Saturday, October 22, 2011

MTO, Health, and New Urbanism

It's great to see so much press coverage around the publication of "Neighborhoods, Obesity, and Diabetes — A Randomized Social Experiment," an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the health gains made by women who moved to low-poverty communities under the Moving To Opportunity Program. Here's a summary from CNN: "between 2008 and 2010, Ludwig and his colleagues followed up with 3,186 women who participated in the [MTO] program. . . . Of the women who stayed in their original neighborhoods, 20% had blood-sugar levels consistent with diabetes and 18% had a BMI of at least 40 (the unofficial cutoff point for morbid obesity). These rates were not measurably different among the women who received unrestricted vouchers. By contrast, just 16% of the women who moved to low-poverty areas had diabetes and just 14% were morbidly obese."

However, one thing that no article we have seen has mentioned is how this data flies in the face of so much New Urbanist propaganda about how living in the suburbs makes people fat. In the MTO program, moves from high-poverty communities to low-poverty ones typically (though not always) meant moves from denser, more urban neighborhoods to less dense, less walkable, more suburban ones. So what is it about the new environments that accounts for the health benefits? Jens Ludwig, lead author of the study is quoted in CNN saying that the move "changed a bunch of things at one time for these families, so it's hard to tease out exactly what made a big difference for them," but that greater access to healthy foods, a safer environment more conducive to outdoor exercise, and lower levels of psychological stress all "seem like plausible explanations."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jerold Kayden on Occupy Wall Street

In the media coverage of Occupy Wall Street, it has been great to see our former professor Jerold S. Kayden emerge as the go-to expert on publicly-owned private space. We first met Jerold in his excellent "Public Private Development" Class--which we all took at the GSD in 2000--and we subsequently helped him develop a brand around his then nascent "Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space" organization, which was founded after the publication of his exhaustive book on the topic. As most supporters of the Occupy movement know by now, one of the brilliant things about it is that by occupying Zuccotti Park, the occupiers occupied a privately-owned public space that, unlike a city-owned public space, can draft and enforce its own rules of operation (the city only requires that these rules be "reasonable"). Zuccotti Park--by almost any standard, one of the better privately-owned public spaces in the city--had very lax rules: one couldn't skateboard, roller skate, or bike through the park, but until October 13 of this year, there were no rules prohibiting camping or lying down.

As Kayden writes in his op-ed piece in the Times, "The rules remain unenforced; no one is sure what will happen next."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

There is so much we'd like to say about Occupy Wall Street, which we find inspiring, exciting, and essential, and which we support 100%. Among other things, it's a victory for public space, and a reminder of how real democracy is impossible without it. Fortunately, someone with a much bigger audience than this blog has written a really thoughtful piece that hits the nail on the head, and says a lot of the things that this blog might have said if we were better at this. Michael Kimmelman's "In Protest, The Power of Place" is a must read. Seriously: follow the link and read it now!

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Landscapes of Privilege by James and Nancy Duncan has been on our reading list for a while now. A book about "how the aesthetics of physical landscapes are fully enmeshed in producing the American class system" that shows "how the physical presentation of a place carries with it a range of markers of inclusion and exclusion" is hard for us to resist! We finally had a chance to read it recently and we weren't disappointed. There's a lot we could say about it, but for now, we'd like to point out at least one new entry in the Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion that was inspired by it: WETLAND. Writing about Bedford, NY, the Duncans write that "The anti-development activists found that by the 1970s their best arsenal came from the environmental movement and its vocabulary of wetlands and biodiversity." According to the Duncans, as the town started experiencing development pressure, residents suddenly became concerned about wetlands: by essentially feigning an interest in the health of the earth, residents could be exclusionary while seeming progressive.