Why We Live Downtown
And why it's so important
I love farms. The smell of hay, the feeling of truly pure air in my lungs, and of course the promise of delicious and wholesome food! Having land is a dream of mine, but for now my husband and I live on the fourth floor of a newly renovated, century old building on Main Street in Memphis. These days, a lot of people that want the fresh food that comes with having land, but would rather not have a homestead in the middle of nowhere. Thus "suburban homesteading" is born- you opt to buy a house in the suburbs where you can live "in town" and have a garden to go with it. That seems like a really great compromise, so why aren't we doing that? Let me tell you why...
Air Quality is a concern
As one of the CDC-estimated 24,633 Americans with asthma, air quality has a pretty big impact on my general well-being. Most of us know that a lot of our pollution comes from tailpipes, so it makes sense that it's not great for someone with breathing issues to be living around a lot of cars. According to the 2012 WebMD list of worst cities for asthma, Memphis, TN is especially bad, ranking at #1. One factor that unites the cities at the top of the list-places like Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and McAllen-they're all incredibly more car-dependent than the "best" places for asthma-San Fransisco, Seattle, Portland. Looking at the Brookings Institution's ranking of the largest metro areas by their vehicle miles traveled (miles driven), we can compare cities on opposite ends of the asthma scale, like Chattanooga and Portland. In 2006, Chattanooga residents drove over 60% more miles than people in Portland. I love Memphis, but it definitely has some air issues. Last week, the city had to put out a warning that anyone with breathing problems (like me) should be careful outdoors. They also told Memphians to avoid driving whenever possible to help clear the air. That weekend wasn't the best air ever, but breathing downtown was a little easier since there are far fewer cars around. Regional air pollution sadly can't be avoided, but localized pollution is lower in areas of less traffic. Memphis may have air problems, but downtown has pedestrian havens from the pollutants that crowd suburban streets and neighborhoods: cars.
Walkability means a more active lifestyle!
In addition to the kind and amount of food we eat, activity levels also have an enormous impact on our health. Everywhere gyms of every kind are popping up: crossfit, martial arts, LA Fitness and the like, all promising an inverse relationship between waist size and amount of sweat poured. But take a walk in any French city, big or small. See anyone hogging an elliptical for an hour through the window of a mega-gym? I use France as an example because I think for the most part, Americans (myself included) are a little or a lot obsessed with the French Paradox. You know, the eating bread, drinking wine, never in workout attire but always slender paradox. If you look at Mireille Guiliano's book French Women Don't Get Fat (and I highly recommend it!), you'll see the many ways French women maintain their healthy weight, from not snacking all day to saying non to the second slice of bread. And one of the things Mireille talks about is the fact that French women, against going out of their way to do a workout instead take advantage of useful walks. Those are the trips that most people do in their car: running out for milk, commuting to work, or going to dinner. My husband works downtown, and we usually stay in the area for entertainment on nights and weekends. All those walks, long or short, really add up and contribute to an active body that's in the habit of moving and working.
My husband "proposing" to his best man on the Madison Hotel rooftop
Small town connections
I grew up in a pretty big suburban town, so I remember the particular distance you can feel from neighbors and other members of your community when everything is so spread out. I rarely ran into anyone I knew while just out and about. I really didn't know any shop or restaurant workers by name, and I'm sure they didn't know me either. This lack of connection to community is actually something I didn't realize I had been missing until a few weeks ago, when I had a run-in I had with our meat guy. (Yeah, we have a meat guy!) So I was walking home on one of my days off, and was just passing one of our favorite restaurants when a white truck stopped near me. I was a little freaked out for a second, but then I saw that it was the farmer we get our beef from! He had recognized me as one of his loyal customers, so he stopped to say hello. When he left, I had an overwhelming sense of home and belonging to this community. We talk every week with the people who grow and raise our food. On my way to yoga, I wave to a shop owner that we know. On my days off, I can take a quick walk to see my husband at lunchtime. When I need to work on the blog, I head over to any one of the local coffee shops (1,000x better than Starbucks, obviously) and order a delicious coffee from baristas that I know by name. We joke around, my husband meets me after work to walk home together, and we pass friends of my husband along the way. That's why we live downtown.