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Where we live may be to blame for rising obesity

Carol Lloyd, SF Chronicle
… come on, who ever heard of blaming their muffin tops, love handles and lazy ways on the place they live?

Yet that’s precisely the theory posited by a growing body of researchers in public health, urban planning, epidemiology and economics. Ever since two studies linked sprawl and obesity in 2003, study upon study has been published suggesting that our environment — marked by car-oriented, isolated, unwalkable neighborhoods — is having a deleterious influence on our health. In other words, sprawl is making us unhealthy, unhappy and fat.

One early study of 200,000 people, led by urban planner Reid Ewing, found that residents of sprawling communities tended to weigh more, walk less and have higher blood pressure than those living in more densely populated areas. Another study, by health psychologist James Sallis of San Diego State University, concluded that people living in “high-walkability” neighborhoods walk more and were less likely to be obese than residents of low-walkability neighborhoods.

A 2004 study in Atlanta, led by Lawrence Frank, reported that the number of minutes spent in a car could be linked to a risk of obesity. Among the oft-cited conclusions of the study: A typical white male living in an isolated residential-only neighborhood weighs about 10 pounds more than one living in a walkable, mixed-use community.
(22 April 2007)

Corporate subsidies that feed sprawl

Neal Peirce, Seattle Times
Are government subsidies to job-promising corporations the waste of taxpayers’ money that critics have long claimed – a zero-sum city-to-city and state-to-state shell game?

Or are they worse? Do they foster sprawl, moving jobs out of cities, away from the workers in most need, and into better-off suburbs with little poverty, joblessness or affordable housing?

That’s the charge the Washington-based watchdog group Good Jobs First is now making. It has strong evidence, based on careful surveys rooted in government data and conducted in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan.

Of 86 subsidized corporate relocations in Minnesota between 1999 and 2003, involving 8,200 jobs and more than $90 million in government payouts, four-fifths were outbound from the Minneapolis-St. Paul urban core. People of color and transit-dependent workers lost out; more-affluent, less-racially diverse areas gained, registering increases in jobs that were five times that of the central cities.

…The findings add a new spin to the debates over suburban sprawl. People usually cite such factors as crime and declining quality of urban schools. Now it turns out that state governments, or localities acting with state permission, are actually shelling out taxpayers’ money to accelerate outward the shift of jobs.

The proof is just coming to light with data that gets behind the wall of secretiveness thrown up by the economic-development agencies that decide on and dispense the subsidies.
(23 April 2007)

New book: How Green is Your City?

Warren Karlenzig, SustainLane
In our peak oil, post-Katrina world, how do America’s largest cities stack up in terms of sustainability?

Which cities are more self-reliant and better prepared for our uncertain future? Which cities are operating business-as-usual?

How Green is Your City? is the outcome of a sustainability study involving the largest 50 cities in the US, compiled by SustainLane in 2006. This study, also known as the SustainLane US City Rankings, measures each city’s performance in 15 areas of urban sustainability. Among these areas:

  • Public transit use

  • Air and tap water quality
  • Planning/land use
  • Affordability
  • Energy/climate change policy
  • Local food/agriculture

The resulting comparisons provide a snapshot of urban sustainability in the US today. Leading the pack is Portland, Oregon, with its high quality of life and commitment to green building, local food, alternative fuels and renewable energy, while Columbus, Ohio, with its dependence on the automobile and poor public transit, ranks at the bottom.

How Green is Your City? serves as an in-depth analysis of each major city’s management policies, strengths and challenges, as well as a survey of where clean technologies might break new ground to expand job-markets and tax-bases across the country.

How Green is Your City? will appeal to city planners, legislators, green businesses, as well as anyone interested in their quality of life and making their city a more sustainable place.
(April 2007)

Incredible shrinking houses

Clayton Collins, Christian Science Monitor
Itty-bitty abodes quietly come back into vogue as the era of McMansions shows signs of peaking
Melissa Greene once lived in a big Victorian, the sort of place with sacrosanct parlors used mainly to display stiff-backed chairs. For the past five years she has lived more contentedly, she says, in a modest 1,100-square-foot home.

She and her husband, Joe, own even smaller houses that they rent to tourists in this arts-rich Ozarks town. This spring, the couple is moving full-time into one of those itty-bitty abodes, a restored 1880s worker’s cottage less than half the size of a tennis court. Joe hammered away at a back deck on a recent afternoon.

“I’ve always liked them,” Ms. Greene says of use-it-all living spaces with dollhouse dimensions that send realtors scrambling for optimistic adjectives. “I even lived in 650 square feet of a bed and breakfast that I had,” she says, “though it took a year to learn how.”

The Greenes embody a nascent small-house renaissance that has crept from renovations into new construction.

Even in this era of foreclosures and wallet- draining utility bills, plenty of suburban subdivisions still sprout 4,000-sq.-ft. McMansions. But between 2005 – when the average floor area in a new home hit a peak of 2,434 sq. ft. – and 2006, US architects reported less demand for increases in the square footage and volume of homes, says Scott Frank, a spokesman for the American Institute of Architects. He cites “a reversal of the decades of expanding home sizes.”

Some of that can be attributed to empty-nest demographics, to property-tax hikes, and to new pockets of communitarian thinking. Some of it is simply style.

” ‘Cottage’ is the biggest word in decorating right now,” says Greene. And if many smaller homes take on the proportions advocated most prominently by Sarah Susanka, author of “The Not So Big House” – think half a McMansion or less – some now borrow from the blueprints of the truly tiny.
(20 April 2007)