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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.