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Can Streets Make Us Healthy? Open Streets Can

America’s public health crisis has been well documented. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight, and more than 1 in 10 children become obese as early as ages 2 to 5. Boomers have the highest obesity rates of any age group, topping 35 percent in 17 states. Obesity is related to dozens of serious health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and vascular dementia. Traditional public health intervention efforts in the form of nutrition and exercise education and promotion have had limited success. What is clear is that a crisis of this scale and tenacity requires a fresh approach. Open Streets may be that spark.

DON'T MISS VIDEO: "The Via RecreActiva: A Successful Open Streets Program" (below)

Open Streets unlock our streets to people so that they may walk, run, bike, skate, dance and play for a few hours each week, most commonly on Sundays. During this period, the streets are closed to cars, giving the community a safe and affordable environment in which to come together for exercise and play.

Open Streets have shown so much promise in Latin America that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) funded a group of 20 influential Americans representing a variety of organizations and disciplines to participate in one of the world’s most successful Open Streets programs in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was privileged to represent AARP. RWJF hopes to build broad support and awareness about the potential Open Streets programs can play in changing the culture of health in our cities and ultimately reduce the prevalence of obesity. “There is no public health system in the world that can survive if it is only curative. It has to be preventive,” says Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities, the organization working with RWJF to promote Open Streets in the U.S.

Even though I arrived well acquainted with the concept of Open Streets, I was stunned by what I saw along Guadalajara’s open street, locally branded as the Vía RecreActiva. Tween boys showing off their built-by-hand, spruced-up jitney bikes. Multitudes of teenage girls looking confident on their long boards. Older men on bikes and one older woman on a tricycle. Dads biking with daughters and sons. Many middle-aged women walking and talking. Couples jogging with dogs on leashes. Clusters of teenage boys hanging out with their age group, yet intimately part of this larger, multidimensional community. Participants in wheelchairs enjoying the freedom of mobility that this city so seldom provides on streets clogged with cars and sidewalks poorly maintained. The pace was relaxed, creating a comfortable environment for participants of all ages — from the youngest bicyclists to the oldest pedestrians.

Along the 41-mile Vía RecreActiva, large city parks hosted color runs and climbing walls. Smaller pocket parks were filled with people of all ages enjoying a variety of activities — women in their 70s dancing salsa alongside young women in their 20s, tween boys hula-hooping and pole-climbing. Young girls swinging in graceful poses high overhead on sheets of fabric hung from the branches of a sturdy tree, taking turns with amazingly buff young men doing acrobatics from those same colorful fabrics. Older men pushing near-human-size chess pieces across a black-and-white board painted on the concrete. While the ambience was overwhelmingly playful, health promoters could be found stationed at tables offering blood pressure and cholesterol checks and nutrition information.

Most amazing is that this energetic expression of community wellness occurs every Sunday, 52 weeks of the year, and has for the past decade. That’s 400,000 people of all ages and socioeconomic classes enjoying, on average, four hours of exercise and social engagement every week.

Our streets are valuable community assets. In cities large and small across America, between 80 and 90 percent of public space is street space. About 25 percent of our urban land area is in streets. We choose how to use that space. We can choose to open that asset up to the community. In doing so, we can join Guadalajara in a celebration of life. The U.S., too, could have life-enhancing, and potentially life-saving, streets.

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Jana Lynott

is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she manages the AARP transportation research agenda. As a land-use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.

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Bicyclist photo by Jana Lynott

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