “10 Reasons Sprawl is Hazardous to Your Health” include, “It’s Fattening” (because commuting limits exercise); “It Can Kill You” (because if you have to drive, you are more likely to die in a car accident); and “It’s Treacherous” (because subdivisions might be far from hospitals).

But the Sierra Club isn’t alone. Howard Frumkin, a pediatrician at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, is urging the Environmental Protection Agency to use taxpayer money to study the purported damage suburbs are causing. He claims planned communities are making children fat because they don’t force, or allow, kids to walk to school. Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying 8,000 Atlanta residents to establish whether there’s a link between where we live and the amount of physical exercise we get.

Most doctors will tell you the biggest factors in obesity are diet, exercise and genetic makeup. Since “smart growth” activists can’t effectively legislate how we eat or where we get our genes, they’ve targeted exercise. They figure if everyone is crammed into downtown areas of Orange County cities or Los Angeles, we will walk everywhere and be in better shape. Never mind that we are all free to walk and exercise as much as we choose now, or that many suburbs feature walking trails and bike paths. Let’s also ignore the health and fitness clubs on almost every corner.

Access to exercise is not the problem, motivation is. Some of us won’t exercise if you strap us to a treadmill. Some of us always choose to drive, not walk, to that minimart just one block away to buy a bag of potato chips. We don’t make those decisions because we live in the suburbs. We make those decisions out of convenience and personal preference.

As for pollution, we would all be better off if air quality improved. However, we can’t blame the suburbs for air-quality problems. Despite the mass exodus to the suburbs, and despite people spending more time in their cars than ever, air quality has actually improved in most of America’s metropolitan areas since the 1980s. As Reason Foundation air-quality analyst Joel Schwartz notes, “Southern California, the region with the worst air in the country, reduced its annual violations of the EPA’s one-hour ozone standard by about 80 percent between 1980 and 2001.” That’s because today’s cars pollute significantly less than older models. And as the fleet turns over to newer cars, pollution will continue to decrease.

Most of us aren’t foolish enough to believe that a particular community design is the answer to complex pollution or health problems. And we work long and hard so that we can afford to choose how, and where, we want to live. For some of us, that means living it up in Newport Beach. For others, that means life in a planned community in Brea or Irvine. And for a lot of us, it simply means getting away from downtown and having a house with a small yard. It’s what we’ve dreamed of.

Instead of spending money trying to portray suburbs as the evil of society, “smart growth” advocates should use that money to pass out gym memberships or educate people on the benefits of trading in their old clunker for a new car. And while they are at it, they should stop trying to kill the American Dream.

Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation