Rant 27 October 2005: How do you measure up?

Those of us living in North America tend to be a bit smug about the quality of life we enjoy. Not to toot our own horn (ah hell, I’m gonna toot it good), but until 2001 Canada ranked consistently as the best place in the world to live according to the United Nations Quality of Life survey.

That North American smugness has recently been tested by various world events and our own shifting demographics. We are getting older, more sedentary, and sicker with illnesses of affluence that previous generations knew little of. Late summer’s hurricanes showed us the creaking, crumbling, moldy underbelly of the United States’ social infrastructure.

Many students in my introductory undergraduate classes live with their parents in middle-class homes and have little concept of what it takes to survive. So every year, we do a pretend budget that tallies living expenses for different types of families living on everything from welfare to minimum wage full time work to reasonable affluence. The exercise usually ends in lots of indignant pouting about the cost of diapers and public transit and how do you expect me to live on this?

In all cases, it becomes abundantly clear that economic wages alone fall far short of what people need to survive and thrive. People also need safety, security, social cohesion, and a community infrastructure that provides services such as care for children, and sick, disabled, and elderly people. People need access to these resources, the knowledge to make informed choices, and the substantive ability to put these choices into place. For example, in order to eat well, people need access to food that is both nutritious and affordable, they need to know which foods will benefit them and why, and they need to have the time, money, facilities, and ability to prepare them. They also need to live in a cultural context that prioritizes health and wellness.

In Ireland, although fresh food was available in supermarkets, I saw people filling their carts with frozen and prefab processed food. No veggies, no fruits, nothing that hadn’t been excreted from the ass end of a machine. This way of eating would make people in Italy or France hurl their homemade cookies. During my travels I puzzled over why countries so geographically close could be so culturally different. A society’s priorities, to some degree, shape its citizens’ behaviour.

Our health and wellness is not an isolated event. A community is more than a group of people who just happened to be in the same place. Economists have long used gross national production as a measure of a country’s success. In the 1980s, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan highlighted the idea of “gross national happiness” as another measure of success, and began to incorporate this into its five-year plans. The 2002 Ninth Plan document that reiterates this principle as a priority states, in part:

“In Bhutan, economic growth and material progress must not be seen as being the only way to personal fulfillment, but must be tempered by an equal emphasis on the advancement of an individual’s spiritual and emotional security. These societal values stem from a strict Buddhist moral code that permeates personal ethics, government policies, and development philosophy. A part of this is the quest for fairness, equity, and equal treatment for all.

Over time, therefore, economic development in the Bhutanese context has come to mean the balancing of material economic progress with the maintenance of Bhutanese cultural and spiritual values, the improvement of social well-being, the preservation of the environment, and the promotion of good governance, all attained as a result of relatively wide participation in decision-making. Resources have been used judiciously and fairly, therefore, and even though vulnerability remains widespread, it is not associated with the abject wretchedness and human suffering so often found elsewhere.”

Compare this approach to ideologies in which measures such as profit, consumption, and whether citizens can buy giant 200 oz Slurpees are considered the sole indicators of social success.

Lately I have become more interested in space. I don’t mean the black stuff with sparkly dots in it from whence the occasional alien emerges; I mean the physical space of our built and lived environments. What spaces have we constructed for ourselves? And how do these spaces contribute to our ability to participate in health and wellness activities? Are our streets safe to walk in? Are there public gathering areas where people like to congregate?

In many of Toronto’s distinctive neighbourhoods such as Little Italy and Greektown, the streets are thronged with people just getting out to walk around for no reason, and park benches are sprinkled liberally so that old men can get together and talk about whatever old men talk about. In Barcelona, even in late December’s cold, the tapas hours of 3 to 6 pm are an absolute mob scene where the only strategy for hapless tourists to escape the relentless throngs of people out for a stroll is to dash into back alleys. Green spaces in Toronto play host to tai chi groups, joggers, people walking dogs, kids on bikes, and pickup baseball, soccer, and cricket games. Cities with bike lanes and bike locking posts encourage people to commute on two wheels instead of four. Quieter streets away from the main drag host road hockey. Public transit discourages driving door to door. The alleys of neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Kensington burst with markets where fresh produce abounds. Even on cold days, people sit on patios, just to sit on patios.

