Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

thinking about cities 6...

Personal freedom means I get to light a cigarette at 5 AM, throw back a shot of whiskey for breakfast and sit on a stoop shouting at people as they walk past about polarized political issues all day long. Freedom means that I have the right to do anything I desire within the boundary of non-harmful behaviour established by state and local laws. The very laws that prevent me from getting arrested if I decide to have a shot of whiskey for breakfast are of the same spirit of laws that make it possible for corporations to flood our communities with cheap and non-nutritious food, loaded with salt, fat, and sugar. This very morning, due to oversleeping, I had to rush to work at the community college, and along the way, I picked the best of the worst option available to me, along the way. My breakfast did not have a single vegetable, unless the starchy potato gets in on a technicality. It had an entire day’s worth of sodium. It will probably shave years from my life if I do this on a regular basis.
The way the laws work: It’s my fault.
I don’t think that’s true. I do the best that I can, every day. Some days that means I have to choose between making it to work on-time and making breakfast. On those days, I also must try to find the least bad solution to navigate my day. And, the city does not support healthy decision-making. In fact, I was up late last night working in the garden and washing dishes, because we try to grow some of our own food, and we try to cook for the week ahead. The end result of this reduction in available weekly time was an exhausted rush to work, and a decision of which method is the least bad. Life is a negotiation of competing, difficult, and urgent priorities. In this case, creating a system that promotes healthy decision-making will be a universal good.
Fast food should be regulated like a sexually-based business. I don’t believe strip clubs or sex toy shops shouldn’t exist. I do believe they should not be permitted to be ubiquitous and omnipresent.
Seriously, count how many burger shacks there are, all around you. Imagine the environmental destruction caused by all those beef cattle herded into close pens, wading through shit while eating corn and belching methane fumes. Imagine the corn they are fed, the cheap GMO corn, and how very much of it, along with GMO soy and GMO sorghum and GMO anything, we toss into the cattle pens, to fatten up beef to make burgers.
Burgers don’t come from the whole cattle, either. There are cuts of meat.
The steak available at nearly every sit-down restaurant in America came from many of the same cattle. The divided animal is raised and sold for a high volume of high-quality beef, and the rest is separated out to fuel the cheap burger joints that pollute our communities’ arteries with low-quality, low-health, discount food.
For me, this morning, even desiring a healthy breakfast, and even willing to pay premium to achieve one, I had no choice. The only fast option available to get me to work on time was fast food. I drove past a hundred places with sausage burritos, egg and bacon sandwiches, and egg and bacon burritos and sausage sandwiches. There was no vegetable stand. There was no fresh oatmeal without all sorts of strange and unknown chemicals, without a deadly dose of sugar. There is an unofficial line between “food” and “junk food”, but the way marketing works, the line becomes blurry, and the blurriness errs on the side of convincing people that “junk food” is actually a health food. You see, junk food is chemically-designed to be addictive. It is engineered to induce cravings that are only enhanced by marketing and branding efforts that reinforce the cravings with a media narrative that embeds into the brain.
Basically, this shit is evil, and we allow it. We welcome it because the consumer gets to choose their own addiction over their health.
And, we have zoned things in such a way that this lamprey can continue sucking the life out of our communities while extracting the wealth of the community, taking both and leaving nothing else behind.
Generally speaking, when wealth is traded for something the community truly needs, this is the purpose of wealth and a good thing; imagine the farmer selling CSA shares for organic produce and jars of fresh pickles. When wealth is traded for something that diminishes the community and causes irrepairable harm, this is the lamprey-like wealth extraction of corporate evil. Trading wealth for something that helps the community builds up the community and improves it. Trading wealth for something that diminishes the community, and takes away from its health and wellness, is a symptom of a diseased society. These weeds have taken root in the cracks of our sidewalks. They are noxious and polluting and harmful, but they cannot be removed without rethinking the way our cities and food systems work on a massive scale. These are the parasites in the system that exploit our personal freedom for their own material gain at our expense.
Urban planning has the power to correct itself.
Fear of regulation is a definite thing, and part of a healthy society that tries to balance competing interests that may or may not have uneven power distributions in the discussion. Fear of regulation prevents the powerful from pushing through changes that cause harm. Obversely, fear of too-little regulation also is part of a healthy society.
How many burger joints does your neighborhood actually want or need, and are they unbalanced regarding other forms of healthier eating choices? Where are the healthy, fast choices for a vibrant, wholesome society?
I propose two alternative solutions that each are likely impossible.
