By James Woudhuysen
Professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University
Monday 5 November 2007
Gordon Brown’s UK government will now try to design urban areas that force us to exercise more – and that’s official. To tackle obesity with what he called a ‘large-scale’ approach ‘across the whole community’, Brown’s health secretary Alan Johnson has said that he wants to ‘make physical activity a normal part of everyday life’. (1) So before you go to work, school or your leisure destination, remember that your personal trainer, Alan, has instructed you to walk, run or pedal there.
Johnson’s ‘fit towns’, as they have been called, are enough to leave you breathless. Yet although his announcement was picked up by mass media as far afield as China and India (2), it was – like so much of Labour policy – not entirely new. As spiked pointed out nearly six months ago, when Brown announced his plans for five eco-towns, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) had committed itself to urban growth based on public transport, cycling, walking and a reduced need to travel, ‘especially by car’ (3). Moreover the CLG’s July Eco-towns Prospectus registered a desire to ‘deliver physical and mental health benefits’, offer ‘choices for healthy living’, and go about ‘encouraging healthy behaviours’ (4). So what has Johnson added? You could say that he has formally medicalised urban design, annexing it as a Department of Health issue, and you’d be right. But the real novelty of Johnson’s innovation is his drive to get us stretching our limbs at Labour’s behest.
Barely two weeks ago, Johnson insisted that Britain’s potential obesity crisis is one that’s on the same scale as the crisis of climate change. That comparison was ridiculous enough (5). Now, he has said that both Labour’s eco-towns and other urban areas should be adapted to improve people’s health. Through their layout, facilities and construction, eco-towns could also be ‘healthy towns’. If successful, such an approach ‘could also apply to areas undergoing housing growth and renewal’ (6).
This is a regime for national fitness worthy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Not for nothing has Johnson claimed a past allegiance to Stalinism (7).
In an absolutely illiberal and inhumane manner, Johnson wants urban areas designed so that people’s behaviour cannot at all consist of their own freely decided ‘choices’. Instead, behaviour will be relentlessly controlled by the state. What the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov did to salivating dogs, or the stimulus-response experiments conducted by US psychologist BF Skinner did to hungry rats, Johnson wants to do to us. Johnson’s view of human freedom is degraded.
The confusions within Labour’s urban policy, and the logic of Johnson’s approach, make his proposal ludicrous and unworkable. But that should not blind us to his authoritarianism.
For some time now, Labour has crammed what few new houses it has built into the same fenced-in urban areas, so as to keep the masses in their place, protect Britain’s rural spaces and lower vehicle emissions as a means of saving the planet. And Labour’s brownfield brutalism does not stop there. So ludicrously convinced is Johnson that architectural space really does determine physical slimness, we might expect him to contradict his boss, Gordon Brown, sooner or later.
When Brown first floated the idea of eco-towns, he said that their homes, roads and bus routes should be constructed ‘in the most environmentally sustainable way’ (8). But if obesity is, as Johnson says, on a par with climate change, then dispensing with roads and public transport altogether would be the best way to reduce people’s waistlines. And why doesn’t Johnson decree that the whole of Britain become a TV-free zone, too? After all, TV supposedly encourages us to be couch potatoes, so giving the National Health Service more fatties to treat.
In the walk-to-work office blocks of Johnson’s vision, perhaps there should be no lifts. Lifts would only encourage sloth – especially among slackers who are over 60. And surely doorways should be specially narrow, so as to encourage dietary restraint?
In announcing his intellectual breakthrough, Johnson made much of the flab-fighting successes of cities in Australia, Finland and especially France. Yet in fact Obesogenic Environments: Evidence Review, a highly relevant and recent report commissioned by the Foresight programme of the UK Office of Science and Innovation, makes no mention of either Finland or France. The report records that in Perth, Western Australia, there is evidence that, ‘after adjustment for confounding factors’, being overweight is associated with living on a highway and living on streets with no pavements and with a perceived lack of paths within walking distance. Being obese in Perth is likewise associated with perceived lack of paths within walking distance, poor access to four or more recreational facilities, and with a lack of pavements or shops within walking distance. But that’s about it. Indeed with regard to obesity, the report concludes that, ‘influences of the environment are probably small and mechanisms remain unclear… At present, there is scant evidence on whether the environment might have different effects on people with contrasting levels of physical activity and body weight.’ (9)
Clearly Johnson can’t be bothered with such a careful analysis. His intent, rather, is simply to stigmatise those who cannot afford to eat well and subject them to a kind of sweaty urban treadmill. The government’s attempt to make us live zero-carbon, zero-carbohydrate lifestyles squeezes two ridiculous aims into a failed policy – housing. Recently, Labour has engineered a decline in the number of new homes built in Britain; but its ambitions to police us all through social engineering know no limits.
The construction of towns around the tyranny of health is a frightening new departure. Yet we have not heard the last of the Johnson doctrine. Britain’s 2012 Olympics doesn’t just advertise itself as a low-carbon affair, but insists that it will increase Britons’ ‘awareness’ of cycling and walking as healthy means of travel (10).
In Labour’s camp, no aspect of our public or private lives escapes the government guards – or Alan Johnson, the demented doctor.