Community Partnerships to Mobilize Low-Income Communities Around Active Living

Social marketing campaign to encourage multigenerational use of the South Bronx Greenway

    • February 22, 2010

The problem. People living in low-income communities focus on putting food on the table, paying the rent and staying safe. Going for a walk or a bike ride, or taking the kids outside to play, is not something residents think much about. Lack of green space, scenic trails and other routes set aside for recreational activities also hampers active living. So does heavy traffic and fear of crime.

The Active Living by Design partnerships in the South Bronx, N.Y., Oakland, Calif., Louisville, Ky., and Cleveland made great strides in overcoming the challenges entailed in mobilizing residents in low-income communities to become more active. RWJF's grant to each community helped leverage other funding to help improve decaying infrastructure.

Expanding green space in New York's South Bronx. The dense Hunts Point and Port Morris neighborhoods, the focus of the South Bronx Active Living Campaign, are home to more than 360,000 Latino and African-American residents. Some 44 percent live in poverty.

The South Bronx is also home to the world's second-largest food distribution center, making heavy truck traffic and poor air quality a constant. Lack of green space—and safe ways to get to existing green space, given the numerous trucks—were major barriers to active living.

"There's a culture to encourage people not to go outside because it doesn't feel safe, largely due to the built environment," said Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, the lead agency for the Active Living by Design initiative.

Adding green space—including two waterfront parks and a lengthy greenway—was the focus of the South Bronx Active Living Campaign. The Active Living by Design initiative helped leverage funding that led to the development and completion of two parks—the Hunts Point Riverside Park and Barretto Park—which will become part of the South Bronx Greenway. It will link together Hunts Point and Port Morris and the waterfront. It will include 1.5 acres of waterfront greenway, 8.5 miles of green streets and 12 acres of waterfront park space. Construction is planned to begin in 2010 (as of September 2009).

The Hunts Point Riverside Park was formerly a vacant lot full of tires and trash. Partners in the South Bronx Active Living Campaign cleaned the lot and advocated successfully with the City of New York to build the park. It has a sprinkler area, a small area for walking and running, a boat launch, an amphitheater, picnic tables and barbecues. Barretto Park, formerly an unused commercial building, has basketball courts, a volleyball court and fields.

But in a low-income neighborhood, it was not enough just to build the parks. To encourage residents to use them, the partnership launched a social marketing campaign called "Now Playing in the South Bronx." Through ads on buses and billboards, and postcards mailed to homes, the campaign informed people about the parks, upcoming events and plans for the greenway.

The South Bronx Active Living Campaign also "packaged" active living as fun. "Events such as the Healthy Living Block Parties and Hunts Point Hustle were community-building events that promoted active lifestyles but did not require participants to think overtly about issues like obesity and heart disease," said Craytor.

The annual Healthy Living Block Parties raise awareness of healthy living, while the Hunts Point Hustle is a 5K race. Both events provide an opportunity to inform residents about active living and activities to improve green space.

Using schools to facilitate active living in Oakland. Lower San Antonio in Oakland, Calif., is another dense urban area, with many immigrants and refugees from Asia and Latin America. The poverty rate at the beginning of the Active Living by Design grant was 24 percent.

Although the climate is mild and conducive to outdoor activities, there were few places for kids to be active outdoors—the focus of Oakland's active living initiative.

"There's not a lot of green space in our neighborhood. Schoolyards represented the most open space," said David Kakishiba, executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center, the lead agency for Oakland's active living initiative.

But overcrowding in the schools meant that portable classrooms had replaced jungle gyms, basketball courts and open space for playing. Concerns about gangs and adults drinking, smoking and gambling also kept people away from the remaining courtyards and other open spaces.

Working with the Oakland Unified School District, the City of Oakland, parents, teachers, custodians and students, the partnership catalyzed improvements to Garfield and Franklin elementary schools and Roosevelt Middle School. Through a series of workshops at each school, participants assessed the physical environment and developed schoolyard improvement plans.

At Garfield, for example, school officials resurfaced the schoolyard, installed new basketball and tetherball courts, built a new school garden, planted trees, and installed new benches, tables, a tile mural and an entrance gate. The City of Oakland also completed pedestrian safety improvements such as installing new "countdown" lights at two intersections and adding a crossing guard.

The active living partnership also helped improve San Antonio Park, the neighborhood's only park. Sitting next to Roosevelt Middle School, the park used to be a "dust-bowl." Today it has a soccer field with artificial turf, a half basketball court, a renovated children's play area and more. The park "is used all the time, from morning to night, seven days a week," said Kakishiba.

