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For Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" Campaign, Don’t Forget Planning and Design
Activity-friendly urban planning can be one of the best ways to get kids exercising - but is Michelle Obama shortchanging it in her Let's Move campaign?  Photo by massdistraction, Flickr.

More activity-friendly urban planning can be one of the best ways to get kids exercising, but is Michelle Obama shortchanging it in her "Let's Move" campaign? Photo by massdistraction, Flickr.

Yesterday, Michelle Obama rolled out her campaign against childhood obesity, dubbed “Let’s Move.” Along with the First Lady’s influential leadership, the project is backed by some significant resources, including as much as $1 billion a year in federal funds for 10 years, and the first national task force on childhood obesity with members from the departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Education.

The initiative has four core pillars: better nutrition information, increased physical activity, easier access to healthy foods and personal responsibility. As this Washington Post summary of the campaign shows, specific actions revolve around food labeling, school food quality, and encouraging kids to exercise each day and doctors to monitor body mass index.

Mrs. Obama is taking a smart, multi-pronged approach to an alarming problem faced by too many Americans. Her campaign has the potential to make a big difference. However, planners and public health advocates might notice one missing piece of the First Lady’s efforts: urban planning and design considerations. There have been brief mentions of “small changes” families can take to encourage their children to be more active, including walking to school and urban farming. During her launch remarks, Mrs. Obama acknowledged that “urban sprawl and fears about safety often mean the only walking [kids] do is out their front door to a bus or a car.” See this photo slideshow, sponsored by Safe Kids Worldwide, that shows some of these unsafe walking conditions from a kids’ perspective.

MacArthur Fellow and urban farmer Will Allen, also spoke at the “Let’s Move” launch, stressing that farms can help revitalize communities and that greenhouses and gardens should be more prominent in the school environment. One of the key pillars of the campaign is “Accessing Healthy & Affordable Food,” and part of that means eliminating “food deserts,” which we’ve written before on TheCityFix DC. (You can see these areas mapped out on the brand new Food Environment Atlas.) The First Lady’s campaign is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which conducts planning and public health research, and no doubt it will inform the “Let’s Move” campaign’s efforts to improve access to to healthier foods in low-income areas. Not only will it mean bringing better grocery stores to underserved areas, but it will also mean providing better transportation options so that people can go shopping for food wherever they want…without a car.

However, all of these “small changes” related to designing better cities and providing better transportation are far from central in the “Let’s Move” campaign.

Obviously, Michelle Obama and her task force can’t take on every issue tied to obesity, but targeted active community design strategies can be highly effective ways to integrate activity into the everyday lives of children.  For example, “complete streets” and bicycle infrastructure make it safer and easier for kids to bike and walk. Taking public transportation allows for more activity than riding in a car. Traffic calming and design mechanisms focused on pedestrians instead of motorists make streets less dangerous for children. And creating compact, walkable, mixed-use communities with nearby destinations and vibrant streetscapes mean more daily activity for children and their parents, and more open space for them to play in.

The First Lady could build on past efforts that successfully connected planning, physical activity and childrens’ issues. For one, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, showed us how orienting an urban revitalization effort around kids’ needs can be advantageous for everyone. According to his philosophy, a city that is safe and enjoyable for children – our most vulnerable population – is a good city. If planners and designers attend to children by providing parks, bicycle lanes, engaging public spaces, sidewalks, schools, safe streets and clean air, they’ll end up creating a city that’s attractive for the broader population.

Here in the U.S., Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has catalyzed a powerful No Child Left Inside movement. National and state networks not only promote childrens’ interaction with nature, but an overall increase in physical activity and engagement outside the home and away from the computer.

There’s no doubt that fighting childhood obesity and creating opportunities for everyday activity and interaction through better planning go hand in hand. The First Lady should include the U.S Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Urban Affairs leadership in her task force, and she should reach out to mayors across the country (she has the support of two already). This group could piggyback on the good work already being done through the federal Livability Initiative and by groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Mrs. Obama’s exciting campaign has only just begun, and has yet to develop. We hope she’ll consider incorporating active community design issues as it moves forward.

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  • Richard Louv is a driving inspiration for the projects my company designs and builds. We are a small firm focused on natural playgrounds that connect kids to nature when and where they play. We use logs, boulders, dirt, flowers and trees to engage children in open-ended, explorative play. Our long-term goals include developing into green infrastructure and community planning.

    I encourage everyone to check out our website – – and (for not wholly unselfish reasons) petition your municipalities, schools and daycares to develop green-play plans.

  • Amy

    Thanks Megan – great that you’re putting this idea out there. As a current planning student I thought the same thing about Let’s Move. Have you seen NYC’s Active Design Guidelines? They were just unveiled last month, and while they’re not revolutionary it’s a great toolkit and really positive to see a connection between public health, planning and design. The collaboration of city government agencies here (health, transport, planning, design…) almost mirrors what you recommend at the federal level.

  • Last Child in the Woods ––
    Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
    by Richard Louv
    Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
    November 16, 2006

    In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

    But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building “forts”, farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what’s to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

    It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though (“conveniently”) never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, “Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!”, at

    It should also be obvious (but apparently isn’t) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don’t learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building “forts”, mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

    On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: “Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back.” Then he titles his next chapter “Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?” Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are “nature-lovers” and are “just hikers on wheels”. But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It’s not!

    On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one’s health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one’s experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the “civilized” world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I’ve been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can’t remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

    It’s clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


    Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

    Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

    Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier — An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

    Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

    Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

    Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

    Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

    Reed, Sarah E. and Adina M. Merenlender, “Quiet, Nonconsumptive Recreation Reduces Protected Area Effectiveness”. Conservation Letters, 2008, 1–9.

    Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

    Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially,,, and

    Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

    “The Wildlands Project”, Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

    Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

  • I can’t wait to see if the potential for "cycling school buses" can be realized once the cycle tracks slated for on Amsterdam, Columbus, First and Second Avenues are installed.
    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

  • When I grew up in a suburban community, I walked to the park by myself and rode my bike to school and the beach. There are many changes beyond urban form that has curtailed ordinary, daily physical activity.