Sunday, February 15, 2009

LA and the Global Warming Diet

I've met Frances Anderton three times. First, through her monthly radio show on KCRW, DnA (Design and Architecture), which includes discussions with guests from a wide range of design-related fields, both LA-centric and beyond. The second time I met Frances was at an event for GOOD magazine in December called GOOD Design: LA where she was one of roughly ten designers presenting bite-sized versions of single design-based solutions for pressing urban issues (a version of this presentation serves as her guest blog entry that follows below). The third time I met Frances was when she appeared in Dana Cuff's PhD colloquium as a guest judge for our first weekly challenge - a kind of architecture methods meets top chef model for quick, deep research with a dash of competitive angst. That particular challenge asked us to evaluate the LA Times' recently published list of the ten best houses in Southern California. Though my team didn't win that challenge, we did, serendipitously, quote Frances's own incisive list of 'must see' architecture from the Time Out guide to the city. Her critiques that day were insightful, focused, useful, and brilliant. Anyone put on the spot to play judge to the careful and constructed research of ten sensitive and serious PhD students knows what an art it is to absorb, synthesize, evaluate, and return with original commentary that simultaneously expands and critiques what is on the table.

Frances has been in LA since 1991, when she moved here from England to become the editor of LA Architect. Her first taste of Los Angeles came through a special assignment for The Architectural Review, a long-standing and well-regarded monthly magazine where she was an Associate Editor. Before that, she studied architecture at the Bartlett and traveled globally. Her early taste of LA has turned into a career of thinking and writing on her now home city through contributions to dwell magazine and the New York Times, lecturing at REDCAT, the Hammer, and the Skirball among others and, after first volunteering at KCRW, becoming the guest host of DnA and the full-time producer of To The Point and Which Way, LA? both hosted by Warren Olney. Though Frances is not a contributor to the Expanding Architecture publication, she most certainly is expanding architecture through her work in media, public media in particular.

Her entry that follows takes off from the previous three by discussing a single small act with large repercussions that relies not only on the change of human behavior but the adjustment of our built environment to support that change. The shift away from indolence, lethargy, and apathy, is most certainly one of human decision, but is also one of environmental, infrastructural, cultural, and urban support. If we wait for everyone to start walking before we build the sidewalks, we are too late. Our task as designers, visionaries, thinkers, writers, activists, neighborhood members - at whatever scale and in whatever capacity that comes to us - is to produce the city that enables the population to better produce itself.

Thanks to Frances and all of my guests for their brilliant and thoughtful contributions to cause of the week. Reimagine your role, hire an architect, eat a taco, walk your kid to school - they are small, and huge, all at the same time. Here is the final installation to the guest blog series:

LA and the Global Warming Diet
Frances Anderton, host of DnA

There is no question that physical design can solve many problems. But sometimes problems are of our own making and can be tackled through changes in our own behavior.

A huge problem in LA is traffic: congestion, air quality and carbon emissions; another big problem is a large population of children at risk of obesity. I decided to put those two together and look at how we might help alleviate both, simply through ceasing to drive kids to school. Places implementing this plan call it the Global Warming Diet.

I was inspired to focus on this when I happened to see a movie called Strangers When We Meet, made in 1960. The movie is a strange melodrama featuring Kirk Douglas as a “modern” architect having a passionate affair with a housewife played by Kim Novak. What really made an impression on me was the opening scene, which depicted kids in affluent LA walking or cycling to the bus stop in their comfortable, hilly LA neighborhood - the spatial and temporal origins of auto culture - rather than being ferried in cars to their school.

Fast forward almost 50 years: I walk my four year-old daughter, Summer, to her preschool, which is a few blocks from our apartment in Santa Monica. With the exception of a couple people walking dogs, and maybe one or two parents and kids, Summer and I are alone on the streets. Typically, the streets, even in our very safe neighborhood, are empty. I find this distressing. Where are all the kids, and their parents? Even if they live just a few blocks away, Summer’s classmates tend to be driven to school.

In the past 50 years the number of kids who walk or cycle to school has dropped from around 90% to almost 10%. Not only are kids missing out on a basic, healthful, childhood experience -- walking or cycling in the neighborhood with their friends or parents – but many of the children that are not walking or cycling are in cars and that means more cars on the streets, which in turn means more congestion, more bad air, more carbon emissions and, additionally, more children not getting enough exercise.

My solution for LA is to reduce cars simply by encouraging kids to walk or cycle to school or to the school bus. While my focus is on children, and on traffic at a specific time of day, I believe the lessons of this could be applied to other kinds of trips and other demographics.

Here’s a quick look at some stats, provided to me by two national advocacy groups, Environmental Defense and Active Living By Design, as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

It is estimated that 25% of morning traffic during the school year is parents driving their kids to school.

That’s a quarter of all cars!!!

Forty years ago, nearly 90% of children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked to school. Today only 13% of all trips to school are made on foot or by bike.

