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Thread: Proposed thesis topic - "You're a fat, lazy [person]. Stop blaming planners for your problems."

  1. #1
    Aug 2006
    Perth, Australia

    Proposed thesis topic - "You're a fat, lazy [person]. Stop blaming planners for your problems."

    Hi all,

    I'm toying around with a new Masters thesis idea - just thought I'd talk about it briefly and see what the masses seem to think.

    "You're a fat, lazy [person]. Stop blaming planners for your problems."

    It comes as a result of reading countless articles suggesting that planners are to blame for a number of problems, ranging from racial problems in Britain, crime, house prices, global economic crisis and obesity. I would highlight obesity due to the increasing poularity of New Urbanism, which obviously highlights the compact, walkable city, thus promoting 'incidental' exercise (where people 'accidentally' get exercise by walking to work instead of driving).

    I'd start by examing the quote "the roots of the planning profession have always been in public health". This may have been true in the days of seeking clean water and sanitation, but when the major killers in society today are cancers and heart disease from poor diet, it's hardly fair to blame the planning industry for this.

    As a case study, I'd look at 4 sets of squash courts near me in the middle of residential areas which have been converted in recent years (one set demolished for shops, two sets converted to shops/retail, and one set converted to luxury apartments). This would help demonstrate that it is not the fault of zoning - but due to market forces. I'd also list stats such as the number of planning applications dealt with by Shires which are proposing an exercise-related industry - presumably very few. Again, this is due to market forces, not planning.

    I'd then go on to the 'myth' of the walkable city and public transport. The more efficient the public transport is, the fewer health benefits can be had from it. If I catch the bus to work instead of drive, I only walk an extra 310 metres per day - hardly enough to fix an obesity epidemic. It does, however, take another 80 minutes out of my day, during which time I'd rather be driving my dog to the dog beach, or doing some other form of exercise.

    Other stats I would look at is that nearly every article blames obesity in Mexico on 'American-style fast food', and not a mention of planning-related issues, however in our society, it seems to be becoming the fault of the planners. This is strange, given that in Mexico, there's 1 McDonalds for every 300,000 people, whereas in Australia and the US, it's one for every 29,000 and 23,000 people respectively. Why is it solely the fault of fast food in Mexico, but mostly the fault of planning in US and Australia, when the stats simply don't support this.

    In short, I think it's unfair or simplistic to point at the inability of planners to provide walkable cities as the cause of society's obeisty problems. Also, it's market forces which dictate that a major shopping chain will build a massive supermarket to supply 10 suburbs rather than 1 for each suburb, in a more 'walkable' manner (I realise some chains in the US are starting to try these smaller shops, but they have not been proven successful as yet).

    I just thought I'd put my ideas out there to see if anyone had any suggestions or comments which would help me shape the topic a bit more. I realise that it's a bit biased right from the title, but sometimes I think that sort of writing is needed to get a valid opinion out!

    Any help would be appreciated!

    Moderator note:
    I edited out the word that is not appropriate for posts/threads in this subforum - you know which word. I replaced it with "[person]". Important that we keep the professional subforums....professional, so use of medium swear words is not appropriate.


    Last edited by mendelman; 15 Jan 2009 at 12:59 PM.

  2. #2
    Aug 2007
    If you want to look more into the "post-industrial disease epidemic" (obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc.) you might want to read The Omnivore's Dillema by Michael Pollan. He's a journalist that has focused on food and agriculture, and TOD gives a strong arguement that many of our "modern" diseases are caused by the industrialization of our food chain and the change in the farm subsidies. Granted, the book focuses more on the American food supply, but I'm sure that some of the information is pertinent to other post-industrial nations.

    Perhaps rather than trying to absolve the planning profession of "guilt" for these problems, you could look at ways in which planners have been able to provide solutions and offer recommendations for ways the planning profession can help promote public health (i.e. - community gardens, better intigration of small-scale agriculture on the edges of cities, walkability, trails systems, etc.)

    Of course, if you'd rather focus more on the sociological aspect, you might want to read Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantalize adults, and swallow citizens whole by Benjamin Barber. He examines how the transition from capitalism to consumerism (he makes a distinction between the two) has lead to a simplification of issues and the rise of impulses over long-term individual and public needs. You could pursue the topic of the planner's struggle against the rise of individualism and the downfall of the commons.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
    Jan 2005
    Land of Confusion
    Overall, I think the limitations of planning in a dominant free-market environment is a pretty important point to make. That said, it may be easier to limit the scope of your analysis to the national level due to the obvious disparities in how effective planning is able to be in various countries with different political systems. Maybe planners are more to blame in some countries and not so much others? Do you really want to get into those sort of arguments?

    Have there been any critics of planning using scholarly analysis/data or are you looking to debunk more popular perceptions that may be found in mainstream media sources? This probably is worth thinking through a bit more, maybe you could even get to the root of some common misperceptions about planning.

    I think anf's point about pointing out planning initiatives to promote public health (successfully implemented or not) is a good one. What have been the obstacles to them?

  4. #4
    Perhaps you may want to do a paper on how planners feel about the public?