First, I propose strict dietary guidelines for restaurant meals based on their price points. The cheaper something is, the healthier it must be to protect our society’s poor and powerless from the myriad issues involved with the exploitation of corporations. This will create some issues because healthy food isn’t necessarily the cheapest food. But, a little of something good is far better than a lot of something bad, for your health. And, I suspect that once faced with the limitations of regulations, the companies that can create healthy, affordable options for a low price point will excel and expand quickly. This leap of faith, of course, supposes that once given the opportunity not to exploit, companies will refrain from doing so. Unfortunately, what we have seen is that whenever something is permitted, a corporation will attempt to profit from it, and whenever something is not forbidden, a corporation will attempt to profit from it. In either case, this is not a permanent solution to the food crisis ravaging our urban and suburban and rural communities. We are literally dying because we have put our faith in companies to do right by their customers’ health. Heart disease is our #1 killer. Cigarettes, if not for extensive regulation, would still be on the lips of everyone, everywhere.
My second proposed solution is to zone fast food restaurants exactly like adult entertainment facilities, and prevent them from dominating our communities. They need to be spread the fuck out, and dissipated as the sinful thing that they are. Currently, one could not go to a grocery store without passing multiple fast food destinations wrapped around it in a kind of obstacle course of temptation. One fast food restaurant per square mile is plenty. Strictly defining fast food, in this case, would come from the caloric density of the food set against the nutritional density. What is the set ratio permitted per meal per items? I don’t believe in portion control. I do believe in nutritional density. Set a strict nutritional density requirement, and anything that does not meet that requirement must be zoned like a sinful temptation that blights our community’s health, safety, and children. Anything that is more calorically-dense than nutritionally-dense belongs out on the edges of our towns and cities, where only those who are specifically-seeking them will encounter them, and they will know that what they are doing is potentially harmful to their health.
Also, any food company that needs to make television commercials instead of relying on the testimonials of customers and goodwill is basically making terrible food. That they target children with their horrible products, and attempt to create a lifelong bond with children through targeted advertising of food that causes Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Cancer, is one of the great evils of our society.
Corporations are basically robots. They are tools that are created to perform functions and operate independently of any one or two operating individuals, to make decisions without close direction, etc. That their processing power comes from a large number of managers and middle-managers and employees is irrelevant, because they function in all other respects like giant, amorphous robots. In this, Asimov’s laws of robotics must come first. They are not required to operate this way.
They certainly aren’t operating that way in our towns and communities.
Another corporation that seems disinterested in the health and wellness of the community - construction companies - are in the business of building things that can be used for profit through either the sale of the buildings or the leasing of them.
These have all been built according to codes, set by the government.
The government regulation that is often seen as some kind of evil has actually been subtly enforcing a status quo through building codes for centuries. These codes save lives, ensure appropriate access for disabled and elderly folks, and do all sorts of other hidden goods. But, they also ensure that doing things differently from what has been done before is prohibitively difficult. For a construction company to take a chance on unconventional urban planning, unconventional design, often means finding ways to reduce the cost of the procedure, and mitigating the risk.
The urban renaissance currently happening in our cities, where the wealthy and upwardly-mobile push into condos and residences that are deep in the heart of cities, as opposed to rushing out to the suburbs, is exactly how to do that, for a risk-averse construction firm. The vibrancy of repurposing old buildings happens because community leaders make it fiscally profitable through tax breaks and regulations, and the community gets behind the project. The famous Riverwalk of San Antonio is exactly that sort of project. A civic-minded community leader saw the value in a revitalized destination downtown, and united the community behind the idea that has since taken off and formed the heart of a revitalized downtown in a city that has since become a major tourist destination as a result, in part, of that Riverwalk project. In other areas, old factories left abandoned that happened to have a fortuitous location have been turned over into a multi-use notion, with condos above the restaurants, and shopping and various offices all sharing tiny pieces of lease space inside constructs that used to be used for a large, single purpose. Also in San Antonio, the Pearl Brewery Complex has become a major destination for locals, where once there was an empty and decaying former brewery of a beer notorious for its cheapness and poor quality, now there is the Culinary Institute of America, high-end retail, and all sorts of restaurants and offices.
How do urban planners bring that same sort of renaissance to the communities that are not rich? How do we bring the urban renewal into communities that struggle to make ends meet?

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