Changing-neighborhoods-may-help-solve-nations-obesity-epidemic

Changing neighborhoods may help solve nation's obesity epidemic

Changing neighborhoods may help solve nation’s obesity epidemic
Healthscaping – Issue 1
Feb. 9, 2009

After years of harping on individual-level behavioral change as the answer to reversing the nation’s obesity epidemic, current research turns the focus towards what’s now considered the underlying source of the problem: the physical and social make-up of communities.

Approximately one-third of Americans are obese and another third are overweight, leading many public health experts to look for new approaches to solving the problem. A large number of studies in recent years have demonstrated that the physical characteristics of buildings, streets, sidewalks and traffic patterns in neighborhoods impact exercise and obesity rates. Such discovery has led to a shift in focus from programs that address obesity from an individual level to programs that work at the population level by changing the physical environment to make healthy living easier.

Following this approach, the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Tulane University studies how the physical and social environments can be modified to reduce obesity. Partnership for an Active Community Environment (PACE), the core research project of the PRC, is on its fifth and final year of studying means of improving the environment to increase physical activity in the Lower Eighth (St. Roch) and Upper Ninth Wards of New Orleans. These areas suffered a range of flood damage during Hurricane Katrina. Some area did not experience any flooding while other segments of the neighborhoods received 4 to 5 feet of water. The research project was delayed during the aftermath of the storm but the area has seen much rebuilding and return of its residents.

PACE – with a steering committee comprised of residents who are leaders in neighborhood organizations and researchers – worked to make two changes to the physical environment in hopes of increasing physical activity among community members.

The Community Playspace at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary follows Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s open schoolyard philosophy that building playgrounds within walking distance of children and increasing access to them after-school and on weekends will lead to higher rates of physical activity among children. According to KaBOOM!, less than half of all children have a playground within walking distance.

PACE ensured children would be able to use the Playspace at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary by organizing and paying for adult supervisors to keep the otherwise locked playground open afterschool and on weekends. The playground installation occurred in May, 2007 thanks to the help of KaBOOM!, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, and an army of volunteers from across the country. The adult supervision began in July 2007.

The St. Roch Walkway, a walking path that runs through the neutral ground of the historic St. Roch Avenue in the St. Roch neighborhood, is the second environmental improvement initiative of the PACE project. PACE converted the 50-ft wide area from a place filled with litter and parked cars to a space for exercising and socializing with neighbors by working with city officials to install a six block walking path that connects St. Roch park to St. Claude avenue, a commercial district. The PACE project was able to fund 2 blocks and the city’s Office of Recovery and Development Administration funded the remaining 4 blocks.

The PACE research team is finished collecting follow-up data and expects to have results later this year on what impact these environmental changes had on community members’ physical activity. Considering the economic recession and the rising obesity rate, knowledge of the effectiveness of such environmental initiatives will provide critical guidance to obesity prevention efforts across the U.S.

Topics:   built environment , obesity

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