Considering the Role of Community Infrastructure when Talking about Obesity

Role of Community Infrastructure in Obesity

A new “Ted Talk” appeared in my podcast list recently and I finally got a chance yesterday to give it a listen. It was a TED MED talk given by the Mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, titled – “This City is Going on a Diet”. I think his talk and the approach he took to thinking about city, neighborhood, and community planning as a way to improve the quality of life of his citizens and move his city from one of the “fattest” to the “fittest” is worthy of sharing and thinking about further.

What we see most often in the news, in magazines, on tv shows such as “The Biggest Loser” is a person-centered or individualistic approach to preventing and managing (or combating) obesity. There are suggestions on how to avoid gaining 10 lbs over the holidays, how to begin an exercise routine, or how to maintain an exercise routine when motivation is absent. We see examples of people cutting this or that out of their diet (e.g., wheat, dairy) and working out several hours a day under the watchful eye of a personal trainer or coach (e.g., Biggest Loser). What is much less prevalent in the media are examples of policies or mandates – be they federal, provincial/state, or municipal – that support individuals in becoming more fit. Enter Mayor Cornett. One of Mayor Cornett’s main points in his talk was that although individuals needed to begin having conversations about obesity and health and making an individual effort to be active, “health-related infrastructure” needed to be added to the city. He explained that the quality of life in his city was great… if you were a car. Under his leadership, the city made it a priority to develop infrastructure that supported greater activity of its citizens and added parks, bicycle trails, senior health and wellness centers, water sports venues, and miles of sidewalks. Efforts were also made to create a more pedestrian-friendly city by connecting, for example, libraries to neighborhoods. Five years later… Oklahoma City was no longer on the “fattest cities” list, but rather among the top 22 “fittest cities”.

I’ve noticed that the if you search for real estate in Canada through Realtor.ca, listings have a “walk score”. I live in a neighborhood that is 6 kms from where I work and 7 kms from the downtown core. The walk score is a only 20 and houses on my street get labelled under the walk score as “car dependent”. I agree. We are not particular close to amenities (one of the criteria). However, there are also gaps in connectors that could make it possible for me (or others) to walk or bike to work or downtown. Currently, there is a 3 km section of main road (with a speed limit of 70 km/hour) without any sidewalks. That same section of road has no bike lane and is not curbed, nor does it have a decent shoulder to the road where a biker could safely ride. This makes walking or biking fairly unsafe and disconnects my neighborhood from the city in a way that takes walking or biking to walk off the table as as an option.

One of the advantages of my neighborhood, however, is that its design includes green space/park in the middle with paths that connect various streets to one another and to the park. No matter where you live in the neighborhood, you can get to the park easily and safely (on sidewalks or paths) within five minutes. There is a baseball field, playground, wading pool and lots of plain ol’ open space. This is an example of neighborhood planning and design that, in theory, helps support both adults’ and children’s active leisure. For example, I have seen parents walk with their kids to the playground and then continue on their own walk within the neighborhood while their children play on the playground equipment or throw a Frisbee around. In my own walks through the park, I have seen children there one their own playing – arriving on bikes or by foot. Certainly, it isn’t every child in the neighborhood, but some do take advantage of the close proximity of the park and the ease with which they can reach it.

There needs to be ongoing recognition of the role that planning of cities and neighborhoods have in helping citizens to live healthy lifestyles and make healthy choices. There are environmental factors that contribute to inactivity and therefore growing obesity rates. Sidewalks are important to support citizens in walking their neighborhoods. Play structures in neighborhoods can encourage and motivate children’s outdoor and active play. Considering ways to connect neighborhoods to amenities with trails and sidewalks or bike paths also can help create options for walking or biking as opposed to traveling by car. This infrastructure, on its own, will not create a culture of walking or a culture of activity. There will likely remain a need to educate the public about the importance/benefits of taking time to be active and encourage the use of the infrastructure available to increase activity levels. However, without the infrastructure, the task of incorporating physical activity into daily life may simply be too difficult or overwhelming for some. It is important to remember that not everyone can get transportation by bus or car to places to walk (e.g., parks or trails) or play or swim or skateboard. Not everyone can afford that transportation or the cost of gym or club memberships. For those without their own transportation or those with lower incomes, the provision of “health-related infrastructure” within the community may be critical to supporting more active lifestyles.

Further Reading:

Oklahoma City on a Diet. http://www.thiscityisgoingonadiet.com/

Wendel-Vos, W., Droomers, M., Kremers, S., Brug, J., & van Lenthe, F. (2007). Potential environmental determinants of physical activity in adults: A systematic review. Obesity Review, 8, 425–440.

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