Felix Salmon smackdown watch

By Felix Salmon
September 29, 2009
Matthew DeBord takes aim and fires:

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Matthew DeBord takes aim and fires:

Salmon also makes it sound as if the average American eats primarily at off-the-freeway fast-food joints in between trips to the supermarket to fill their car with huge amounts of groceries. They nourish themselves by “absent-mindedly shovelling down an unknown quantity of something random while watching the TV.”…

Oy! Talk about an east-of-the-Hudson River, blinkered mindset. There are plenty of cities in the U.S.—and the rest of the world—where the urban concentration isn’t that dense, people own cars…and remain thin while eating both restaurant cuisine and keeping the pantry stocked, preparing delicious, unfattening meals at home. That’s right, they have restaurants! And they don’t eat their ice cream by the gallon while watching Survivor! Some of them even use their cars to transport their bikes to the (beach, mountains) to ride them for…miles and miles! Or they drive someplace rugged and scenic to take a hike. Or they take frequent walks while also owning a car!

No argument at all, DeBord is right. An active lifestyle on the outskirts of somewhere like Boulder or Portland or San Diego trumps a relatively sedentary life of pork-and-butter-heavy NYC expense-account dinners any day.

On the other hand, if you’re an overweight suburbanite there’s a good chance that you don’t live an active lifestyle. And for the large number of people without the “personal discipline” that DeBord writes about, ceteris paribus they’re likely to be thinner if they live in an urban center. Although buying a bike and heading for the local foothills on a regular basis would be cheaper, more convenient, and more effective.


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I’m a little disappointed in you – this is, at base, an empirical question, and here you are proceeding with a largely-anecdotal debate. What happened to Felix the empiricist?

There’s a robust academic literature on this topic. Studies in New South Wales, California, and Atlanta suggest a fairly robust association. On the other hand, a study from Chicago and the results of a large-scale longitudinal survey cast doubt on the notion that there’s more than a weak correlation. The latter studies are particularly interesting. The longitudinal study looked at people moving from one environment to another, and found no substantial change in their weight, suggesting that we may be witnessing a sorting effect, rather than a causative one. And the Chicago study suggested a ring-model, in which the urban core was obese, the inner-ring affluent suburbs thin, and the outer suburbs only somewhat obese.

I’d suggest a way of integrating all of this data. To a substantial extent, patterns of development in the contemporary United States are strongly linked to other socio-demographic factors. Inner cities tend to be fairly impoverished; the close-in suburbs were built fairly early on, and tend to offer nice housing, high-quality schools, and shorter commutes; and the outer-ring suburbs tend to offer more cookie-cutter developments, longer commutes, but lower prices. It’s the classic donut-hole model of American cities.

The exception to this lies in the urban renaissance of the last decade and a half, as young professionals have flocked to select urban areas. In these segments of cities, the beneficial effects of urban living – lots of walking, in particular – are combined with the beneficial effects of affluence – a focus on health, sufficient leisure to exercise, foodie culture, and thinness as a marker of social class. That’s what you’re witnessing in Manhattan. But for most residents of urban areas, the benefits of walking continue to be more than offset by a far more substantial hurdle – the higher price of eating well, and the difficulty of finding fresh foods in inner cities. Without access to private transportation, most of America’s urban poor is stuck shopping at bodegas, inner-city markets, and fast-food joints, at which fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthful options are both scarce and expensive. Moreover, cramped quarters make it difficult to stockpile healthful options; most convenience food in these neighborhoods is high in fat and calories.

The upshot is this. If you’re affluent, you’re likely to be thin; if you’re poor, you’re likely to weigh more. The best of all worlds is to be affluent while living a non-sedentary lifestyle. The worst, as it turns out, is to be poor without having access to affordable healthy options for your diet. (The poor living in the outer suburbs actually have lower rates of obesity, despite their relatively more sedentary lifestyles, because they can actually buy good, cheap food.)

There are indeed lessons here. The most important is one that the Bloomberg administration recently announced it would pursue – using zoning to open up more full-service supermarkets in poor neighborhoods of the city. There’s probably no simpler way to increase the health of residents. But it’s also the case that DeBord is positively full of crap – driving is bad for you, end of story. Increasing urban density – when those urban areas also offer cheap and convenient access to fresh foods – is absolutely a net positive. That DeBord provides anecdotes of people staying thin in the outer suburbs simply demonstrates his innumeracy, and is a close cousin of the stories about Uncle Cletus living to 105 despite smoking a pack a day and washing down his dinner with rotgut whiskey. Sure, he did – but I don’t like the odds for me duplicating his feat.

Posted by Cynic | Report as abusive

But DeBord’s hypothetical people also tend to be affluent professionals. Urban dwellers tend to be thinner, and the upper class tends to be thinner. The problem with your earlier post was that you conflated the healthy elements of city living (lots of walking, empty pantries) with the healthy elements of the upper class lifestyle (less fast food). DeBord is just making the same mistake in reverse: going biking in the mountains is not typically a working class pursuit.

Posted by WHS | Report as abusive

Also, DeBord’s athletic suburbanite dream is more aspirational than as active as we’d like to be. I took my kayak out for a hard paddle this past weekend, for the first time since June. I’d do it more often, but work and home keep requiring more attention. I wouldn’t want to live in a city center area where I couldn’t keep a kayak and a means to take it to water, so I know I’ll be in the suburbs with a car and a garage.

Posted by Datanerd | Report as abusive

People can find a way to be active where ever they live. It might be easier for the people who live a half mile from their job than the ones living 20 miles away, but an arguement about whether rural/suburban/urban living is healthier than the others is one that can’t be won. There’s a counterpoint for everything.

WHS – You’re assuming everyone reads DeBord or Salmon’s blog. There are people who couldn’t care less what they think.

There’s also another important reason people living in walking cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and NY) tend to be thinner, voyeurism. If you live in a city and walk, people see you and judge you based on what they see. If you live in suburbia, it’s far more likely that the people who see you, know you personally and judge you on things other then thinness, dress etc.

Exercise from walking may have something to do with, but I suspect incentives from strangers have more influence on appearance.

Oy! DeBord is boring and misunderstood, he missed the point completely.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive