More like this please. In Saturday’s Oregonian, Paige Parker has a fabulous story on the profound equity implications of pedestrian-unfriendly communities.

More on the article in a second but first, a rant. Walkability is not just an amenity. Is it not a lifestyle accessory for the well-heeled. It is, for many people, an issue of basic social and economic justice. Zoning that segregates housing from retail—and that reduces walkability and transit access—has serious consequences for equity. So it’s wonderful to see a newspaper article treat it that way.

Without the resources to own and operate a car, low-income families can face huge obstacles to meeting basic needs.

Low-income and minority families, prone to obesity and dietary-related diseases, are also more likely to live in communities where nutritious food is hard to come by, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports. These are otherwise known as “food deserts.” Nationally, the typical low-income neighborhood has 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher-income neighborhoods.

To illustrate the difficulty, Parker profiles a northeast Portland family who must spend several hours on transit, just to access an affordable grocery store. It’s easy to think of this as little more than a big headache, but that’s wrong-headed. It’s a real economic hardship for those who can least afford it.

…the closest markets are convenience stores. They’re sugar shacks of a kind, given their selection of cigarettes, beer and processed foods. At one, the produce section amounts to a few bruised tomatoes, limes and jalapenos. The other charges $4.89 for a gallon of milk, about $2 more than a regular supermarket.

  • And it’s a relatively serious public health hazard too. Confined to these type of markets, it’s not just what you eat — processed, low-nutrition foods—but what you don’t eat. In fact:

    In a 2002 study of 10,000 people, University of North Carolina researchers found African Americans ate an average of 32 percent more fruits and vegetables for each supermarket in their census tract.

    The article goes on to take a close look at the economics behind grocery store locations—pretty fascinating stuff in my book. The Oregonian story is based in part on the Regional Equity Atlas Project from the Livable Communities Coalition. It’s very cool. And while I’m giving out props I should mention Jennifer Langston’s similarly terrific article in the Seattle P-I about six months ago.

    In some later post, I’d like to hash out some of the policy proposals that often get floated in discussions like this. I’m kinda skeptical:

    A coalition of health advocates, farmers and others have launched a farmers market. Now neighbors are itching for a natural food store… City officials would like to expand community gardens to get low-income residents growing their own fruits and vegetables.

    I mean, nothing against these things. I love my farmers market and I love my backyard garden. But these can be extraordinarily expensive, not to mention time-intensive. Frankly, they’re luxuries that are beyond the reach of many low-income families. And I don’t think a natural food store—where prices are almost certain to be higher — is the answer. I’m much more interested in how we can beef up transit service or use zoning to incentivize better grocery access.

    But I’m curious to know what readers think. What’s the best solution here?