In that same 40 years the number of overweight children has doubled! And 35% of kids do not get regular exercise these days.

The Surgeon General says we should all have 30 minutes of physical activity per day. You can get that walking just half a mile to school and back.

Taking cars off the streets would obviously help improve air quality, but note how driving a child to school specifically worsens their personal air quality:

Moving cars expel VOCs (that’s Volatile Organic Carbons AKA foul air pollutants) but when a car is idling, as when waiting to pick up kids from school -- it puts out 3 times the normal amount of VOCs! And if you are idling behind the tailpipe of another car, your car sucks in the air pollutants, even when you turn off the recycled air. It’s like putting kids in a smoking room. That’s what parents are doing when they sit in an idling car at school.

For each mile you drive, your vehicle creates 1.29 lbs of CO2. Multiply that by 200 days in the school year, and one mile to school (there and back, twice). Add fifteen minutes each way of idling time and you’ve expelled 1872 lbs of CO2 per year.

Multiply this by 700,000 children (the approximate number of kids in the LA School District) and that’s 6,552,000 tons put out into the atmosphere by LA parents per year.

Those are four good arguments for getting kids out of the car and onto foot or pedal. But there’s tremendous resistance from parents, on the grounds of time and distance from school, and fears -- of a child being abducted or hit by a moving car or subject to violence en route to school.
Some of these fears are legitimate, specifically accidents and, in less safe neighborhoods, violence on the street – though it’s worth noting that the most common place for a child to be hit by a car is, guess where, at a school, by another parent.

Some fears border on the paranoid, like abductions.

As one Pasadena mom who cycles with her son to school – and he is the ONLY boy in his school who does -- pointed out: “as rates of child abduction and abuse move down, rates of Type II diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related ailments in children move up. That means not all the candy is coming from strangers. Which scenario should provoke more panic: the possibility that your child may become one of the approximately 100 children who are kidnapped by strangers each year, or one of the country's 58 million overweight adults?
And some concerns, like distance, have some validity but not enough to warrant the huge drop in kids’ walking and cycling.

Kidnapping makes up less than 2% of all violent crimes against youth and of those only 4% of all kidnappings occur near a school. Of the 800,000 abductions or so that occur annually, only around 100 were by a stranger or non-family member. Stats show that child abductions have been moving downwards over the last 20 years.

Over the last 40 years the number of schools has decreased relative to numbers of children, meaning that more children are living at a distance from their school.

In 1969, 34% of children lived less than a mile from school, and 33% lived 3 or more miles from school.

By 2001, 21% of children lived less than a mile from school, and 50% lived 3 or more miles from school.

Yes, that is a challenge, but. . .

Active transport to school has also significantly declined among children who still live less than 1 or 2 miles from school.

Not to mention, in the last five years there’s been a turnaround with 76 new schools built in LA alone.

I believe one could alleviate most of the concerns by having the parent or older family member or teacher accompany kids to school, which affords the added benefit of more leisurely time spent with our kids enjoying the neighborhood.
I also believe, following Jane Jacobs' thinking about cities, that the more kids there are on the streets, the more visibility they have and the greater safety in numbers.

This kind of thinking is already being applied elsewhere. In other parts of America – many of them as hostile to walkers and bikers as LA – communities are introducing Kids Walk-to-School programs in which convoys of kids and teachers walk together. Where possible, they are combining them with efforts at traffic calming and the creation of bike and walkable routes. You can get more info about this by clicking here.

But the real challenge here is changing a pattern of behavior and assumptions we’ve become used to.

It’s commonly viewed these days that today’s 30 and 40-something parents are the most overprotective ever, terrified of letting kids experience the big wide world - and that’s an attitude shared by overprotective schools. The Pasadena mom who rides with her son says that the school asks children NOT to cycle. I know of schools on the Westside that prioritize drivers over walkers at drop-off and pick-up.

At the same time, our careers and electronic lives are so consuming that it’s easy for us not to take time out to walk with a child and smell the roses.

But in doing so we’ve lost touch with our bodies and with our neighborhoods. So while we wait for LA to develop its public transit system, while we wait for everyone to drive a low emissions, low gas consumption car, let’s urge parents and policymakers to take a simple step towards minimizing the traffic, cleaning the atmosphere, regaining children’s health, and enlivening our neighborhoods, by getting kids back onto the streets.

1 comment:

lcsamuels said...

from Bill, via email:

This is a terrific idea that can be supplemented by the old safe neighborhood house on each block, and possibly some well stationed volunteer parents who would walk to certain safety spots. It also could be supplemented by mandatory gym three days a week, and various other exercise programs for which extra credit is given. Because of the environment in which we live, parents would probably have to sign off on the basics.

and from the road:

...another great thing we passed yesterday in Arkansas: There was a taco truck parked with a sign that said, "Grand Opening" on the windshield!

- Bill