At the end of September I traveled to Atlanta for several days. I have been there twice before and each time have been struck by the peculiar absence of people in public spaces. When I travel to cities I like to get out and walk around to see what the city has to offer, and to take its cultural pulse a little bit. What are people wearing? Where do they hang out? What’s the city’s vibe? The first time I visited Atlanta, there were so few people out on the streets, I wondered if a zombie attack had taken place. This third time, I was determined to scour the city for good restaurants and pedestrians. I did extremely well on the first (by the way, I recommend Globe, Fuego’s $1 tapas, and South City Kitchen), and disappointingly on the second. The people are all in cars. Despite the fact that the city has many shiny new buildings, plenty of trees, and nice places to go for a nosh on a comfortably warm day, there are few people out enjoying this. I have experienced a similar puzzlement when I travel to many other American cities. In one place, there were no sidewalks at all, just miles and miles of suburban sprawl roads dotted with big box stores. I asked my friend, the local resident, “How do people walk here?” The response: “People don’t walk here.” Even the ATM was a drive-through.

How, as a society, do we encourage people to be active and well? In a general sense, we do it by making these things social priorities instead of frills that people can pursue on their own time. One key element is to build spaces where people are encouraged to be physically present participants. Another strategy is to develop a broader concept of public health as both reactive (as in a rapid response to crisis) and preventive (as in preventing ill health and encouraging good health). Toronto has joined other cities such as Dublin where smoking is banned in restaurants and bars. Initially, food service owners were appalled at such a maneuver, and protested it outright as a death knell for business. However, city officials in both places persevered, and now one can enjoy songs of drinking and fighting smoke free. And guess what? People kept coming to bars and restaurants because people like to flock together. Last Saturday night, I walked down to one of my favourite little haunts for a chocolate martini, and when I left, I didn’t stink of someone else’s carbon monoxide sticks. It made me want to go out even more, rather than staying at home where the only thing that stinks is me.

Another example, as chef Jamie Oliver has made widely public, is the fight over what to serve children in schools. Some schools such as Stratford Northwestern have made a concerted effort to expose kids to good, nutritious food as a way of promoting good health habits. Importantly, the kids also participate in their own food prep and build skills that they will use for life. My mother, a former nutritionist and now a high school principal, recently stared down an executive from a soft drink company over the vending machine in her school. The company said that the principal had the right to determine the content of the machine, so mom said fine, that means fruit juice and bottled water. The company said, well, what we really meant was that you’d fill it full of our sugary carbonated nutrient-free crap that has a higher profit margin. I feel sorry for the company exec that tried to take on mom the nutritional pit bull, I really do. By the way, mom’s school is also one that has an on staff chef who engages the kids in prepping healthy, affordable, tasty and nutritious meals. I don’t want to say that my mom probably threatened a giant industrial processed food conglomerate with a tire iron or nuthin, but accidents happen…

We think often of physical fitness as a thing that we go elsewhere to do in an approved facility. We get in our cars and drive to the gym. We watch other people be active on TeeVee while we sit in a La-Z-Boy. What’s wrong with this picture? Activity should be within our homes and just outside our doors. It should be part of our lives. We should demand public spaces that allow us to be safe and secure while we enjoy them, and we should demand that “gross social happiness” begin to guide our social policies.

reader comments

Thus far, this rant has been a hit with readers, who are writing in with emails of agreement, and questions about how to improve things in their own communities. Readers who are interested in making positive change in their own physical environments might be interested in the work of the International Physical Activity and the Environment Network (IPEN), including a walkability score for neighbourhoods. Also check out this document, which outlines a rating system for walkability, and strategies for change. The author writes, “I have started to invest more of my time into my local
communities: my street and my neighbourhood. I am starting to
see the need – and the opportunities – for this involvement, and
am trying to find a way to support myself doing it.” His ideas include:

