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Our cities and our diet are killing us; it’s time to change both

  • September 13, 2019

Nick Cohen of the Guardian explains why we need to change what we eat and how we get around.

We have a health and obesity crisis in North America, as they do in the UK. Much of this results from the dependence on the car to get everywhere and do everything, and from breathing the exhaust of all those cars. It is causing a crisis in our healthcare systems. In Britain, which, like every developed country in the world save one, has a National Health Service, the costs of dealing with these health problems has become a crisis. According to Nick Cohen, writing in the Guardian, a big study delivered shocking results.

Newcastle University found obesity and the lack of exercise (the two go together, of course) in the middle-aged mean two-thirds will have more than one chronic illness when they reach 65. These bleakly titled “multiple morbidities” will afflict them simultaneously. (For in the future, illnesses will not come as single spies but in battalions.) Most are the natural consequence of our high calorie/low exercise world: arthritis, cancer, diabetes, dementia and strokes.

Cohen gets that it is the design of our cities and our obsession with cars that is the root of this problem and proposes radical changes in our streets and in our society to promote cycling and walking above every other mode of transport. And he thinks it is going to require a bit of an authoritarian push to get people do do it: “Expert authority must engineer their lives from above for their own good and the common good.”

Here’s my partial sketch of how Britain would have to change to limit the costs to the NHS that stunted lives and avoidable pain will bring. Pedestrians and cyclists would have priority on the roads. If the roads are too narrow to take cars, cycle lanes and a pavement wide enough to allow pedestrians to walk or run in comfort, then cars will have to go.

He suggests that driving would not be banned but would be pointless, as so much space would be given over to bike lanes, bus lanes, and wider sidewalks, and all the parking garages and lots would be knocked down and replaced with parks.

Oh, and parents would not be allowed to drive their kids to school, fast food outlets would be banned within a mile of a school, foods high in fat or sugar would be hit with punitive taxes and advertising bans.

Nick Cohen admits that some might find this draconian. “I can feel the force of the objections. When we imagine a healthier future we are also imagining a more authoritarian state.” He doesn’t mention that whenever there is a War on the Car, that when election time comes, the car wins. But Cohen notes that something has to be done:

The above may sound utopian or dystopian, according to your point of view, but more radical ideas are circulating. In 2006, Tim Lang and Geof Rayner from the Food Policy Centre said the vast forces in the modern economy delivering calories on a scale humans did not evolve to digest required an equally sweeping response. Everything from our attitude to nature, our bodies and food production needed to change.

One place we can start is in the streets. In the US, where a trillion dollars may be spent on infrastructure, perhaps it is time to stop pouring concrete for highways and start investing more in bike infrastructure. Instead of worrying about self-driving cars, we should think more about electric bikes. If we are going to dream about the future, why not dream of a nation where people can walk or bike where they need to go and not be poisoned in the process?

Read more in the Guardian.

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