In Chicago, Safe Sidewalks a Valuable Medicine

Posted 05/07/13 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Health and Wellness

Photo © CLOCC/Streetsblog

A story out of Chicago this week draws a remarkably direct line between providing places to walk and bike and improving the health of young people.

Occasional Rails to Trails magazine contributor John Greenfield wrote in Chicago Streetsblog and Newcity magazine of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC), a group based out of the Lurie Children's Hospital which focuses on walking, biking and active play to help kids maintain healthy weight levels.

"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).

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy'sUrban Pathway's Initiative was launched in 2008 partly as a response to an obesity epidemic among young people. This generation is the first in our history expected to have a shorter average life expectancy than their parents, and inactivity is the main reason why. In 1969, about 41 percent of kids walked or biked to school. Now, that number is down to about 13 percent. 

Greenfield writes that 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."

And so CLOCC has used walkability as the kernel of a public health intervention, training local communities on a neighborhood walkability assessment tool, identifying barriers to walking and biking, and campaigning for traffic calming measures, like speed bumps, or infrastructure to make crossing the street safer.

One neighborhood group worked together to get a number of critical crosswalks re-striped in a short amount of time, a real and concrete improvement that will make it safer for local children to walk to a nearby park.

According to Greenfield, CLOCC is now working with Strengthening Chicago's Youth, a violence-prevention group, to create a tool for measuring violence levels in a neighborhood. "We've been getting feedback from residents saying, 'It's all well and good for us to work with you to change the built environment, but if we don't feel safe going outside to go for a walk or go for a bike ride, that's a problem.'"

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