July 13, 2012

How Place Shapes our Shape

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

As sociologists, I—and many of my colleagues—tend to focus on the impact of social location, studying the role of education, race, class, and gender and other such variables; I've written about many of these in this space. My recent trip to the west coast, however, has got me thinking about the centrality of location – literally, meaning place. I’ve been thinking about how where we live shapes many aspects of life—far more so than I usually acknowledge. Let me share some of observations from the trip to illustrate what I mean.

clip_image002My recent vacation began in Portland, Oregon—the City of Roses. The natural beauty of the west coast is quite apparent in that city with views of water, hills, and mountains, including Mount Hood and depending on where you are—some of Washington’s mountains. I immediately noticed the number of people engaged in outdoor activities like running, hiking, walking, biking, and skating. And of course, they were dressed for these activities in sportswear that looked like it could handle the areas' legendary rains. I saw outdoor clothing that I had never seen before on this trip. Apparently my observations are not selective as Portland often tops lists of ”Greenest City in the U.S.”; the city was ranked number one by Travel and Leisure this year. (Click here to see a television news report on the listing and here to see the Top Twenty list.)

Perhaps the popularity of running in the area is not surprising (it boasts the largest relay in the world!), given its proximity to Eugene. The University of Oregon is in Eugene and one of the biggest names in the history of track and field is that of the school’s late coach, Bill Bowerman. Are you familiar with that name?

Bet you know of Nike, the athletic shoe giant though. It was Bowerman who co-founded Nike with one of his athletes, Phil Knight—all in his quest to create better shoes for his athletes. And it is also Bowerman who is considered to have started the jogging craze in the U.S. when he published a book called Jogging in 1967. The Oregon Track Club boasts a number of world record holders and Olympians such as decathlete Ashton Eaton, marathoner Shalene Flanagan, and runners Galen Rupp and Nick Symmonds. Finally, the Olympic trials in track and field have been held at the University of Oregon for years.


Does having this kind of history make a difference in how active people are in the Portland area? And what role do supports like bike lanes and sidewalks play? What kind of impact does taking part in these kinds of activities have on people? Are people in this part of the country really more active—and healthy—than let’s say people in Texas or Florida? (I chose those two states because I’ve lived in them and because they have pretty hot summers.) People in Oregon looked slimmer and fitter than those in Florida do. What does the data say about this though? Portland was 4th and Tampa 40th on one list of the fittest most populated U.S. cities.

Obviously, we can be active regardless of where we live. I’m very active—but at the gym only. Otherwise, I sit a lot. Some cities just have more support for active lifestyles. There are few places to walk in my world. I can walk around my tiny subdivision, which is lovely. If I tire of that scenery, I can go out to a big street which leads to a major road. Unfortunately, the sidewalk ends at the major road—a road traveled my more than 50,000 drivers daily! (Although it’s only two miles away, the one time I walked to my gym was harrowing because of the lack of a sidewalk.)

Add the fact that Tampa is often named among the worst cities in the countries for pedestrians and you see why I have to be careful about where I walk. There are one or two tiny parks in my neighborhood, and a 5,400 acre park less than four miles from my home—but without a sidewalk on the major road, I have to drive there for a walk or bike ride. Obviously, I envy Portlander’s their Washington Park which includes the Japanese Garden, the Oregon Zoo, and the Portland Children’s Museum. And because I love roses and have a garden of them, spending time in Washington Park’s International Rose Test Garden was delightful.

By contrast, the large park near my home is flat and far away from the beach so we have no natural beauty to enjoy there, nor are there any flowers or even a fountain or waterscape. In other words, this large, nearby park is neither inviting nor easily accessible. I have missed walking since coming home to Tampa, but these conditions have not tempted me to take walks, except on the treadmill at the gym. However, this experience and comparison has encouraged me to seek more outdoor/walking opportunities in my area. How do you think the structure of your hometown affects people’s everyday activities?


Rose pictures – all taken at the International Rose Test Garden, except for second from the top, which was taken on a Portland freeway.


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I strongly believe in this, the place where we live and the people with whom we are have a great impact on us , our thinking etc.

Living in a walkable city makes a difference in not just fitness but also mental health. There are much more natural opportunities to get to know your neighbours through shared space such as parks and playgrounds that are walkable (close enough and decent sidewalks). Human beings need to see other human beings and not just at the workplace or doctor's office or nearest amusement theme park or restaurant.

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