If you build it, they will play

WASHINGTON — Last year, the American Fitness Index rated Washington, D.C., the nation’s fittest city.

Based on a number of factors, including diet, the prevalence of public activity spaces and percentage of the population that smokes, the D.C. metro area accrued the highest score among the top 50 such regions in the U.S. But one area that was not measured, an area in which the city falls desperately short, was childhood obesity.

According to a study conducted between 2003 and 2011, the District ranked third-worst among states for childhood obesity. A whopping 21.4 percent of kids ranked in the 95th percentile and above, trailing only Mississippi and South Carolina. An additional 13.6 percent rank between the 85th and 94th percentiles, meaning a full 35 percent of D.C.’s youth population qualified as overweight.

Chicago’s schoolchildren have suffered a similar plight. According to a study commissioned by the city health department and Chicago Public Schools around the same time, roughly a quarter of school age children in the city qualified as obese. That’s where the Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) stepped in, taking a multifaceted approach to solving the problem, with a big emphasis on how schools used their open spaces.

On Tuesday, HSC President and CEO Rochelle Davis was at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to receive one of three Champions Awards from the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance for their Space to Grow program. After first fighting for several years to get recess reinstated to schools following a 20-year hiatus, she and HSC took on the issue of creating useful and safe spaces for play to happen.

“What we actually saw was that schools in Chicago had outdoor space, but it was underutilized, in disrepair, and quite frankly, not really usable,” she explained. “In the state that it was in, it attracted the uninvited, attracted gangs. It was not a community asset or an asset for the school.”

The instinctive reaction among the residents was to wall themselves in for protection. “People wanted to spend money on fences to keep out the bad elements,” she explained.

Instead, HSC invested in education for parents, teachers and community members. By involving the community’s adults, the gang activity moved away from the schools. And HSC actually listened to those adults to learn what types of facilities the community needed. Instead of jamming in an unwanted soccer field, they discovered there was no neighborhood basketball court at one of the schools, something sorely lacking and heavily desired.

“Nobody asks what the parents want,” said Davis of other failed projects. “We did three months of community planning, asking what they want. School principals weren’t allowed at those committee meetings.”

The money for the Space to Grow project comes in three equal parts from Chicago Public Schools and the two water utilities in the city — the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Chicago has widespread flooding issues due to outdated sewers, but the new outdoor spaces both capture fresh rainwater and helps prevent flooding in those neighborhoods.

Other cities, such as Denver, have instituted similar programs using other sources of public money. But if there’s any major American city strapped for public space and with crime and weather issues that might push kids indoors, away from playgrounds, it’s Chicago. The success of such a program there answers many of the questions people in D.C. might have about its viability here.

“What they did in Chicago, we should do here in Washington, D.C.,” said Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, the moderator for Tuesday’s ceremony. “We’re not using our environment properly. Basically, kids are being pushed indoors. …What you need to have is an environment that works to get kids out.”

Four Chicago schools have undergone the Space to Grow transformation, including Morrill Elementary on the South Side and Virgil Grissom Elementary in the very tip of the city, next to the Indiana border (see the photo gallery for before/after transformations). Six more schools are slated for next year, with money for a total of 34 secured for transformation by 2019. To say the program has worked would be an understatement.

“There was some concern that it would be underutilized,” admitted Davis. “The kids are not at all hesitant to go out in the cold, and that has been one of our big surprises.”

In fact, at Grissom, now they have a new problem — getting kids back inside from recess.

Peeke sees the same need, and the same opportunity, here in D.C. With a fit adult population ready to lead the way, she sees no reason the District can’t follow Chicago’s lead.

“There’s no question that we are, in Washington, D.C., a very fit city, but the adults ought to be mentoring and being role models for the kids,” she said.

“If you build it, they will definitely come.”

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