[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield's weekly column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
“The built environment plays a huge role when it comes to people being able to be physically active,” says Grant Vitale, community programs manager for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). The group, based out of the Lurie Children’s Hospital, is an association of many local, statewide and national organizations working to help kids maintain healthy weight levels by encouraging better nutrition, as well as walking, biking and active play.
The rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled over the last three decades, and in 2008 Chicago’s obesity rate for young kids entering school was 22 percent, more than twice the national average. In some neighborhoods, mostly low-income African-American and Latino communities, over half of all children are overweight or obese. These areas tend to have less green space and higher pedestrian crash rates than wealthier neighborhoods, which discourages active transportation and recreation.
Over the last two years, CLOCC has partnered with the Chicago Department of Public Health on a $5.8 million, federally funded anti-obesity campaign called Healthy Places. The program has focused on creating safe streets and parks, as well as creating healthier schools, eliminating food deserts and promoting breast feeding.
“Through Healthy Places we were able to provide financial support to ten community-based organizations across the city to implement community interventions,” Vitale says. “One intervention that we asked all the groups to implement was a walkability initiative. We trained them on CLOCC’s neighborhood walkability assessment tool, which helps identify barriers to walking and biking.” An assessment might show the need for traffic calming, like speed bumps, or infrastructure to make crossing the street safer, such as curb extensions or pedestrian refuge islands.
One of the community groups that Healthy Places funded was the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, based in a predominantly Latino area on the Southwest Side, which wanted to make it easier for kids to access Kelly Park, 2725 West 41st. “Using our walkability tool, they looked at routes to the park,” Vitale says. “For example, they identified crosswalks that needed restriping. Many parents called 311 in an organized way and were able to get those crosswalks restriped in a short amount of time.”