According to a UCLA study (found via Planetizen):
Higher rates of diabetes and obesity occur in neighborhoods — regardless of the residents’ income, race or ethnicity — where fast-food restaurants and convenience stores greatly outnumber grocery stores and produce vendors, according to a statewide study released today.
But is this correlation the same thing as saying that fast food outlet proximity causes obesity?
Or, could we say instead that communities with high numbers of obese people attract fast food restaurants?
Actually the study offers two intriguing countermeasures regardless of causality. Requiring fast food restaurants to post calorie and fat content information is one, which is fairly obvious and not directly about cities.
The other suggestion is for cities to look at zoning restrictions. That is, use city bylaws to limit the spread of fast food.
While I’m not sure this is that feasible, the broader point is worth pondering. I would ask: In what ways do city development guidelines and urban infrastructure support fast food outlets at the expense of green grocery stores and other types of food vending.
For example, consider the size of commercial spaces. In some older urban neighborhoods, store fronts are small and each 25 foot space (or less) is often separately owned by a different family. This structure tends to support small family run cafes, delis, grocery stores etc. In newer neighborhoods the average retail space is huge — the only business that can afford it is a big chain grocery store (meaning a neighborhood would only have one grocer instead of many) or a fast food chain.
Also, the study did not examine walkability, which is also related to urban structure. Are there sidewalks? Does the city allow and support commercial zones within walking distance to most people? From this study’s results, one could surmise that the neighborhoods with more grocery stores than fast food outlets are also more walkable than the others.