Local Superheroes Promote Healthier Communities
Have you ever felt the excitement of going to your favorite neighborhood park only to realize the playground is unusable due to it being damaged?
When neighborhood parks are in need of repair in Austin, Texas, community superheroes step in to save the day! They do this by raising awareness directly to city council members and help implement high-priority changes. These superheroes are members of a local non-profit neighborhood organization called, “Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin” (GAVA), whose main mission is to improve the physical health of South Austin neighborhoods.
According to a map created by Children’s Optimal Health in 2010, South Austin was revealed to featured high rates of obesity among middle school students (Children’s Optimal Health, 2011). The most prominent hotspots were located in the area codes 78744 (Dove Springs) and 78745 near Odom School Park. Both of these locations are actually GAVA’s main target areas to assist and they offer a variety of programs to help combat the obesity epidemic within Austin. These programs in particular are divided into four different main sectors that tackle one specific category.
Their first program “Physical Activity Sector” encourages families to increase exercising in the outdoors by improving neighborhood parks and advocating for equitable funding in order to maintain and keep their green spaces safe. Their second program “Food Sector,” promotes healthy nutrition by setting up local farm grown vegetables stands around neighborhoods in South Austin to help increase consumption of healthier food options. Their third program “School Sector” allows GAVA to collaborate with Austin Independent School District to implement health related activities and provide students with healthier meal plans during the school day. Their fourth program “Early Childhood Sector” focuses on helping families with children under the age of five adapt to a healthier lifestyle.
In 2016, GAVA created a Park Improvement Requests document, with a total of 13 parks in South Austin that needed improvements. The document contained specific needs of each area, including Cunningham School Park, Odom School Park and Armadillo Neighborhood Park. Angelica Robles, a resident who lives near Odom School Park, spoke to city council members in 2016 on behalf of the organization to express the concerns residents have with their local parks. “We would like council and staff to identify funds and set a timeline to implement the investments and improvements we have requested that can be funded with this park grant,“ Robles said. “Our park improvement plans include lighting, tracks and trails, water fountains, fitness equipment and other items that make parks accessible.”
Lorena Solis Espinoza, a parent volunteer at Odom School Park, said in an interview in the same year that the park lacked basic accommodations for the residents. Solis Espinoza mentioned, “The most important problem in the park is the lighting and the uneven track to walk on.” It is no surprise that having an inaccessible park could potentially lead to a dangerous domino effect among the community. This could dramatically affect the children’s health, especially when this green space is where they get most of their daily exercise after school. Today, there has been tremendous amount of research in seeing if there is a correlation between accessible improved neighborhood parks and reducing the obesity epidemic among families.
Specifically, there has been a five year long evaluation study from 2012–2017 about GAVA’s impact on its community conducted by Dr. Alexandra van den Berg, Dr. Nalini Ranjit, and Aida Nielsen as the project director who are part of Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living in Austin, Texas.
This study involved door-to-door surveying, yearly measuring the height and weight of families, healthy eating patterns, and measuring neighborhood park usage and ratings. A total of 316 child-parent groups who lived within the South Austin zip codes GAVA’s focuses on participated in this study.
The result shown that families approximately use the parks very often about 4.71 days of the week (van den Berg et al., 2017). As well as, over the span of 5 years percentage of families’ opinions that described physical activity facilities nearby that were not of good quality lowered greatly (van den Berg et al., 2017). By year four, a total of 76.0% of the participants were found using the neighborhood parks for exercising (van den Berg et al., 2017). Thus, these results allow us to see the great impact GAVA is making over time.
Furthermore, a study conducted in 2013–2014 in Chicago, Illinois, surveyed the public response to playgrounds that have been recently renovated. The researchers wanted to find out if whether these renovations had a positive effect among the community. As they hypothesized, “Playground renovations with community engagement activities… will result in increased overall park-based utilization and PA compared with parks with un-renovated playgrounds not yet exposed to these community engagement activities and renovations” (Slater et al., 2016 ). At least 78 parks were part of this study, where they observed and measured over 14,000 people and different factors within the renovated park such as overall park-based physical activity and the amount of time the public spent visiting the park. At the end, the results supported their main hypothesis as they “found differential increases between groups over time in the number of people visiting parks and engaging in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity…” (Slater et al., 2016).
