Zoning Laws: A Much Ignored Factor in America's Obesity Crisis

There is much speculation about the causes of the increasing size of the American waistline and the health consequences that accompany obesity. There are diatribes everywhere on the prevalence of fast food, the tragedy of food deserts, the failings of the farm bill and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of the population, but one factor that is given scant attention are the effects that regulations governing the built environment have on public health and the food we have access to.

Most municipalities in the United States have zoning codes that restrict the placement and use of land for commercial and industrial interests, especially in relation to residential districts. This segregated land use is vital for the maintenance of public health (who wants a copper smelter next to their children’s playground?), but the severe restrictions placed on food uses of land can be a hindrance to maintaining a healthy population.

The fact is that most zoning codes outlaw or severely restrict agriculture and food related retail in areas zoned for residential use. What’s the problem with that you ask? The problem is that this creates a situation where people MUST travel away from their homes, often some significant distance, if they want to eat. For those that own cars this may not be a big problem, but there is a significant segment of the population that has limited access to personal transportation. For these people even a one mile walk to a grocery store could be a challenge, especially if they suffer from a chronic disease related to their diet. And for those with cars the blow is twofold. The time constraints imposed by hectic work and family lives may hinder their ability to shop for ingredients and cook healthy meals at home, leaving dining out the only viable option. In addition, all of the time spent in cars do to the spread out nature of the built environment contributes to unhealthy weight gain.

This article offers some insight into the affects of poorly planned zoning laws. The authors point to the fact that zoning was broadly implemented, in part, to reduce the prevalence of infectious disease and to remove dangerous land use from the vicinity of residential areas. In these respects zoning has been a wild success. The downside is that the segregation of land use forced by zoning has helped to increase the incidence of chronic disease, much of it related to poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. Even the CDC has weighed in on the health effects of zoning.

This is not an argument against all land use regulation. Instead, it is an argument for smart, flexible regulation that takes into account the daily needs of the population. Zoning codes should be re-written to allow better access to healthy food in neighborhoods and communities. Most would agree that a restaurant next door to a family home would be a nuisance but multi-use regulations can be created to allow community gardens, urban farms, food trucks and farmer’s markets in residential areas. This type of flexible regulation carries with it other advantages for communities as well as outlined in this study.

The bottom line is that the obesity problem is complex and no one solution is going to reverse the trend toward heavier Americans. But it’s not just about fast food and low income people eating junk. Revision of zoning laws is one tool that can be used to combat the spread.

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Nate Abrams

I'm a systems guy, which means that I look at almost everything in terms of interconnections, feedback loops, architecture and scale. In other words, I look for the big picture and the deeply buried reasons for why things are the way they are.

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