Totalitarian Zoning for Public Health


John Leighton's plan to make London into concentric rings. (Photo Credit: Martin Gittins)

The relationship between city zoning and public health has historical origins in the slums of 19th century industrial cities. Although planning’s preoccupation with physical health was dormant for much of the later part of the 20th century, recent  discussions surrounding food security, supermarket deserts, and access to better food has caused many planners to revisit zoning law as an appropriate response to an augmenting urban health crises.

The recent International Conference on Urban Health in New York City  highlighted this topic with papers that discussed new laws and policies that could potentially stop the spread of what seems to be an obesity epidemic.

The potential for law to contribute to obesity prevention remains largely unrealised,” writes professor of law Roger S Magnusson. The author goes on to explain the visibly reality that in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods there is a high proportion of fast food restaurants and a low proportion of grocery stores.

I’m in full favor for increasing access to better food items, bringing supermarkets back into the inner city and encouraging healthy communities. But there is something eerie and almost totalitarian in the language used throughout these policy debates. The topic moves away from the reality of multidimensional poverty of low-income neighborhoods and to  obesity as a perceived air-born epidemic that has the potential of reaching middle and upper classes.

Zoning is the law of spatial organization, it allows those in power to organize physical space according to perceived needs and demands. So while Jenny Craig, Atkins, and South Beach were responses to the perceived need to slim down our population, it seems as though Americans demand a good healthy dose of law to combat their obesity.

I agree that “more grocery stores, more community gardens and farmers’ markets, and few fast food restaurants are all realities that can be facilitated by the zoning code,” (Magnusson). However, zoning out fast food and replacing these restaurants with supermarkets creates a new poverty of space.

Let’s be clear, grocery stores are not restaurants. People need places for social interaction, particularly in non-urban areas. For low-income families with little to no access to public space, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are all opportunities for families and other groups to participate in the oldest social activity of human history–the consumption of food. Although the act of coming together to consume food has no class or racial boundary, where and what people  are able to consume  can be mapped according to class.

If health zoning is, as Ehrlich O.G. explains “the use of zoning laws to permit or restrict certain businesses, such as fast-food restaurants, from entering or expanding in specified geographic areas,” then I’d argue we are not zoning for  health but for middle-class ideologies.

Furthermore, the above statement suggests that we are zoning for the economy, and that economy does not favor the poor. McDonald’s and Crown Fried Chicken are not the only fast food restaurants that locate in low-income neighborhoods. The majority of independent, mom and pop restaurants can also be considered fast food.  These establishments often have little capital and therefore cannot develop into anything beyond fast food. Meanwhile, their patrons are often short on two things–time and money. Zoning out local fast food establishments has the potential to zone out local economic development. Lack of economic opportunity also does a disservice to the physical and mental health of a community.

There is a growing hysteria yet fascination with the subject of obesity. Not only is there an explicit line of power running through new health zoning laws, there is also a return to Victorian neurosis–namely a coexisting horror and fascination with the lower class, a group of people who are able to indulge in unthinkable (but fantasized) acts. The passive aggressive Victorian mentality of placing blame on the victim is avoided by advocating a mentality of what’s good for me is what you should aspire to.

Chadwick’s 1842 Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes was one of the first policy documents that brought together class, environment, and health. Although Chadwick was instrumental to the survivability of the early industrial city, his report reiterates zoning and health’s long history with disciplining the lower classes.

“And that the removal of noxious physical circumstances, and the promotion of civic, household, and personal cleanliness, are necessary to the improvement of the moral condition of the population.”

One of Chadwick’s main concerns was the rampant sexual promiscuity of the working class, a disorder that rose from and contributed to the unsanitary conditions of the urban poor. Most attention was on the working-class woman, who was to be forgiven because she didn’t know better but controlled so as to avoid contamination. Nevertheless, while male policy makers addressed this problem, they continued to visit the brothels.

Walk into the McDonald’s on 3rd and 54th sometime. The tables are filled with  business professionals uncomfortably yet ecstatically indulging in a mid-afternoon Big Mac. You will find no grocery stores in five-block radius, but East Midtown is no poor man’s district. With the exception of the .99 menu, there are is nothing one can buy for under a dollar. But chances are this McDonald’s would stay if such obesity zoning was to be enacted. Is it because those making more that 145K know how to eat responsibly and are thus occasionally allowed to deviate from healthy practices?

Hogarth's famous depictions of Gin Lane

Health zoning suggests that reoccurring desire of the middle class to control to suppress by all possible means the temptation to indulge in the horror of what may be broadly categorized as disorder. The middle class has moved beyond fad dieting and onto organic produce. Going off the assumption that we all aspire to the middle class allows us  to zone out fast food without questioning what else might be taken away. Once again we see this persistent theme in the history of spatial laws that force the lower classes to adhere to middle class values while never providing the adequate tools by which to obtain a middle class economic position.

One Response to “Totalitarian Zoning for Public Health”
  1. thermacuts says:

    I am sure that i will come back to your blog. Well written articles !

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