Replacing the Fatropolis with Fit Towns

New ‘healthy towns’ that encourage people to walk more, eat the right kind of food and stay forever fit take repression to a new level.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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‘Salt ‘could fuel childhood obesity”’ whispered one headline this week; ‘World is in obesity crisis’ roared another. It seems barely a day passes without some report or policy announcement reminding us that the deep-fried fruits of modernity are dragging us to our gluttonous, sedentry doom. Change your ways, they exhort. However, if recent plans to redesign our towns as ‘fit towns’ are anything to go by, instruction and guilt-tripping are giving way to something far more repressive.

The possibility of replanning and redesigning our towns in order to encourage healthy lifestyles was originally raised last November by UK health secretary, Alan Johnson. Citing ‘international evidence and research’ that shows we ‘need a large-scale approach across the whole community to help tackle obesity’ he suggested proposed eco-towns should also be made ‘healthy towns… through their layout, facilities and construction’. He concluded that our ‘built environment [must] do more to help people make physical activity a normal part of everyday life’ (1).

In Boston last Sunday, the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science saw a similarly depressing nod to lifestyle management. Professor Philip James of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and, more importantly, chairman of the Brave-New-World-sounding International Obesity Taskforce, declared: ‘The environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the obesity epidemic’. He continued, arguing that it was naïve to place ‘the onus on individuals making “healthier choices” while the environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the epidemic’ (2). Rena Wing of Brown University echoed the pessimistic view of individuals’ capacity to make what the holier-than-thou alliance of policy makers and experts deem the right choices: ‘We live in an obesogenic environment that relies heavily on fast food, automobiles and remote controls – all of which can be labelled as “toxic” to maintaining a healthy weight.’ (3)

The overarching aim of remaking our fatropolises as fit-towns is all too clear: as we can’t be trusted to make the correct decisions, we, the public, shall be forcibly diverted from the dual-carriage way of temptation on to the fully pedestrianised area of righteousness.

Admittedly, some of the measures suggested seem innocuous enough. Stairwells, for instance, should be made to look less like badly lit fire escapes and made a bit more glamorous, spiral perhaps. And parks should be better maintained, with better lighting. Other proposals, however, are all too restrictive. For instance, some of the proposed towns should give priority to pedestrians and cyclists over the car, perhaps providing office premises with bike-only parking. And the bane of the obesity warrior’s crusade, the fast food outlet, must never be erected near parks or schools. (4)

Of course there is nothing especially novel about urban planning, nor its political underpinnings. Take Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris between 1852 and 1870. With memories of the revolutionary commune of 1848 still fresh, Haussmann, under Napoleon III’s instructions, demolished vast swathes of the city and built long, sweeping boulevards in their place. In doing so he both inhibited the erection of barricades and made it easy for the army to gain access. In other words the attempt to maintain social order was embodied in Parisians’ lived environment.

Indeed, on a more general scale, our environment has long reflected the ruling needs of the moment. Richard Sennet in his 1997 book, The Fall of Public Man, saw in the bustling thoroughfares and concourses of the modern city the predominance of the private individual of bourgeois myth. Public space was made a mere function of private motion, of getting from a to b as quickly as possible. Strolling, meandering, and leisurely interacting with our fellows were incompatible with the manic industriousness demanded of the bourgeois individual.

Accepting that urban planning – the regulation of public space – or indeed, its absence, has always provided a mirror of society, then what does the notion of the fit town reflect? Whilst it is not concerned, as Napoleon III was, with the threat posed by social disorder, it is still dealing with a threat. This time however, the threat is not embodied in, say, the communards – it is not external at all. It is, rather, internal to each and every one of us. Fit towns combat our tendency to consume and to seek convenience – we are our own worst enemies. While fast food, remote controls or electric tooth brushes save labour, they’re killing us.

Fit towns embody more than the war on obesity. They wage war on our consuming passions per se, be it a desire to light-up, to booze, or to go large on a Big Mac and fries. Above all they fight our tendency to err.

To borrow, then, from the increasingly martial lexicon of government policy, fit towns are located on the frontier of the war on error. The result, from the jarring positivity of phrases like the International Obesity Taskforce, or, indeed, the ‘fit town’ itself is an environment every bit as deeply repressive as that evoked in their different ways by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen railed against Brownite eco-towns and their close relatives, Alan Johnson’s proposed ‘fit towns’. James Panton dismissed the Fife Diet. Rob Lyons called for a ceasefire in the ‘war on obesity’ and derided the scare stories about an overweight epidemic. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) ‘Fit towns’ plan to tackle child obesity , Guardian, 1 November 2007

(2) Welcome to the town that will make you lose weight, The Times, 18 February 2008

(3) Welcome to the town that will make you lose weight, The Times, 18 February 2008

(4) How towns are redesigned as gyms, BBC News, 20 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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