Four weeks ago, TheCityFix covered the launch of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, noting the omission of an active community design component. As we speak, the Task Force on Childhood Obesity is developing the campaign’s agenda. Its recommendations are due out in early May. Now is the time for them to consider how urban planning and design strategies could contribute to their goals.
The Task Force should join the global movement recognizing that active urban design is a key component of community-based obesity prevention. Modern life – where we move from our homes to our cars to our office computers to our cars back to our couches – doesn’t include a whole lot of daily physical activity. When we build that activity back in, the results are very positive but not all that surprising. According to an Active Living Research report, adults who use public transportation are less likely to be obese than those who do not use it. People with access to sidewalks and trails are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines. Walking or bicycling to school has been related to higher overall physical activity for children and adolescents, and the efforts of programs such as Safe Routes to School, like installing sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic-control devices around schools, have been linked to increases in the percentage of students who walk to school. So, providing people with the infrastructure and awareness they need to be active in their everyday lives is a common-sense response to the obesity epidemic.
The Task Force on Childhood Obesity can look to other countries for guidance on how to do this. For instance, the French program known as Epode (an acronym for Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity) is a national obesity-prevention initiative focused on healthy eating and physical activity that has spread to 225 towns across the country. It was established under a pilot program in the mid-1990s, whose two participant towns have succeeded in reducing their percentages of overweight and obese children. The Epode model is now being applied throughout Europe and in Australia.
Epode shows us the benefits of a nationally led initiative. Simply put, a national program can be effective. With higher visibility, it can successfully raise awareness and stimulate state, regional and local decision makers to act. This visibility also attracts private partners who want the good publicity and who are willing to contribute to public-private initiatives, reducing program costs. A federal program can steer resources toward national priorities (i.e. strategies that simultaneously address climate change) or the neediest geographic areas (i.e. low-income areas). Additionally, a national program in the U.S. can coordinate with existing, complementary federal efforts and federal guidelines, such as the Department of Health and Human Service’s physical activity guidelines.
Building on the Epode model, an active design effort incorporated into the Let’s Move campaign could take on the following roles:
- Raise awareness about the role of urban planning and design in obesity prevention and Let’s Move projects through a Web site, newsletters and press outreach.
- Train local project managers to mobilize local stakeholders and apply solutions.
- Prepare tools and action kits for use by local project managers. These could include school curriculum and educational materials for doctors and parents. For example, Epode’s national coordination team designed a general “walking school bus” program, which was then adapted and implemented by local teams.
- Follow up on local stakeholder activities and evaluate the program’s success.
- Facilitate coordination between scientific experts and policymakers. Work with universities to encourage new research on urban planning and public health issues, and help translate this research into concrete and transferable policies. A committee of independent experts from the urban planning, public health, architecture, psychology, sociology, education and nutrition fields could be appointed to advise Let’s Move initiatives.
- Develop monthly or biannual themes for the campaign (for example, “learn to be a safe cyclist” or “discover your local park.”) Themes should be consistent with public health recommendations and applicable across the population.
- Serve as ambassadors for the program among different stakeholder groups (federal agencies, associations of governors and mayors, teachers’ unions, medical associations), mobilize support and recruit new participants.
- Seek new partners/financial support for the program.
- Hold an annual conference to publicize progress, share best practices and facilitate collaboration between the members of a national network.
An active community design component of Let’s Move could also:
- Encourage local and regional officials to incorporate active living considerations into the planning process. Make grants, matching funds or technical assistance available to communities that develop pedestrian, bicycle or greenways master plans or incorporate non-motorized transportation elements into comprehensive plans.
- Develop a performance-based funding system for active design infrastructure projects. Define active living indicators related to walking and biking infrastructure, safety, and parks and open spaces, develop tools to measure them, and help local policy makers identify goals. Communities that reach their goals would be eligible for special funding. For performance measures related to active transportation, the Let’s Move Task Force could promote their incorporation into the next transportation reauthorization, likely to be performance-based. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already developed a set of measures that governments can use to monitor the effectiveness of urban planning and policy programs targeting obesity prevention.
- Coordinate with other relevant federal initiatives, including the HUD-DOT-EPA Livability Initiative, the TIGER grant program, other stimulus programs, the National Complete Streets Coalition and Safe Routes to School.
- Identify priority areas and apply the holistic approach of the Epode program (or closer to home, the Harlem Children’s Zone). These areas would be targeted for infrastructure investments and educational efforts relating to all four pillars of the Let’s Move initiative, and could serve as pilot programs, informing future actions nationwide.
International experience, scholarly research and common sense all tell us that the Let’s Move campaign needs to incorporate urban planning and design considerations into their fight to curb obesity. One of the most important things Let’s Move can do is to simply start a national dialogue that connects health with urban and transportation policy. Guiding a discussion about the benefits of smart growth and other policies that promote active living will elevate these solutions to a new level.
Let’s Move as it stands is an interesting start, but Mrs. Obama and her team have the opportunity to be leaders in developing strategies that not only improve public health but also address climate change, oil dependence and economic development. This will require the involvement of the federal government as coordinator, trainer and norm-changer.