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fat burbs

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 05-Apr-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 950

Obesity in bricks and mortar is no fat-burban myth

Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.

PHAT, as you know, is hip-hop for cool, hot or otherwise groovy. Fat, on the other hand, is distinctly uncool. And yet in architecture, as in bodies, while we admire thin, crave it even, we do fat.

“People love big,” said builder Sam Kassis on 60 Minutes recently. “At the end of the day, big is beautiful.” The segment was called The Castle, and that’s what it was about. If we everdo get ourselves that bill of rights, the right-to-castle will top the list. “Now [people are] expecting five bedrooms at least,” continued Sam. “They’re expecting the home theatre, most definitely the four-car garage. It used to be just double, then triple, now everybody wants four.”

It’s hardly a new phenomenon. As Professor Paul Knox, the dean of architecture and planning at Virginia Tech in the United States, points out, “sprawl and obesity” sit third on the angst-list of US planning professionals – after “big box retail” and “ghost malls” but before traffic congestion, environmental pussyfooting and “boomburgs”.

And it’s not just metaphor. The link between sprawl and obesity is clearly causal. Dr Tony Capon, medical officer of health with the Western Sydney Area Health Service, likens Australian suburbia’s obesity epidemic to the 19th-century public-health crisis caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. “The potential health and social consequences of our current pattern of urban development,” he says, “provide a compelling rationale for a rethink of the way we are developing our cities.”

It goes like this. Your average Australian castle has doubled in recent decades, and that’s just in area, never mind the volume. We worry about our fat children, about whether they should be encouraged to wander the classroom in order to continue overeating. But we don’t worry about our fat houses, fat office parks, fat-burbs, fat lives. On the contrary. We think they’re just fine.

“Our first home,” said Michelle from the Gold Coast, “was 12 squares. This one is 260. So we’ve come a fair way.” When it’s finished, Michelle and Chris’s house will have seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms and a fridge in every walk-in wardrobe. It’ll cost $16.5 million.

There is something obscene here. And not only because 100,000 Australians are now unhoused, with entire families regularly turned away from overstuffed hostels.

But fat-burbia still has the popular vote. As Michael Stanbridge wrote to the Herald recently, “people don’t want to live in rabbit hutches. They want to be rich and successful … This is a big, rich country and people have a right to buy what they can pay for.” Which is a lot, since on average we are six times wealthier than 50 years ago.

Never mind the morality. And never mind fat-burban aesthetics, gruesome as they may be. Ask only this: are these living patterns practical? Do they work for us?

House sizes may have doubled but the average block has (roughly) halved. So has the average family. This makes the amount of indoor space per person about four times what it was in the 1950s, while the backyard has shrunk to almost nothing. At the same time, our paranoid parenting precludes children from walking, biking or roaming the neighbourhood. So what do they do? Stay in, play X-Box.

The US State Department says 67 per cent of US children watch at least two hours of TV a day. If you include internet and video games, it’s four hours daily. That’s America; but in screen addictions, as in holy wars, Australia tags along. Then we wonder why we get fat; with half the adults and one in four children now officially obese.

To fight the fat, and stop it bubbling over into even more expensive hobbies like diabetes, we encourage sport. Which, because the home tennis court is not an obvious option, makes driving the people-mover between home, school, piano, dance and soccer someone’s full-time occupation. Hence the four-car garage, the 24-hour citywide traffic jam, the Third World sulphur smell lately gracing Sydney.

Of course, the tax system, in exempting the family home from capital gains tax, encourages bloat of this kind. But there are hidden assumptions here, too: that “need” equals “want” and that satisfying wants gives happiness. Well, duh, obviously. So, as the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton points out, although we’re wealthier than ever, almost half of Australia’s richest 20 per cent believe they can’t afford everything they need.

This is the real reason our children are fat. As Capon notes: “Obesity results from an energy imbalance, where energy intake (diet) exceeds energy expenditure (physical activity).” Too much in, too little out.

Same with our fat lives: too much get, too little give. And our hyper-lipid lives are rebounding on us in the same way, with one in five Australians suffering from depression or anxiety.

It’s called affluenza, and it’s getting worse. But it needn’t. We know, as Harvard professor of psychiatry George Vaillant, for instance, has shown, that altruism is the best cure for depression, that times of hardship and deprivation are often remembered as the best times, that making do is often what makes us happy. And yet we go on consuming like it’s a cure, not a symptom. Crikey, someone has to fill up those big houses, this big empty country.

Where will it all lead? Either we’ll explode, like some crazy Roald Dahl ending, or necessity will intervene, teaching us the hard way that eco-catastrophe is to fat-burbia what diabetes and heart disease are to kiddie-fat. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find the collective wisdom and self-discipline to convert fat into phat.


PHOTO: Photo: by Mayu Kanamori


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