Moreover, a case study concentrating on the role of built environments in the United States mentioned the positive effects of these green spaces encouraging more physical activity among all age groups. As noted, “A national study of 17,000 adolescents found that odds of participating in frequent physical activity were greater when there were more recreation facilities nearby” (Sallis et al. 2012). This study can infer that if a family decided to live near a public green space or recreation facility it may have a contributing factor of attracting them to use the area. The accessibility of a public green space is one of the crucial characteristics that allows for the opportunity of user engagement to grow.
At the end of 2016, GAVA’s Physical Activity Sector made significant key wins in several neighborhoods in South Austin who were able to receive generous amounts of funding to help push crucial park improvement into the near future. As mentioned in GAVA’s End of the Year 2016 Report, “Odom School Park Team received [about $43,000] from Austin Parks Foundation grants to add a shade structure, picnic tables, and permanent soccer goals. Joslin Park Team received $39,400 for fitness equipment from an Austin Parks Foundation community grants”(GAVA Team, 2017). Other teams who received funded at the time was Ponciana Park team and Williamson Creek Central Greenbelt adopters.
Carmen Llanes Pulido, executive director of GAVA, spoke to Austin’s Environmental Commission in 2017, “Over the last five years as a coalition, residents and organizations have been about to make improvements to over 86% of the community assets. By assets I mean parks, creeks, schools, and farm stands. Everything basically has a chance to enhance access to healthy food access points and physical activity.”
Now, I decided to see if Odom School Park had been improved since GAVA’s interaction with city council members two years ago as well as after receiving funding. To my surprise, the park featured a complete transformation. It featured a new attractive nature-based playscape that I considered to be more interactive.
Experience the renovated park yourself by clicking around this panorama photo of Odom School Park. (Source: Rene Ramos)
I noticed they incorporated musical elements, by placing a small area for a playground musical instrument. In addition, they installed a completely new swing set that improved on the rusted one from before. Furthermore, the city provided adequate shading on top of the wooden tables and the new playground itself.
However, as the sun was setting down, I noticed public lighting within the park area was missing. I saw parents with their children deciding to pack up and go home before it became completely dark in the park around 6:30 P.M. Thus, I realized children had at most an hour to experience the park if their parents got out of work at 5:00 PM. Lacking appropriate lighting hinders the ability for families to use the park during evening hours and raises safety concerns.
Overall, the Odom School Park improvement can show that when a community of superheroes come together and use their voice, it can create a huge positive difference in a neighborhood. However, even with this new beautiful redesign of the playground in the park, there is always more work to be done. As Carmen Llanes Pulido mentioned to city council, “Even if you put a new playscape, if the park is pitch black you can’t safely walk the trail area…Then the playscape itself is not going to get people out using the park.” Lastly, GAVA’s work does not go unnoticed and their combined programs create the ultimate superpower foreseeing one day closer of ending the epidemic of obesity in South Austin.
Children’s Optimal Health. (2011, March). Child Obesity By Neighborhood and Middle School [Map]. Retrieved from http://www.cohtx.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Child-Obesity-Middle-School-09-10.pdf
GAVA Team. (n.d.). Key Wins. End of Year Report 2016, 8. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5537f0dae4b09fcba1bf13e1/t/59f20a85914e6b72b6e4cfd4/1509034632760/GAVA_End_of_Year_Report2016.pdf
GAVA Team. (2017, June 6). City of Austin — CodeNEXT — Environmental Commission Hearing 5/17/2017 GAVA Resident Carmen LP [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uV3rOxz94Fk
Sallis, J. F., Floyd, M. F., Rodríguez, D. A., & Saelens, B. E. (2012). Role of Built Environments in Physical Activity, Obesity, and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation, 125(5). https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.969022
Slater, S., Pugach, O., Lin, W., & Bontu, A. (2016). If You Build It Will They Come? Does Involving Community Groups in Playground Renovations Affect Park Utilization and Physical Activity? Environment and Behavior, 48(1), 246–265. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916515614368
van den Berg, D. A., Ranjit, D. N., & Nielsen, A. (2017, November 16). Early results from GAVA — a place-based, multi-sectoral intervention targeting healthy lifestyles. Retrieved February 23, 2018, from https://sph.uth.edu/research/centers/dell/ website: https://sph.uth.edu/research/centers/dell/webinars/GAVA%20Webinar_11.16.17_FINAL.pdf