Home of the Chubby

As the obesity rates rise in this country—from 15 percent of 20 to 74-year-olds in 1980 to 32.9 percent in 2004—we’ve been searching for the reasons Americans are so, um, fat. Corn syrup and car culture pop up quite a bit, but turns out there might be another culprit: architecture. Oh, and Brits are chubby, too.

England’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), along with their National Heart Forum and a non-profit called Living Streets, is promoting the notion that exercise should be a built-in component of new buildings and developments—CABE makes a connection between “sprawling suburbs and spreading waistlines”—and no, that luxury fitness room that nobody uses is not what they mean.

The group released a report in July titled Building Health: Creating and enhancing places for healthy, active lives which concluded that stores should be in walking distance, bike paths abundant, parks all around; walking and biking shouldn’t be recreation, but primary modes of transportation. It’s really New Urbanism—which is, of course, old European town principals—dressed up as healthspeak, but it’s more about preventing heart attacks than upping property values.

Another notion: make friendly staircases. Really.

It’s not a bad idea. Stairwells can be foreboding, even frightening, mostly because no one else is using them. One member of the committee suggests piping in music, evoking a bit of that gym feel (unless they pipe in Muzak, creating an elevator ambience and thus taking a step backward). Maybe we can climb in time to a little Donna Summer and lose a few pounds when we arrive at our offices.

Their plan is to make East London an anti-obesity neighborhood as they ameliorate it in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, including a £100m investment in public school gym classes, in case that will lead to new Olympians.

And while England is clearly ahead of us on all things green, Americans are starting to make the connection as well. Carnegie Mellon architecture professor Kristen Kurland makes obesity maps, demonstrating pockets of overweight folks in her home city of Pittsburg. She’s found, not surprisingly, that neighborhoods where walking is difficult—especially in a poor area called The Hill—without access to health food-filled grocery stores, and reliant on cars as the main mode of transport, have chubbier residents. If you can only get Cheetohs at your local bodega, you’re more likely to get Cheeto thighs.

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