Inner-city Food Deserts, Neighborhood Blight, and Shantytowns
Food deserts are localized areas wherein the residents have a limited physical access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other sources of healthy and affordable nutrition that contributes towards a balanced diet (Beaulac, Kristjansson and Cummins 1). It has been estimated that 46 percent of the world is restricted within such areas (Anna). There are various factors which lead to such regions emerging largely in urban areas racial, socioeconomic and cultural, these factors often intersect to with the net effect being staggering rates of obesity and diabetes and various forms of heart disease (Beaulac, Kristjansson and Cummins 3)..
Their history can be traced back to the slow decline of town squares in urban areas, where small grocery stores provided homegrown, fresh domestic produce for the local community (WhyHunger.org). As farming moved further away from cities towards large designated rural areas, locally sourced produce became increasingly difficult to procure especially in these densely populated urban centers. Large supermarket franchises which were then tasked with making up for this paucity in supply moved towards more lucrative suburban areas or more gentrified districts. This, coupled with the downward economic trend in these neighborhoods meant that any desire to rectify this through internal means became unfeasible, the necessary funding just wasn’t there.
Poverty therefore is the common factor uniting these deserts across American cities, where there is no financial incentive for supermarket chains and private businesses to provide healthy alternatives to a demographic residents are forced to turn to the affordable foods that are available, most often fast food which is readily available and cheap. This impact is felt most keenly amongst the black communities in America clustered in these inner city environments. As a result the negative health correlated with these circumstances is also most often amongst such communities. The issue is compounded by cultural attitudes that serve to stigmatize nutritional foods, the boutique retailers and smaller grocery stores which provide fresh food do not market to urban communities, as a result the brand loyalty which is built up is to fast food outlets and snack food items sold at “corner stores” (Morland and Wing).
Tackling these issues therefore involves unraveling a multitude of causes entrenched over many years. One of the tools used to combat this is education often youth focused, initiatives such as the Edible Schoolyard Project and the Healthy Harvests Initiative teach children at a young age about the importance of good nutrition through small sustainable gardens where they can learn to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is also working to improve education in urban centers through school programs, with professional chefs working to improve public school menus whilst teaching children about the benefits of healthy eating (Parsons).
Regulation through the implementation of policies geared towards incentivizing grocery stores and healthy eating establishment in urban areas have also been a tactic employed by government agencies such as the USDA. This is done through the provision of grants, either to large existing supermarket chains, or to entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in urban centers. Similarly, community food programs are government funded initiatives which encourage the involvement of local communities in finding solutions for the lack of healthy food options, working to develop a sustainable long-term means of assuring the provision of such to the community. Food policy councils are a more organized method of arriving at these same solutions bringing food retailers, farmers and legislators into the discussion to form state-wide approaches to dealing with food deserts (United States Department of Agriculture).
Neighborhood blight is the steady decline of city areas due to changes in socioeconomic conditions or other factors. It leads to buildings and public fixtures deteriorating and falling into disuse. It can also affect housing in low-income areas where tenants cannot afford to properly maintain their residences leading to these becoming slum areas (Andersen).
Neighborhood blight does not occur in isolation affecting only one property in an area, indeed the effects of a blighted building are felt across the neighborhood as property prices are lowered. Very cheap, or abandoned housing can also attract a criminal element to a community, such as vagrants and drug users who can find no alternatives residences (Andersen). Moreover localities subject to blight are likely to be subject to many safety concerns, such as a higher risk of spreading fire or decayed buildings collapsing.
There is no one cause to which this decay can be ascribed instead a number of social and economic factors may be present depending on the country. In the United States one of the main reasons put forth for neighborhood blight has been the idea of “white flight” (Haines). This phenomenon took hold during the period following World War II, as a large migration of black families North towards cities resulted in a panic amongst the white middle class in these areas regarding an increase in crime and degradation they felt this would bring. These families thus moved outwards settling in the suburban communities. This mass movement led to many houses being sold either very cheaply or abandoned altogether where no buyer could be found. As housing was taken up the newly migrated minority families they found that the lower populations left many of these houses discarded subject to a steady deterioration.
Much of the housing in these areas was public housing, rent controlled projects established by the government for the purpose of affording those with lesser financial means the ability to save enough in order to transition to fixed private residences. However over time the transitional nature of public housing was foregone as new policies meant it was redefined as low-income housing only for those in dire poverty. With these residents unable to afford the proper maintenance and caring of their houses the steady decline of these neighborhoods was accelerated.
