A Healthier America? It's a Walk in the Park—Land&People

Perhaps most troubling for many Americans -- especially parents -- is the threat that excess weight and lack of exercise pose to future generations.

Over the last two decades the percent of children aged six to eleven who were overweight more than doubled, while the percent among teenagers tripled. One probable reason for this: only 27 percent of students in grades nine through twelve engage in moderate to intensive physical activity. The rise of obesity and the lack of physical activity in the young have prompted some experts to predict that, for the first time in history, life expectancy among today's children will be less than that of their parents.

Americans have been fighting a losing battle against fat for decades, turning from fad to fad in search of a magic bullet. But for most of us the secret to losing weight and keeping it off is no secret at all: eat less and exercise more.

"People are looking for quick fixes, where they can be passive participants, but I'm afraid that's not going to happen," says Dr. Sue Y. S. Kimm, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "We have to start exploring what we can do to foster physical activity in the general population."

According to the CDC, only 25 percent of American adults engage in the recommended levels of physical activity needed to control weight and promote health. And in a 2001 "Call to Action" against obesity, the U.S. surgeon general noted that "every increase in activity adds some benefit."

The facts are alarming, but help may lie, literally, just around the corner. A growing body of research shows that one way to raise exercise levels for all Americans is to provide easy access to a nearby park, playground, greenway, or trail. A 2001 study published by the CDC found that creating new places for physical activity, or enhancing access to such places, led to a 26 percent increase in the percentage of people exercising on three or more days per week. And a group of studies reviewed in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) found a 48.4 percent increase in frequency of physical activity when better access to a place to exercise was combined with informational outreach about health and fitness.

"There's no question that this strategy increases the likelihood of people being more active," says Greg Heath, lead health scientist for program and intervention at the CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity in Atlanta, and a co-author of the AJPM report. In a similar study in Australia, people with easy access to public open space were 47 percent more likely to walk at the level recommended for good health than people with poor access. "The results suggest that as distance [from parks] doubles, the likelihood of use almost halves," says Billie Giles-Corti, co-author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Western Australia's School of Population Health.

Health-giving Parks for All Americans

The new research dovetails with the Trust for Public Land's strategy of creating parks where people live, says Kathy Blaha, TPL's senior vice president for national programs. "TPL is creating new parks because too many people in the country don't have access to parks," Blaha explains. "We make the assumption that kids will not or cannot travel a long distance to get to parks, and that a mother pushing a baby stroller is not going to walk two or three miles to get to a park."

Equity in park access is a major concern for those working to bring parks to American cities. Minority and lower-income Americans are more likely than the general population at large to suffer from excessive weight, obesity, and the diseases related to lack of exercise. And in many cities it is exactly these groups that have the least access to the parks and greenways that could facilitate such exercise.

In the city of Los Angeles, for example, neighborhoods where whites make up 75 percent or more of the residents boast 31.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people, compared to 1.7 acres in primarily African-American neighborhoods and 0.6 acres in primarily Latino neighborhoods. More than 75 percent of kids in Los Angeles don't live within a quarter-mile of a park, Blaha notes.

One organization working to promote healthful exercise for urban youth is the Challengers Boys and Girls Club of South Central Los Angeles. Club founder Lou Dantzler began the club in 1968 by gathering a dozen neighborhood children and taking them to the nearest park--nearly three miles away. Affiliated with the national Boys and Girls Clubs since 1974, the Challengers Club over the years has served an estimated 30,000 kids.

Today the club operates out of a former grocery store in one of California's most densely populated and economically disadvantaged areas, offering healthful recreation, educational programs, and guidance. Last year, TPL helped acquire a vacant property as part of an effort to add an entire city block adjacent to the clubhouse for club activities and community recreation space.

As the magnitude of our physical inactivity crisis registers with Americans, more and more people are looking at redesigning their communities to add parks and recreation space. Even in cities known for their great public parks -- like New York and San Francisco -- many residents live in neighborhoods without access to a nearby park.

With park facilities most cities would envy, Chicago was named one of the nation's ten best walking cities by the American Podiatric Medical Association. The city has more than 530 parks, about three-quarters of them with walking trails. It also offers more than 100 indoor and outdoor swimming pools, as well as ice skating rinks, skateboard parks, in-line skating courses, and a spectacular 18.5-mile linear park on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

In Chicago's Chinatown, however, two generations of children grew up without a park to play in. Chinatown's only two parks were paved over more than 40 years ago to make room for a highway. It wasn't until 1999, when Ping Tom Memorial Park opened along the nearby Chicago River, that local residents again had a nearby place to exercise.

"Not everyone can live next to Lake Michigan," says Chris Slattery, director of TPL's Chicago office, which has been working with the city to expand Ping Tom Park. "Our goal is to create more recreational trails along the Chicago River to serve those residents."

For residents of the nearby Chinese American Service League Senior Housing Building, the proximity of Ping Tom Park makes all the difference in their ability to use the park for exercise, says Nancy Weng, the building's administrator. "They don't have to walk far, and they don't have to cross too many busy streets" to reach the park.

Enming Chen, a 76-year-old grandmother who lives in the building, goes to the park four or five times a week, doing tai chi exercises in the mornings and walking in the evenings. With regular exercise, she says, "you can keep your body fit, and you can be more healthy and not get sick so easily." Chen agrees that the park's closeness makes a difference in how often she uses it. "Over 15 minutes would be too long a distance, and people wouldn't want to walk there," she says.