  • Start a “co-transportation” club. This is the way to provide
    “fractional” access to a car and break the need to use a car a
    lot in order to justify the high fixed costs.
  • Local stories and maps. Get local people to record/share local
    knowledge, develop local maps, design neighbourhood walks for
    newcomers & visitors. Then hold a walking festival with all the
    walks offered as part of a multi-day blitz.
  • Visions. Organize street and neighbourhood visions/plans and
    bring together resources to coordinate future changes to conform.
  • Try a Visual Preference Survey (developed by A. Nelessen) to
    focus people on their communities as place. It gets people
    mentally out on foot in the settings they usually only drive
  • “Be a PESt!” (Pedestrian Environment Steward) and animate –
    and care for – the streets and parks.
  • Start a “DePoT” (corner store, recycling centre, laundry/photo
    drop-off, and postal station, and delivery point for larger
    stores and catalogue shopping). Hire teenagers to help with
    pickup and delivery; supply them with cargo-carrying “bringhy”.
  • Be a “johnny greenseed” and restore your neighbourhood’s
  • Get local merchants to “localize”: 1) cater to local
    customers (the ones who don’t use parking spots and don’t expect
    you to sit on busy road and advertise city-wide, 2) encourage
    locals to produce for your store, 3) hire locally and help
    current employees to move into neighbourhood, 4) reduce outbound
  • Start a neighbourhood BBS (computer bulletin board system)
    for local information and commerce.
  • Determine your community’s walkability.

For cyclists, why not start a Bicycle User Group like the one in Toronto? BUGs are instrumental in advocating for bike lanes, shared traffic road planning, and bike racks for locking bikes.

Ah, Krista –
You’ve now found the secret to America’s obesity problem – here’s an article from
last year about a study performed in Atlanta itself, and here is another.

One of the things that comes out of this is: If a state (and a lot of these are
states in the South and West) did its primary growth and development after the war
(read that, after having an automobile became something generally accepted, after
school building started taking place outside of towns, in other words, the 1950s),
the less people walk (because there is no safe place to walk), the more they drive,
the worse/deader/etc. the downtown areas are, and the poorer quality of life in the
community. Older cities like new York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc. have
lots of sidewalks, lots of downtown life, lots of community involvement, etc. Newer
places like Tampa, Baton Rouge, Jackson (MS), Houston, Phoenix – no downtown, lots
of suburban sprawl, no sidewalks, lots of pollutants in the air, horrible safety
records(the Danger Index in Tampa-St. Pete is 67.2) and so forth.

Time and again, it has been shown that if Americans have safe places to walk and ride bikes, they are more than happy to do so, but they will not try to compete with cars, buses, and
fast traffic. In the DC area, the famous Tyson’s Corners (which went from a sleepy
little crossroads in the 1950s to a suburban retail bohemoth today) is trying
desperately to do something about calming the traffic on Chain Bridge Road (the
main drag) – why? Because it doesn’t make any difference — people are going to try
to cross that road to go shopping elsewhere rather than get on a bus or get into
their cars just to cross. it’s a horribly dangerous place. My sister lives down there and came up to visit us in Binghamton, NY – not exactly a hotbed of pedestrial activity, but still, you can get around pretty well in town on foot or bike. We went to a local event which is held once a month called First Friday – during the summer, there is a lot of activity both on the street and in the galleries and so forth – in the winter, it is all inside, but still pretty hoppin’.
In any case, her comment was that if they were looking for something like this, they’d have to get in their car and drive into DC itself – no one outside the city has this sort of life … it is not built into the suburban lifestyle. School stuff, shopping, sports, yes, but no downtown with restaurants, galleries, stores, doctor’s offices, etc… because it does not exist.

There is some work being done in some places to help – in some municipalities, if
someone wants to do a housing development, for every xx houses, they have to declare it a community, and have room for a school, a downtown, churches and so on, with sidewalks, parks and so forth. This is becoming a big deal here as people start to realize how empty their “communities” are since all they really do is sleep in them — they don’t work there, play there, etc.

Toby Wollin
Binghamton, NY

Hi Krista!

I’ve just been reading your October rantage, and felt compelled to share a few of my travelling experiences with you – I hope you don’t mind!

I’m back in the land of Oz after three wonderful months in Europe. I found your
comments about Ireland fascinating, as I have a Canadian friend who lives in Ely,
just north of Cambridge, and she is researching and writing a book about Eamon
DeValera, and keeps bringing Irish cheese back to England to feast on. Anyway,
that’s beside the point.

