Article City Forum Don Schatzel

Fighting Obesity: Recreation, Parks and Community Services Department Leaders Join Forces

Don Schatzel is administrator for the Rio Linda and Elverta Recreation and Park District and president of the League’s Recreation, Parks and Community Services Department. He can be reached at Special thanks to the California Parks and Recreation Society, which also contributed to this article.

Obesity presents a growing threat to the health and well-being of California’s children and adults. One of the major contributing factors to obesity is a lack of physical activity, and for many people, getting enough exercise can be a challenge.

California’s municipal parks and recreation agencies have a crucial role to play in the fight against obesity. The League, California Parks and Recreation Society and California Healthy Cities Movement have long advocated the importance of making parks and recreation programs a central feature of the opportunities they provide for their residents.

As part of its 2006 focus on safe and healthy cities, the League is proactively supporting efforts to combat obesity. The League’s Recreation, Parks and Community Services Department is working with its Community Services Policy Committee to develop an annual conference resolution to address health, wellness and obesity issues. The two groups are examining existing health and wellness policies and looking for effective solutions to the problem of obesity that are being implemented in communities today.

For immediate answers to health and wellness challenges in your community, you need look no further than your local Parks and Recreation Department. These departments provide children and adults with numerous ways to be active, including gymnastics, softball, swimming, hiking, aerobics and Tai Chi classes, to name just a few.

What Are Cities Doing Today?

During the past several years there have been many examples of leadership provided by parks and recreation professionals throughout the state that have focused on health, wellness and obesity prevention.

In January 2003, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation hosted the first Parks Summit, which brought together cities and other park agencies operating public recreation facilities and programs. The summit allowed participants to establish collaborative efforts in areas of mutual concern and constituencies. As a result, in 2004, there was a major push by all cities in the county to fight obesity and address other health-related issues by focusing on parks and recreation as a major part of the solution.

Similarly, the Greater San Diego Recreation and Parks Coalition for Health and Wellness was formed with this vision: “Live a Healthy Life and Recreate.” Similar to the Los Angeles County effort, the coalition includes Parks and Recreation Department representatives from 13 San Diego area cities and San Diego County. Members address the physical activity and wellness needs of their respective communities and explore strategic solutions at regular meetings. Through this regional effort, the group has the ability to affect the lives of thousands of individuals and create healthier communities through strengthening and improving parks and recreation programs.

10 Steps You Can Take as a Policy-Maker To Promote a Healthier City

  1. Recognize that improving the community’s health is a long-term goal that will take strategic planning and collaboration.
  2. Require collaboration within governmental units. All discussions about community health should include parks and recreation, planning, public works, transportation, public health and schools; they all play an important role. Invite other governmental agencies to participate — it takes a broad-based effort to make a difference.
  3. Train staff about the issues associated with fighting obesity and where to find technical and funding assistance.
  4. Engage key partners, including the school districts, the medical profession and the local chamber of commerce.
  5. Commit funding for an extended period. It requires both time and money to make improvements.
  6. Focus on neighborhood cohesiveness and safety. Research shows that residents walk more if they feel safe and know people in the neighborhood. Ways to introduce residents to their neighbors include special events, neighborhood cleanups and “walking school buses.”
  7. Commit to increasing access to existing spaces for physical activity. Address joint use issues with school boards and administrators, so that school facilities can be made available in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. Build parks next to schools and schools next to parks. Plan and fund joint facilities, such as tracks, swimming pools and ball fields. Conduct an inventory to identify all the spaces and places for physical activity in your community and identify unmet needs.
  8. Educate, educate, educate. Remember that the food industry spends $1.3 trillion annually on marketing. Recognize the diversity in your community by placing signs and messages in multiple languages to educate residents and promote awareness about the benefits of active living.
  9. Make policy changes. Require that vending machines in all public buildings contain products that are consistent with state guidelines for food served in schools. Unlock the stairwells so employees and the public can use the stairs. Add bike racks and lockers to encourage employees and citizens to use bicycles rather than cars.
  10. Address safety and security concerns. Examine issues such as street lighting, bicycle lanes, landscaping, and park and building design. Consider implementing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) concepts when planning and designing public spaces. 

This article appears in the April 2006 issue of Western City
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