A similar sentiment comes from a senior in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point area, one of that city's lowest-income neighborhoods. Beverly Taylor, a retired schoolteacher and a diabetic, walks in the newly renovated India Basin Shoreline Park to keep her weight down and relieve her arthritis. TPL recently worked with local groups and public agencies to develop the long-neglected park, adding trees, benches, a basketball court, two play areas, and expanded lawns and pathways.

Taylor serves as the volunteer coordinator for Network for Elders, an agency serving neighborhood seniors. "Our focus is to keep our seniors living independently in their homes," she says. In order for seniors to "take care of themselves, being able to function physically is one of the main requirements. The only way we do that is to get off our butts and keep moving around."

More and Better Playgrounds Mean Healthier Kids

In Oakland, California, obesity-linked health ailments are rising among schoolchildren, reports Carol Flowers, head of nursing for the Oakland Unified School District. "We have over 50 documented cases of juvenile diabetes and adult-onset diabetes, and we know there are many more cases out there," Flowers says. "Mainly, it's due to sedentary lifestyles and obesity."

In East Oakland -- one of the most park-deficient sections of the city, with none of the trails and greenways that crisscross wealthier neighborhoods -- students at Lockwood Elementary School played outdoors on a shadeless expanse of blacktop that sizzled under the hot sun and scraped the kids when they fell. In 2002, TPL and other groups joined forces to plant 60 trees around Lockwood School. They also installed lawn areas to give students a soft surface to play on, and added play structures and picnic areas.

On one recent afternoon, Alex, a seven-year-old second-grader, waited in Lockwood's playground after school while his Mexican-born mother took an English class. "I like it with the grass, because if you fall you can't hurt yourself," he said. On the asphalt, he explained, "you can broke your head."

The park system of Newark, New Jersey, offers only one playground for every 27,000 residents, considerably less than the big-city average of one per 6,400 residents. It does, however, have seven more playgrounds than it did a decade ago -- thanks to the energy of local residents; funding from local corporations, foundations, and individuals; and TPL's work in coordinating playground construction and rehabilitation. The latest playground, adjacent to McKinley Elementary School and designed by that school's students, offers such exercise facilities as a track, basketball court, and grass playing field.

In some inner cities, available playgrounds may mean the difference between life and death. Boston has 9.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, a respectable amount for a high-density city. Children growing up in Boston's affluent Back Bay can ride their bicycles for miles along the Charles River Esplanade. But in some sections of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, the average drops to 1.2 acres per 1,000 residents, and neighborhood children have few places to play except the dangerous streets. In July 2003, 15-year-old Paris G. Booker was riding his bicycle on a Dorchester street when he was struck and killed by a speeding car. Neighborhood groups have now begun organizing to turn two vacant lots into playgrounds with TPL's help.

Walking and Bike Trails Promote Fitness

Every spring, Shirley Mullin climbs back on her bicycle to burn off the excess poundage she loads aboard during the cold Michigan winters. "You gain this weight all through the winter," says Mullin, 67, who cycles two to three times a week in the suburbs around Rochester. "If I didn't have biking to do, it would just keep on accumulating. I'm staying fit because of the cycling."

Mullin -- who with her husband, Pat, leads rides for the local Slow Spokes Cycling Club -- is eagerly anticipating the opening of the Clinton River Trail, a 13-mile path that will connect five suburban Detroit cities. TPL and partners are working on this trail, which will provide exercise opportunities for a half-million people.

"There's so much bad traffic around here, it's terrible," Mullin says. "We're looking forward to the trail, because it will be safer, there won't be so many cars, and it will be closer to nature."

The Clinton River Trail "goes through the highly populated, densely developed part of suburban Detroit -- it is not in a rural area," says Dan Keifer, organizer of Friends of Clinton River Trail. "The benefit of these trails is that they're so accessible to people where they live, so it makes it easy to get out and get some recreation." That may be "taking a walk after work or after dinner, taking a ride, or walking the dog."

Across the nation, communities are recognizing that trails and bikeways are a great way to create opportunities for exercise. Many are adding trails where sprawl development has made it much more convenient to drive than to walk or bike. Other communities are reclaiming riverbanks and waterfronts for health-promoting trails and greenways.

In Los Angeles, TPL is working to create a greenway and network of parks along the Los Angeles River. And in Baltimore, TPL and partners recently celebrated the opening of another three miles of the Gwynns Falls Trail. When this trail reaches its full 14-mile length, it will link more than 30 Baltimore neighborhoods.

In Florida, government and community groups with TPL's help are planning new recreational greenways in Tallahassee, near Sarasota, and along the Miami River in Miami. And near St. Louis, opportunities for biking and walking are guiding principles behind the creation of the bistate Confluence Greenway in the region where the Mississippi River, Missouri River, and Illinois River meet.

"If you live close to a park, chances are you'll use it," says Peter Harnik, director of TPL's Center for City Park Excellence. "If you're out in it for anything beyond a picnic, chances are you'll get your heart pumping a little bit harder. And if your heart's pumping, chances are that over time you'll be healthier."

Paul M. Sherer is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Asian Wall Street Journal.