We went to England to dance at the British Open Championships, which are held each year at Blackpool. Your comments about the health of different cultures are spot on. We felt the English, particularly in Blackpool and Torquay, where we were competing, looked so unhealthy. I know they were just coming out of winter, but their skin tone was not good, they were overweight, and looked very unfit. We embarked on three months of walking absolutely everywhere, and boy, do you see some good stuff when you walk places! We stayed in apartments in England, shopped at Sainsburys and cooked for ourselves, eating far more nutritious and better food than we got in the very few restaurants we tried. Basically the English haven’t a clue about good pub food. I must give our Aussie pubs a plug here, because they do a fine job!

Organic produce was readily available, and we ate a lot of fresh fish. Thanks to Jamie Oliver, we realised that you can actually eat well in England if you cook for yourself! When we got to Finland though, it was a different story. The friends we spent the bulk of our stay with eat a low lactose, high sugar, high refined carbohydrate diet. We forced them to add salad to the menu every day, and shopped for our own breakfast things which ended up being fresh fruit, organic yoghurt, grainy bread, meat and cheese. I constantly carried a bag of raw nuts in my rucksack, and bottled water, which saved our bacon on many occasions, when we looked at the food on offer and decided we didn’t want to eat any of it!

I’m sure that my girlfriend suffers from “restrained eating” to maintain her slimness. She constantly complained about being hungry, but never ate enough protein to keep her satisfied. But she seems to have figured out what keeps her slim, so there was no point in my saying anything at all. The Finns also have a problem now with what she described as “hereditery diabetes”. I felt like shouting “just look at what you’re eating!” Everything was full of sugar. And I mean everything — even the breakfast meats. Don’t ask me how they manage that.

In the 1970’s when I was living there, the big health concern was heart disease,
mainly due to the high fat diet and the amount of dairy products they ate. They
were then a very slim people, but now, with the introduction of MacDonalds,
Hesburger, and other fast food chains, that has changed dramatically. We saw almost as many “muffin tops” as you see here in Australia. The Finns are getting heavier.

Potatoes and bread form the basis of the Finnish diet, even in summer. The fresh
produce was generally of dubious quality, but we did find some good places to shop. And the food we ate in restaurants was generally very good. They also love their cakes and pastries, ice cream, liquorice (which I reckon is the best in the world!) and sausages. We managed to spend two whole months in Finland and not eat a sausage! Needless to say our friends thought we were quite mad.

Fortunately meals are served by putting all the dishes on the table and you help
yourself. So we could navigate our way through the things we would eat and leave
the things we didn’t want. I’m sure they didn’t notice half the time that we left
the bread and potatoes in favour of large amounts of salad and vegetables. Although they did comment that we ate “a dancer’s diet”!!

We found a fitness track near where we were living, and every second day we did a
two hour circuit, climbing up the nearby ridge through the forest, walking several
kilometres and lifting weights, doing push ups and and sit ups on the equipment
along the track. That was absolutely brilliant and if I could have brought
something home with me, it would have been that. It’s exactly what you were saying about the built environment and the chance to exercise out in the open. I’m sure the locals were wondering what the heck we were doing as they were gathering blueberries from the forest floor! In winter the track is a cross country skiing trail with lights. But we seemed to be the only people using the weights equipment during the summer.

We also trained at a dance studio twice a week, and had lessons with one of the
Finnish coaches, which meant we were very well prepared for the German Open in
August. By the time we got to Germany we had worn our runners out! We danced four days out of five, and because we were staying in a hotel this time, organising our food during the competition was far more difficult. But, we managed, and came home a couple of kilos lighter because of it! I was developing what one Aussie friend (who is living in Finland at present), described as the Finnish middle, which is brought about by the sugar in all the food. I was glad it had gone by the time we got home.

The food in Germany, by the way, was fantastic. Good, fresh produce, and lots of
it. If you ordered a salad – you got a big salad. Wonderful grainy breads,
delicious yoghurts, summer berries, and autumn mushrooms. We didn’t notice the same obesity problems in Germany that we had seen in England and Finland. The Germans are tall and solidly built, but certainly not overweight. They also eat their main meal in the middle part of the day, and have a simple supper of bread, cheese and cold meats at around 7pm. The German dancers are very tall – for the first time Chris and I felt small on the dance floor!

