While on vacation in Paris last week, we stayed in an apartment rather than a hotel, which gave us a different perspective on what it feels like to really live in urban Paris. The differences between urban Paris and the quasi-urban town where I work in North Carolina are astounding. I thought I’d share them with you because they really point to the fact that our obesity problem is one that includes food, but is much larger than the issue of food itself. Sometimes, being in a new environment can help you see your usual environment in a whole new light. Here are some thoughts on how the supporting infrastructure for healthy food and transportation are wildly different between Paris and the city where I work, Raleigh.
While Paris is mostly a concrete jungle, Parisians have ample access to fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly prepared foods day and night. Although we saw a Subway restaurant on our street, there were no other fast food restaurants in our neighborhood (yes, there are McDonalds, but mostly in the high tourist areas). Even the little grocery around the corner had a higher percentage of fresh food and very little processed, packaged food (and no malt liquor). On our street, the Rue Vavin, we had the following within in a one block radius of our apartment:
- 12 cafes and restaurants, most of which offered outdoor seating
- 1 primeur or fresh fruit and vegetable shop
- 1 boulangerie or bread baker
- 1 patisserie or pastry shop
- 1 sandwicherie or carry-out sandwich shop
- 1 general grocery
- 1 wine shop
- 1 flower shop
- 1 fromagerie or cheese shop
- 1 pharmacy
- 2 subway stops
- 4 bus stops
I work on a main street in “downtown” Raleigh, where within a one block radius of my office I have:
- 6 restaurants, one of which offers outdoor seating; none open after 4:00 pm and only two are open on Saturdays
- 1 pharmacy (which does not sell any fresh food)
- No access to fresh fruits or vegetables or groceries
- 2 bus stops
Actually, no where in downtown Raleigh is there access to groceries or fresh fruit and vegetables. While we do have a seasonal farmers market on Wednesdays, it is only from 10-1 and runs April to October. The State Farmer’s Market is not within walking distance and as far as I can tell, no city bus runs directly from downtown to the market.
Most people in Paris walk, ride the subway or take a bicycle/scooter where they need to go. There are very few cars because (like most large urban areas) there is no parking and driving in the city seems more of a nuisance than a convenience. All around the city, there are bike racks where you can deposit a few Euro and rent a city bike for a while. You just return it to one of the racks when you are done. We saw many people running errands on these bikes, so they seem to be in good use (see the rack on the left of this photo?).
Even children walk or ride their razor scooters to their local schools–I never once saw a school bus (even field trips were conducted via the metro and walking rather than by bus). In the mornings, I often saw small groups of elementary and middle school age children lining up at the local boulangerie (bread baker) or fruit vendor to get a snack on their way to school. In the afternoon, young people walked home, met friends in the plaza on our street and generally seemed to be happy and relaxed kids. My child was a bit jealous that French schools start later (9ish) and finish later (4ish) than American schools, which means children can walk while it is light outside instead of getting up and waiting for a bus in the dark. We saw parents all over the place walking children to school or strolling them to child care in the morning.
Here in NC, almost no one walks to school because it is almost impossible. There are very few areas around schools with good sidewalks and traffic areas (and specifically drivers) are not pedestrian friendly. In France if you hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, you go to jail. In North Carolina, you get a ticket. Hmmm.
I saw no overweight children outside of tourists and no overweight French adults. I didn’t hear any children whining or complaining that they were too tired to walk or needed to sit down. It was amazing. I’m sure Paris has its share of problems, too, but it is an active, thriving city with a wonderful energy and clearly a commitment to serve the people who live and work downtown. That visit really opened my eyes to what a city can be if it focuses on ensuring people can live healthy within it.
Raleigh likes to think itself an up-and-coming city. But a look at a real city shows that this little kid on the block has a long, loooooong way to go before it is really grown up and ready for prime time. I hope it can get a bit closer by encouraging more actual downtown living, boosting meaningful public transportation and offering people who live and work downtown with the amenities people need to stay downtown. Building luxury apartments isn’t enough to make a town into a city, especially if you stop thinking about the residents as people and only think of them as property owners. Who never walk. And only eat in restaurants. And don’t have children.