Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Parks: An Antidote to Childhood Obesity
Like father, like son.
That’s why it shouldn’t be any surprise that childhood obesity is a growing health crisis in Memphis.
After all, we already knew about the parents. Three years ago, Men’s Health and Self ranked Memphis as the nation’s unhealthiest city. In its most recent rankings, Men’s Health ranked Memphis as the fifth unhealthiest city for men in its ranking of 101 cities and only five points from the bottom. Memphis received a grade of D in fitness, F in environment and F in health.
But there’s more. Men’s Fitness, in its 2005 rankings, said Memphis is the fourth fattest city in the U.S. and gave the region a grade of D for parks and recreation, and Medical News Today wrote that Memphis is in the bottom 10 cities for utilitarian walking or biking.
Meanwhile, the rate of obesity in the eight-county metro area is higher than both state and national rates – 27.5 percent compared to 24.5 for Tennessee and 22.2 for the U.S.
In such a context, the real marvel would be if Memphis’ children weren’t obese.
It’s been reported that childhood obesity in our city is at an all-time high and climbing. If current trends continue, today’s youth will be the first generation in the country’s history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And all for the lack of a little exercise.
But exercise can bring more than physical health. Inactive people are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression as active people. That’s why the statistics in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Memphis City Schools seem more than coincidence: 27.4 percent of students reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 41 percent reported insufficient levels of exercise and 66 percent said they watch more than three hours of television on an average school day.
It is an indication of the “nature-deficit disorder” cited as a growing problem for today’s urban youth. In a world of fast food and video games, exercise and outdoor play are becoming quaint activities of an Ozzie and Harriet era. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv points to the subliminal message we send with ads like the one that shows an SUV driving through incredibly beautiful mountain scenery, while two children in the back watch a movie on a flip-down screen.
So, where does Memphis start to fight childhood obesity? At the most logical place – parkland.
The public wants better parks and a “green strategy” for the city could become a competitive advantage in attracting new jobs and economic growth. Not to mention that it’s a great strategy for healthier residents.
Now, Memphis occupies the lower rungs of major cities in the average acres of parkland per 1,000 people – 16.1 acres per 1,000. Compare that to the rates of Austin – 35.4 acres per 1,000; Phoenix – 26.9 acres per 1,000; and Louisville – 20.4 acres per 1,000.
Couple that fact with Memphis’ underfunding of park services, and obesity seems the natural outcome. A recent review of 53 cities reported that Memphis spends only $25 on parks per resident of the city. If it weren’t for Toledo’s $23 per resident, we would have hit bottom. (Seattle is tops with $145.)
Memphis’ lack of investment in parks is being played out in growing complaints about the maintenance and condition of neighborhood parks. In last year’s Memphis Poll, only 69 percent of Memphians had positive perceptions about their neighborhood parks, compared to 86 percent only three years earlier. The poll noted that the division of Park Services blamed the problems to the lower priority of the parks in city budgets.
Few things prove as clearly that cities are ecosystems, where every factor affects all others. Here, a direct line runs between too few parks and too little money spent on them to unhealthiness that in turn drives up health care costs and taxes.
It seems a simple equation – spend now for parks or spend more later for medical care.
So, next time, there is a national town hall meeting on childhood obesity in Memphis, let’s talk about the cause – the need for more and better parks – and not just the symptom – more overweight children.
Posted by Smart City Consulting at 11:17 AM