If we had been able to totally control what we were eating in Finland, we would
probably have come home even slimmer. The amount of walking and fitness work we did was addictive, and we’ve been missing it since we came home. It’s been so cold here, after the warmth of the European summer, and we’re waiting for the sun to come out and warm us up again!

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few observations with you. We’re glad to be home
to good, fresh produce, and our regular diet. It’s almost three years since I
reached the weight I am at now, and if I can maintain it after the challenges of
being away from home, I know it’s not coming back – ever! I’ve attached a photo of
us training at the Spiral Studio in Tampere, Finland, so you can see that we really
were there!

Regards from Down Under,

finland, finland, finland / the country where i want to be

Reader Mira, “from the land of Santa Claus”, writes:

I also read Ingrids horror story about Finland and I’m truly sorry that she did not have a chance to get to know the Finland I know:

I’m glad that we have built numerous places, tracks etc where anyone can exercise free. I’m glad there is so many of these places and so few people that they never become too congested.

I’m glad I’m able to choose not to use these places, but instead just go to any forest I like for a long walk or to pick berries and mushrooms.

I’m glad I have a chance to fill my freezer with those natures truly organic grown goodies, to enjoy them through the long winter.

I’m glad of the four seasons. As soon as I get bored with my exercise, the season changes and new events becomes possible.

I’m glad that our streets are safe for anyone to walk and run even in the dark evenings of autumn and winter.

I’m glad I can kick my kids out of door to rampage with neighbours children without fear of them to be kidnapped or run over by a car.

I’m glad that our children can (have to) walk or bike to the school, where they not only receive free, high standard education but also a free, warm and nutritious meal that is so good that school authorities come from other European countries to learn about it. (OK – in some parts of Eastern Finland kids can’t really walk to school, because wolves might attack and eat them).

I’m glad my employee offers me same high standard lunch with lots of veggies, enough protein and low on fat for a price of a Big Mac meal (saves me lot of effort packing my own lunch every day).

I’m glad that previous generations have studied and learned from the heart diseases so much in the 70´s. Now I know that although my genetics may predispose me to heart problems, I’m able to prevent becoming ill by right nutrition and exercise.

I’m glad we have wholegrain rye bread! One of the things I miss every time I’m
travelling somewhere else in the world.

I’m glad I live in Finland!!

Greetings from Copenhagen, Denmark. I am a long-time reader, and I am quite fascinated by your site and your advice. I have been Oly-lifting for almost 3 years now, and enjoy every minute of it. We, as a club, often refer newcomers to your site for help and information.

Regarding the October Rant, I must agree with you. Copenhagen is a comparably small city – Denmark has about 5.5 million citizens – and we are also fighting obesity, as every industrialized country is. Because of the level of taxation (48% for students), and a VAT of 25%, things are expensive here. Most Danes use public transportation, ie. bus and/or trains, or combine with bikes. One of the funnier examples of ingenuity is the Copenhagen CityBike (www.bycyklen.dk), which both trains unemployed, and serves as a service for Danes and tourists.

Regarding the obesity, we are still fighting with solutions – quite difficult to get answers, when the top government official (a doctor of nutrition), received large government grants to produce pamphlets telling people that sugar was healthy(!). Funny part was, he was forced to resign when it was made official that he was sponsored by the sugar-producers (banana-republic, anyone?). We pride ourselves in being sensible and open, but recent studies has shown that we eat fast food and machinefood, instead of the many vegetables and fruits we export.

Newest feature in Copenhagen is “flow-food” – a holistic way, described as the integration of the purchase of food, preparation of food, and consumption of food in the daily life.

Carpenters, electricians and masons are all taught nutrition during their schooling, by the same nutritionists that teach athletes at the elite level. Parliament has just passed a bill, with a hefty grant tacked on, which insures that from 2008, every school will teach nutrition. The super-athletes, who receive government grants or support, will help in their local districts. The basic concept being that the life-long learning experience that life is, requires the same dedication to correct nutrition that athletes need.


My reason for mailing, after reading the Oct 2005 rant on open spaces, etc, was to make you aware, if you are not already aware, of the UK organisation Living Streets.


This grew out of what used to be called the Pedestrians Association, somewhat modernised and widening its outlook, basically to try to make our streets and public places much more pleasant places to be. (I don’t work for them, but am a volunteer contact for them in the town where I live (Abingdon, Oxon).)

All the best,