  5. #5
    Cyburbian H's avatar
    Feb 2003
    Cant say I am a fan of the current title, but I certainly think a well written thesis under the premise of strong market forces trumping planning as the root of obesity would be of interest. What is the policy implication behind that? Regarding obesity? Is there something that could be done that is not already? That is perhaps of the most interest (imo).

    Share your progress.

  6. #6

    Dec 2007
    Front Range, CO
    I'd be interested as well wrt how this gets whittled down.

    The important thing about obesity is, as above, Pollan's work, as well as Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry (Pollan extends their work). Nonetheless, built environment form is important, but I'd disagree it came from The Free MarketTM as Euclidean zoning is far from "free". We must also examine self-selection (Plantinga and Bernell is important to understand, e.g.), and self-sorting, as well as the psychology of the exported "American Dream" of the SFD arrangement.

    Planners have some power, but it is power only when able to convince policy-makers that an idea should be on the ground. "Central Planning" is a dog-whistle talking point and as such IMHO isn't worth a thesis. Find something more real, such as self-sorting or how psychologically our built environment got so screwed up.

  7. #7
    Aug 2006
    Perth, Australia
    Sorry, Mendelman - I often forget that the international community is a little less lax with words like [person] than us Aussies...

    I only raised this topic because of the shift in comments from suggesting that planners can make a difference, to ones suggesting that we are to blame.

    I read a pdf document from a Canadian government office (can't remember which one - I'll have to find it on my computer), which actually has the headline "Urban Sprawl Causes Obesity". I just find this really hard to accept.

    I mean, if I move to a colder climate, I take a jumper with me. Humans need to adjust to suit their surroundings. To simply suggest that humans are obese because we drive too much and have sedentary jobs just goes to show that (some) humans haven't adjusted to their new lifestyle or surroundings.

    In the words of Matt Jaroneski, "Planners and engineers can only take a city so far. How people live in it will be the real determining factor."

    Every city is walkable. If I took a photo of a footpath (sidewalk for some!) from a wealthy suburb, a poorer suburb, and a New Urbanist suburb, I'm sure that none of you could tell them apart!


  8. #8
    I think this is a great idea. I just brought up a similar argument in class today and my professor tried to grill me for it, tried to argue me down. But I think it's a legitimate point that needs to be researched. How much of our social ills can be blamed on the built environment? How much of our social ills can be attributed to social problems that are deeper, older, and more pervasive than ANY built environment?

    Personally I think the built environment can certainly exert an influence, but I also believe that ultimately any social problems that exist are not going to be magically wiped away by putting people in a different environment.

    For example, the HOPE VI program - I think it's a great idea in theory, in practice not so much so. But at least it's gotten rid of some of the biggest eyesores in our nation's cities.

    You see, I could never be a social or community planner. I'd get tired of hearing a million reasons why PLANNERS are to blame. Why the BUILT ENVIRONMENT is to blame for society's problems. Bullsh*t. Our social problems are much deeper than any built environment. Blacks were suffering long before Cabrini Green was built. But in many liberal planning circles, such a statement would be considered blasphemy.

    And to be honest, I'm a little pissed right now that I argued this point in class today and my professor is such an ideologue that she doesn't want to hear it. No I'm not a bleeding heart liberal. But I'm definitely no redneck neo-con either. I'm a THINKER. And it's funny how professors gripe all day about students NOT talking back to them, NOT giving them feedback, but when a student challenges them, they get UPSET? What the hell?

    I guess it's just one of those "that's life" kind of things, though........

  9. #9
    Aug 2006
    Perth, Australia

    Many thanks for all the input...

    Hey guys,

    Thanks so much for all of your advice - it's REALLY helped me focus my topic into something practical and manageable, and it's good to know that other people see the relevance or importance of the topic...

    I've pinched a few lines from all of your replies to piece together a revised version, which should present a much more valid outcome. Hilldweller - you really helped me with such a simple line. As I've been doing all the reading, it's become clear that whilst a lot of writers cite 'numerous studies', and so forth, there is in reality very little 'scholarly analysis/data', and that it is very much all about popular perceptions within the media - but this is very important.

    My refined topic and focus questions would be something along the lines of:
    1. Will market forces [or capitalism] see planning lose its footing in public health? (important because of the historical importance of it)
    2. What are the limitations of planning in a dominant free-market environment? (use the case studies to highlight/support this)
    3. Debunking the popular perceptions in the mainstream media (can look at the sheer number of things planners are blamed for - house prices, global economic crisis, obesity, war on terror, cholesterol, films with subtitles, and the Ford Pinto)
    4. Highlight planning initiatives which have been aimed at promoting public health, and the obstacles they faced (presumably a predominant mix of market forces and NIMBYism)

    As you can see, I meant it when I said I'd pinched a few lines from your collective posts, but this would all be centered around the original idea, and the use of the squash courts as concrete case studies.

    BUT... a big part of the thesis is the collection of data through interviews/surveys. If anyone can think of a good angle to take with pointed survey questions, or further refining of the overall topic, that would be terrifc... I'll mention you all in the credits...

    Thanks again all...


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