News & Views » David Walters

Eat, Drink and Be Merry. . .

While you still can


Charlotte can be lovely in the fall. On one recent benign autumn evening, I enjoyed a backyard party with friends -- pleasant company and conversation, good wine and delicious home-cooked food. People waxed lyrical over Charlotte's attractive and civilized environment. All was right with the world. There was even a nip of complacency in the air, the American lifestyle securely in place. But the light of day illuminates darker dimensions of the lives we lead, ones we prefer to forget.

Apart from the visual mess of ugly buildings, parking lots and decaying infrastructure that typifies many city districts, Charlotte's environment is unhealthy. There's enough pollution in the air we breathe -- from car exhaust and power plant particulates -- to corrode our health and kill us before our time. And it's getting worse.

But that's not all.

We've planned our city so that walking is nearly impossible, and as a result, in common with all of America, we're getting fatter. In San Antonio, for example, the flab capital of the nation, an alarming 31 percent of citizens are obese. We're fatter than we've ever been, and this also has a dramatic effect on our health.

As anecdotal evidence of the problem and its solution, I lost four pounds in a week working in London last month, walking everywhere and using public transit. But don't take my word for it. The September issues of America's leading journals of public health featured copious research that linked the design of cities, particularly our suburbs, to the nation's growing health crisis. The more we sprawl, the more we drive -- and walking becomes a rare and special event rather than the healthy medium of everyday activities.

Deadly air pollution and obesity are two reasons we need to rethink the way we build our city. Other factors include loss of productive farmland and environmentally valuable open space, and longer commutes stuck in traffic -- losing time with our families and raising our stress levels. In this context, Charlotte's transit plan and proposed new General Development Policies are important correctives to our patterns of behavior that harm ourselves and others.

In the year I've been away from this newspaper, writing a book on the design of cities with my wife, Linda Brown, I've read some strange and disturbing opinions about planning the future of Charlotte. Resistance to change has come mainly from those members of the development community who keep building sprawl without any discernable thought for our common good. But other commentators, who seem to prefer ideology to common sense, have added shrill voices to the orchestrated opposition.

Chief among the targets of ridicule has been the city's plan for five corridors of rail and rapid busways radiating from uptown. These linear zones form the focus for future urban villages, where people can live, work and play in more environmentally benign and convenient ways. In this plan, riding transit becomes the easiest option in the corridors where people will live in increasing numbers, the pie-shaped wedges between the spokes are restricted to lower density housing, with walkable streets and public parks, and using our cars is more of a choice, not a necessity. The city's proposed General Development Policies provide the tools to implement this strategy, to slim ourselves down, literally and figuratively. In this way we can tighten our belts and improve our city, bequeathing our children and grandchildren a more attractive (and less polluted) future.

But there's something about planning, and transit planning in particular, that infuriates the conservative mindset. Many folks at that end of the political spectrum even deny there's a problem, quoting second-rate scientists in the pay of polluting corporations to argue with the impartial evidence endorsed by more than 250 Nobel Prize winners. If this tactic fails, opponents of sensible planning resort to the old chestnut of a "liberal conspiracy" to undermine America's values. It's as if conservatives are proud of belonging to a country regarded by the rest of the world, including Great Britain, America's closest ally, as the fattest, laziest, greediest and most belligerent nation on the planet. What happened to old-fashioned American precepts of decency, fairness and moderation?

America is the only industrialized country where ideology trumps science. It's the only First World nation where global warming isn't taken seriously by government and large sections of the population. Elsewhere, damaging climate change is taken as a fact, not regarded as some unproven hypothesis. If the world's population lived like Americans, we would need up to 12 planet Earths to meet our needs! No wonder other leading nations are trying to cut pollution, curb sprawl and embrace clean, alternative energy.

Change can begin right here in Charlotte, but the nonsense talked about new transit and development plans threatens this improvement. If we're not careful, pleasant backyard evenings in a civilized city will be something unknown to our grandchildren. Selfishly, we'll have used them all up.

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