Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Healthy Places, Healthy People: Obesity and the Built Environment

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Healthy Places, Healthy People: Obesity and the Built Environment

Article excerpt

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In a recent mayoral election debate in North Miami, Florida, those challenging incumbent were asked the following question: "What will you do to support the current administration's new transportation initiatives?" And the question had little to do with new bypasses or mass transit lines. Those asking wanted to know about the city's efforts to welcome bikes onto the roads and make walkways safe for pedestrians.

North Miami is addressing its obesity problem, with the help of an NRPA ACHIEVE grant, by implementing simple changes to the built environment of the city. With the parks and recreation department spearheading the "Healthy Places, Healthy People" initiative and coordinating various municipal departments, the city is attempting to encourage more active lifestyles. It is currently entering its third year of studying and modifying the built infrastructure in order to create safe, accessible walking and biking options. In tackling that goal, the South Florida city faces the typical suburban challenge of being a vehicle-oriented culture--and the typical urban challenge of residents' personal safety fears. But obesity in North Miami relates also to the city's demographics. Most residents are low-income, and immigrant communities' cultural preferences for deep-fried foods (without the plentiful fruits and vegetables many had before coming to the United States) put them at even greater risk for obesity.

Andrea Ramos, a recreation specialist for the city and coordinator of the Healthy Places, Healthy People initiative, says when her city began the effort, addressing a public health problem through policy change did not come naturally. "In recreations," she remarks, "we are basically programmers, not policymakers." But gradually, through discussion and cooperation with the various city departments, solutions began to emerge.

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The city's transportation planner John O'Brien, for example, helped develop a set of ideas to get more bikes on the roads. Along with a long-term effort to connect eastern and western sides of the city through widened shoulders with bike paths, O'Brien says, the city is adopting a shared-road solution known as "sharrows." Jeff Geimer, the city's parks and recreation director, points out that "in the '60s and '70s, cities were built out with roads too narrow for shoulders. …

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