At first urban areas provided significant advantages in transportation through bus and subway systems, utilized by a majority of city dwellers. With increasing car ownership however, there was no longer a need to live in urban areas to guarantee transportation for commuting or general purposes. Car owners could now move outside the city and with them moved malls and shopping centers, drawing more of the population away from urban neighborhoods. As before the result was unoccupied buildings and offices falling into disrepair.
In the United Kingdom the movement to suburban areas was in fact subsidized through government policies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, specifically designed to clear the densely populated urban neighborhoods which had grown up in the 18th and 19th centuries, so successful were these policies that the resulting low populations led to an endemic of decaying housing and blighted neighborhoods.
Failing economic conditions can also lead to neighborhood blight. As communities once sustained through the jobs provided by flagship industries such as car manufacturing in Detroit (Venkatesh) or coal mining in Northern cities of the UK were hit by chronic unemployment as these industries collapsed, with labor outsourced to cheaper third world countries (Newsmax). With this came an exodus of people looking to move to other cities for employment opportunities, even remaining residents were no longer able to maintain their properties and prevent them deteriorating.
However it is not only manmade conditions which contribute to neighborhood blight, natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes can lead to the wide scale abandonment of housing (Newsmax). With properties damaged beyond repair, many residents are either evacuated or choose to leave voluntarily rather than remain in the affected areas. This was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where many of the people forced to leave their homes have yet to return.
Shanty towns or squatter settlements are primarily a feature of developing nations where severe disparities in the distribution of wealth lead to large swathes of the population in extreme poverty. Unable to afford conventional housing these segments resort to unconventional means of accommodation, using scrap materials such as plywood, plastic and corrugated metal to form makeshift housing. Settlements of this nature are often unauthorized, formed in a haphazard manner without any arrangements for water supply, sewage disposal or even electricity (United Nations Millennium Development Goals). They are also associated with high rates of crime, drug addiction and disease largely due to the conditions which they foster.
Many reasons have been put forth as to the why shanty towns are formed from outdated methods of city planning which did not allow for the growth of an urban population. Or simply a growth so rapid that it outstrips any contingencies made by governments. Changes in economies brought on by industrialization and the loss of jobs outside of city centers may well contribute. Shanty towns or also in many cases a necessary feature of certain urban environments tolerated because there are no ready alternatives available.
Historically it seems that rapid urban growth is the most commonly cited factor contributing to these settlements. In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; by 2006 there were 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550 (Davis). At the same time growth rural populations has slowed to a crawl and will in fact begin to shrink by 2020. In some cases the urban growth was through a planned effort such as in China, whereas in countries such as India the village system which once accounted for the majority of its population was no longer feasible, and as a result the residence of cities such as Hyderabad and Mumbai exploded (Davis).
However this growth was not only taking place in established cities, in fact what were previously villages consolidated into towns, towns into small cities. In Latin America where primary urban centers had long been established the growth was picked up by secondary cities attracting migrant workers. This was especially apparent in Brazil where the abolishment of slavery coincided with this move towards urban centers, thousands of new civilians without any form of employment or past belongings were introduced to the economy and the only place where work was available was the cities (Perlman). The dwellings they formed along the hills of Rio Di Janeiro taking their name from a particular tree, became known as favelas.
Across the globe these people moving from rural areas to cities were subject to varying degrees of poverty, with no connections to speak of or financial means the only recourse for these migrants were makeshift self-made settlements. As the numbers grew, so did the size of these areas and thus the modern day phenomenon of shantytowns was created.
There are a number of methods governments pursue in an effort to improve the plight of shantytown residents. Self-help schemes encourage residents to take charge of their advancement through the provision of building materials, NGO’s and individuals can provide training in construction and various other aspects of developmental planning. Small loans can be offered by certain banks or the government allowing residents to make the initial investment necessary to establish permanent housing. Alternatively the government may take a more hands-on approach by buying up large tracts of land and undertaking the necessary expenditure to provide water, sewage and other basic facilities. Settlement residents are then encouraged to build on these areas, forming better organized developments free from the effects of disease brought on by poor sanitation.
Recently solutions have focused more on improving the quality of life of people living in these slums. This can be seen in the policies adopted in Brazil where the work is now centered on ensuring that communities are provided with legal support to establish titles to their land. The establishment of “special zones” to ensure that settlement dwellers qualify for health, education and other social services (Bueno, Sedeh). In Mexico initiatives have been undertaken to control rising pollution levels and their effects on settlement dwellers through investment in new cleaner systems of public transport with lines extending into areas previously outside of city planning districts.
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