11.11.09

Health is a rhythm

[One of the everyday urban rhythms and patterns from Christopher Alexander's "Timeless Way of Building".]

What is a city rhythm? Is is something we can see? Is is something we can change?

This interesting article came out a little while back about an experiment in Albert Lea, Minnesota, to try and change the rhythms of everyday life.

Everyday life is the quotidian idea that there is something important in all the unimportant things things that happen all around us all the time. It is the way we tie our shoes, brush our teeth, cook our food, walk around, drive around, use the phone, etc. etc. .... All these small acts depend on architectures that we take for granted. All these small things form patterns that play huge roles in our lives, and (in the case of most of America) are causing us to lead very sedentary and isolated lives.

Lately, the public health world has been trying to change this fabric, and to make exercise and movement a part of American everyday life again. But that is a very difficult thing to do, precisely because all these systems of movement, shopping, interacting, and living are everywhere. In most Minnesotan homes, we need cars to do just about anything. Most of the time, you don't have a choice to walk or bike to do an errand.

So, efforts like Albert Lea's Blue Zone project are really tilting at windmills (just like this blog, in fact.) Here's an excerpt:

The fundamental principle behind Albert Lea's makeover is that diets and exercise alone don't work. Changing health requires changing the community -- the normal rhythms and expectations in schools, workplaces, restaurants, government, grocery stores -- even within families and in neighborhoods.

...

The project's impact shows up all over town, from lunchroom conversations over fruit instead of donuts at Lou-Rich Machine to City Council meetings to approve about 9,000 feet of sidewalk construction -- three years' worth -- in a single year.

Of course I found it excellent that the city identified sidewalks as a key factor in reinstalling walking within everyday life. It's just a very difficult thing to actually accomplish, because of the interlinked nature of movement patterns. Even if you have a sidewalk, without a corner store or small library (without a giant parking lot in front of it), the actual concrete slab doesn't do you much good.

It took 50 years to change our cities so that walking and biking are nearly impossible. It's going to take a long time to make them easy and convenient again.

By city rhythms, we mean anything form the regular comigns and goings of people about the city to the vast range of repetitive activities, sounds, and even smells that punctuate life int eh city and which give many of those who life and work there a sense of time and location. This sense has nothing to dow ith any overall orchestration of effort or any mass coordination of routines across a city. Rather it arises out of the teeming mix of city life as people move in and around the city at different times of the day or night, in whaya ppears to be a constant renewal process week in week out, season after season.

--John Allen, Works within cities (fm. Massey "City Worlds")

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