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Saturday Talk: Suburbia breeds corpulent kids
This piece appeared in the editorial section of The Atlanta Constitution
Bob Nebel - Special
Saturday, June 10, 2000

Welcome to Peachtree Corners. Our community is in unincorporated Norcross, about 20 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Perhaps we are a community very much like yours.

The name "Peachtree Corners" evokes such a clean suburban image. That is why I and scores of other people moved here over the past decade. We are ensconced in what is left of the lower reaches of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Our neighborhood is festooned with tall pine trees and features a gorgeous Methodist retreat known as Simpsonwood, where two dozen deer roam the tranquil landscape and redheaded woodpeckers tap away heartily on whatever their little beaks can find.

In our corner of the world, we have a lot of churches, a YMCA and an elementary and middle school.

As the school year recently came to a close, I peacefully rejoiced. But it was not out of happiness for the students and teachers who will have a much-deserved vacation, especially after the much-publicized controversy over the Gateway test here in Gwinnett County. I and many of my neighbors will rejoice because there will no longer be a flurry of automobiles idling in front of the schools during the pickup and drop-off periods of the day.

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my neighbors over this issue that instigated a rant: "I cannot believe the number of Ford Excursions and Chevy Suburbans that are sitting there each morning releasing toxins into the air!" my neighbor exclaimed. Then he quickly apologized for "getting on his soapbox."

I was quick to point out that soccer moms are only a small part of our metro air pollution problem. For now, I said, "Let's forget about the environmental argument over idling automobiles." We will leave that up to the metro Atlanta politicians. What I see fewer of in our neighborhood are children riding their bikes or walking to school.

We are only minutes from the elementary and middle schools, and how do the students get from point A to point B? Suburbia's morning cavalry call includes parents who pack the kids into their mini-vans, sport-utility vehicles, station wagons and pickup trucks and pound the tired pavement with a regular drumbeat under the quiet pines.

At pickup and drop-off times, the schools resemble a war zone or media convergence. Enter at your own risk.

But who can blame the kids? It is almost impossible for many of them to walk or ride their bikes to school. Like most suburban areas, we do not have consistent sidewalks. Could these same children share the road and walk or ride with the traffic? Forget it. The posted speed limit is 25 mph, but it is well-ignored.

The result? Children are increasingly out of shape. Quick-fix metro area lifestyles offer very few incentives for kids to exercise each day.

It is a shame we have constructed the metro area as a one-person commuting town with inaccessible shopping strips and malls, fast-food joints and so-called main roads which are highways with few or no sidewalks.

School administrators and families should discuss this issue and come up with creative ways to limit drop-off zones in front of schools. Teachers can possibly reward their students who either bike or walk to school.

Instead of demonizing developers, let's encourage governments to offer incentives to them in the form of tax credits to build sidewalks and bike paths in and around the areas where they build.

We must find a way to make our neighborhoods real communities again and get more kids moving.

Bob Nebel is a free-lance writer living in Norcross.

Illustrative drawing of a child, on a bicycle, caught in a traffic jam on his way to school. / MARK GILES / Special


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