Public Health at Work

November 1, 2012, Department, by Erika Lehmann, Nicole Oehmke

Park officials in Corpus Christi work to make the city a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly community.

As you’ve certainly read in these pages before, obesity is a national crisis reaching epidemic levels, and park and recreation agencies across the country are taking strides to combat the problem. However, parks have been readily accessible to the public long before the obesity crisis reached critical levels, so to make an impact, recreation leaders will need to come up with innovative strategies to get their communities physically engaged and using their parks to their full potential.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, city officials are trying new ideas to shake up their communities and break local residents out of their increasingly sedentary lifestyles. The below case studies showcase the specific problems in these two cities and detail the initiatives local officials and park agencies are taking to fight back.

Case Study 1: Mayor’s Fitness Council Gets Corpus Christi Rolling Down a New Trail  

Most cities vie to be “first” in something, but when Corpus Christi, Texas, was named the “Fattest City in the United States” in 2010 by Men’s Health, city leadership sought to quickly shed the pounds (and the title) by establishing a Mayor’s Fitness Council to promote healthier lifestyles.

While amenities are plentiful, including a beautiful marina and the Gulf waters, multiple barriers exist for accessing them. Existing hike and bike trails are in limited segments, separated by many miles of very busy streets. Texas has a strong “car culture” that does not consider bicycles a legitimate form of transportation, and acts of harassment against bicyclists are common. Consequently, many people in Corpus Christi perceive bicycling as “too dangerous.”

The Mayor’s Fitness Council (MFC) included representatives from Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation, a school district superintendent, a county health director, the city planning department, and others. As the MFC was discussing options to get Corpus Christi moving, a convergence of opportunities led them to the right path: Improving bikeability and walkability. The council was able to tie this goal into the regional visioning for the Coastal Bend to transform Corpus Christi into a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly and sustainable community. They were able to secure funding through the Bold Future Initiative and TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds for sustainable energy. In conjunction with the TARP energy assessment, the city decided to do a mobility assessment and included hike and bike priorities explicitly in TARP.

Initially, it was challenging to involve citizens in this effort because of the strong car culture. The MFC engaged the help of a local bike shop owner to generate interest in a non-motorized transportation plan. The bike shop owner became a community champion for the effort by helping to sponsor a town hall meeting, negotiating access to space, donating prizes to support the hike and bike plan effort, and disseminating information through his highly vested network of bicyclists.

At the town hall meeting, researchers demonstrated how Corpus Christi’s current sprawling, car-centric layout had a high cost to the city in the form of current and future demand on utilities. Plans for new multi-use development and multi-modal transportation were presented to the public. Between the buzz generated by town hall meetings and other opportunities for citizen input, the city made an additional commitment to develop a hike and bike master plan by spring 2013.

This enthusiasm has spread to include public-private partnerships and volunteer opportunities to support expansion of existing trails and development of new trails. Next steps for the project include linking neighborhoods to schools and developing unused easements along drainage ditches for hike and bike trails. Creative thinking and engaging many types of stakeholders is helping to create a culture of walking and biking for Corpus Christi. As citizens, local businesses, and local planning efforts converge, the momentum to impact the health of this community is picking up. A proposition that includes $1.5 million for hike and bike trail development will be on the ballot for voter approval in November 2012.

Case Study 2: Philadelphia Transforms Existing Programs By Encouraging Physical Activity 

When it comes to serving the community’s youth, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has plenty of programs in place within its system of 150 recreation centers. Nearly 3,000 children participate in more than 90 formally structured afterschool programs throughout the city. In the summer, that number quadruples, with close to 11,000 youth attending day camps. Program participants primarily include African-American and Hispanic youth from lower-income families, which reflects the city’s demographics.

But despite this level of engagement, half of Philadelphia’s children are overweight or obese. How can existing programs be improved to positively engage youth in healthy behaviors?

The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department partnered with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to improve the quality and quantity of physical activity, and increase access to healthy food in the city’s summer and afterschool programs. The result was the development and implementation of a new set of standards and general procedures, titled “Healthy Physical Activity and Nutrition Guidelines—Philadelphia Parks and Recreation—Afterschool and Summer Programs.”

Thephysical activity guidelines promote the following:

-          Supporting the well-being of youth by ensuring daily moderate to vigorous physical activity

-          Supporting the well-being of youth by limiting non-work screen time

-          Providing a safe environment for play and physical activity

-          Providing equitable opportunities for all youth to participate in quality play and physical activity

-          Ensuring that safe, fresh drinking water is available to youth at all times, indoors and outdoors, including trips off-site during program hours.

The parks and recreation department took action by modifying the staff’s administrative roles to fit the new guidelines, including more personal engagement with kids and more structured play. These new roles required staff education and training, resulting in what the department notes as “leader skill sets that have been enhanced, and have boosted morale during a time of challenging budgets.” Charts are used to measure the hours of physical activity being conducted at program sites.

The initiatives created through the physical activity guidelines have shifted focus to outdoor, community activities and prompted unique partnerships to leverage collective resources. As noted by the Philadelphia Department of Health, “Everything is neighborhood and community driven.”

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has identified future leaders within the staff and recruited them as “train-the-trainers” to support program sustainability and transform the culture of the department. According to the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, “Staff are very enthusiastic about the new interaction and activities provided by the new guidelines, and the children have reacted positively because they are getting physical activity in a fun way.”

Guidelines for this program were developed based on capacity surveys of existing practices and needed resources, and the early learning and successes of the Get Healthy Philly partnership. Also informing the process were the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Out of School Time (OST) Partnership, and the National AfterSchool Association (NAA).     


Erika Lehmann andNicole Oehmkeare with Smith and Lehmann Consulting. For more information, contact Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH.