Director's Outlook: Making Progress on Healthy Community Design

Deb HubsmithSeptember is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, which in recent decades has been the time to reflect on sobering statistics, like the fact that between 1971 and 2008, the rate of childhood obesity among children age 6 to 11 rose from 4.2 percent to 19.6 percent. Nearly one third of all children in the United States are now overweight or obese, and among children from lower-income families, the rates are even worse.

This year, we have more reason to be optimistic. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that obesity rates among preschoolers fell in 19 states and US territories. This is the first time that an official government report has shown a reversal in the upward rates of childhood obesity since the 1970s. 

cdc mapAnother new report, F As In Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2013, released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health, shows that our country is making progress, . After three decades of increases, adult obesity rates remained level in every state except for one, Arkansas.  But not every state is progressing at the same rate. Nineteen out of the twenty states with the highest rates of adult obesity are in the South or Midwest. Obesity rates are higher in communities with lower education levels and lower income levels. These statistics correlate with the fact that more than 80% of school closures affect underserved communities.

f as in fat mapAll of these conclusions point to one indisputable truth – we need to get America moving again. Kids who walk, bicycle, and get physical activity perform better in school. Active kids do better. And active kids stay healthier when they become adults.

We need to design communities that encourage physically active kids. Our kids need to be able to walk, bicycle, and get physical activity where they live, in their communities. They need to be safe while doing so too.

At the Safe Routes to School National Conference last month, we heard from a young woman, Vanessa Hernandez, an art student majoring in film in Sacramento. Vanessa’s senior capstone project was a short documentary highlighting the tragic death of 16 year old Michelle Murigi, who was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street at the intersection of 58th and Fruitridge in Sacramento. This intersection is located just two blocks from Michelle’s high school where many students cross the street every day. More than a year after Michelle’s death, no safety improvements had been made at 58th and Fruitridge, while on the other, more affluent side of town, requests for a crosswalk and signal improvements received prompt action. Conference attendees rallied to push the signatures on a petition to the city to more than 1,000 signers, asking the city of Sacramento to immediately address dangerous conditions at 58th and Fruitridge. WalkSacramento continues to urge the city of Sacramento to make necessary corrections a priority, and the Safe Routes Partnership also sent a letter expressing our concerns.

This type of story is all too common in underserved communities that lack even basic infrastructure to protect kids who are walking to and from school, even though there are twice as many kids walking to and from school in lower-income communities as there are in more affluent areas.

As a nation and a movement to reverse childhood obesity, we are making true progress and this should be commended.  But we must increase our collective efforts to press policy makers and elected officials to prioritize programs like Safe Routes to School, shared use agreements, and street scale improvements that address the intersecting needs of street safety, physical activity, violence prevention and education. We must lift up successes to inspire further action, and promote positive changes that empower local residents and support healthy community design. We must dream of the future that our children need and deserve, and work together to create it.