Director’s Outlook: How Your Zip Code Influences How Much Physical Activity You Get

Deb HubsmithMajor polls show that Americans want to live in places where it’s safe to walk and bicycle. The demand for walkable, livable communities has prompted many municipalities to make more investments in multi-modal transportation and adopt policies such as Complete Streets that institutionalize planning, design and construction for all types of road users.

Look more closely, though, and you can see patterns to where this type of development is occurring – and where it’s not. A 2012 analysis of walkable communities found that streets with sidewalks, sidewalk lighting, marked crosswalks, and traffic calming features are significantly more common in higher-income areas than in middle- or lower-income areas. People living in higher income areas are also less likely to suffer from obesity, asthma, and other health ailments.

Childhood obesity affects the entire country, but it does not affect all communities equally. Children and all people living in lower-income and underserved communities are likely to face greater challenges in reversing patterns of inactivity and poor health. The zip code that you live in has a significant influence on outcomes related to activity levels and overall health, including life span.  We need to do more to reduce disparities and ensure that safer streets and access to healthy places to play are provided for everyone.

Imagine a child who grows up in a neighborhood where the nearest park is filled with weeds, litter, and beer bottles, and the playground equipment is rusty and dilapidated, or non-existent. The streets may not have sidewalks, and crime is very likely a problem in the neighborhood. That child’s parents are reluctant to let her play outside after school because it doesn’t feel safe.

Now imagine if the local elementary school opened its playground and gym for children to use before and after school and on the weekends. A shared use agreement between the school and the community protects the school from liability so that the school can safely open its grounds to the public during non-school hours, providing a safe place for physical activity.

The Safe Routes Partnership is actively working to advance shared use agreements states such as Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Expanding these strategies across the country will open up opportunities for children from underserved communities to be more physically active.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel recently announced that the city will be hiring 600 workers for the Safe Passage program to keep kids safe as many will head to new schools this fall after the closure of 49 elementary schools. Recognizing that kids and parents may feel uncomfortable walking or bicycling in an unfamiliar environment, the program, in partnership with the Chicago Police Department, will ensure that kids are safe as they travel to their new schools.

The Safe Routes Partnership is committed to publicizing and advancing creative and innovative strategies such as these to ensure that children from underserved areas are given opportunities to be healthy and physically active. We are we working with partners to focus on creating and implementing policies that support shared use practices and street scale improvements. Together we can ensure that the kids and communities that need us most have safe access to active places.