The work at Garfield Elementary School led to the Oakland Schoolyard Initiative, which seeks to open schoolyards for public use outside of school time. With the school district's support, the East Bay Asian Youth Center and the Unity Council—a community organization in an adjacent neighborhood—launched a pilot program at four schools: Garfield and Manzanita elementary schools, and Urban Promise Academy and Roosevelt middle schools.

These schoolyards are now open during nonschool hours for organized group activities, such as soccer, softball and basketball games. As of September 2009, the Oakland Schoolyards Initiative planned to expand to 10 schools.

Increasing physical activity through YouTube and exercise classes in Louisville. Active Louisville combined new and traditional strategies to encourage residents of several neighborhoods to be more active. To persuade young people to ride their bikes, the partnership created a rap video and posted it on YouTube. In the video, Mr. Theo, a bus mechanic by day and a musician by night, sings the rap, which teaches viewers how to use the bike racks on city buses. The dancers in the video are also bus drivers.

The video created a sensation on YouTube and drew lots of attention from local media. "It was fun and energetic and it had music," said Nina Walfoort, director of marketing at the Transit Authority of River City, one of the partners in Active Louisville and creator of the video.

Use of the bike racks spiked when the video was launched, and ridership records reached all-time highs. The video received the 2008 Landmark Award of Excellence from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

The Smoketown, Phoenix Hill and Shelby Park neighborhoods, the focus of Active Louisville, are near downtown Louisville. Residents, mostly middle- and low-income African Americans, struggle with crime, dilapidated buildings, vacant properties and other barriers to active living.

In Smoketown, Active Louisville partnered with the Presbyterian Community Center—the "heartbeat" of the neighborhood, says Walfoort. The center offers health programs, health care, job training and more. Although center staff focused on meeting people's basic health needs, they welcomed the walking club and fitness classes that Active Louisville brought in, including tai chi, line dancing and exercise for seniors.

Soon, staff was embracing wellness and active living as part of their work. When Active Louisville ended, the center continued the fitness classes, with funding from the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. The center has also received grants for other work on active living. "We gave them a lot of capability and exposure to active living, and put them in a better position to do some of this work," said Walfoort.

Making a Cleveland neighborhood a great place to be active. Cleveland's Broadway/Slavic Village is becoming "a vibrant family-friendly neighborhood that promotes active living"—the community's new slogan—thanks to work begun during the Active Living by Design grant. The steel mill neighborhood had high crime and poverty rates (nearly 22 percent) when the initiative started. The Czechs and Poles who had lived there for years, and the African-Americans and Latinos who were moving in, didn't think much about active living.

Broadway: A Community on the Move, Cleveland's active living initiative, worked to rebrand the neighborhood as a great place to be active. To support the new image, the partners worked on developing new trails, parks and other green space, repaving problem streets and adding bike lanes and expanding opportunities to be active.

Results included the Morgana Run Trail, neighborhood maps, a walking club and exercise classes. The trail connects people to the Union K–8 School, a health care center and a grocery store, and provides a safe, pleasant place to walk or bike. Project partners created a map of the trail, a comprehensive bike/pedestrian/active living map of the entire community, and eight pocket maps of cultural and historical walks through the neighborhood.

The active living partnership worked closely with residents, engaging them through block clubs (residents who work together to improve their neighborhood). The partnership also hired teenagers to audit how walkable and bikable each street is, and helped residents form two groups—Morgan Trailblazers and Friends of the Morgana Run Trail—to promote use of the trail.

Organized activities to get people moving included the Slavic Village Walking Club, line dancing and yoga classes. "We provided a safe space to be physically active and have fun," said Emily Miller, project manager at Slavic Village Development, the nonprofit community development corporation that was the lead agency for Cleveland's active living initiative.

Slavic Village Development has changed the way it does business as a result of the Active Living by Design initiative. "Physical activity pulls residents out of their houses, brings people together and builds community strength through resident interaction," said Miller. "Encouraging physical activity will continue to be a theme in what we do."

RWJF perspective. RWJF looked at the growing evidence that individual behavior change efforts are most successful when they take place in a larger community and social context. As a result, the Active Living by Design program examined ways to combine individually oriented behavior change approaches with community-based strategies to create environments that are more conducive to physical activity.

Active Living by Design has harnessed community design and livable community initiatives as a vehicle and force for making communities more activity-friendly. It has created community-led change by working with local and national partners to build a culture of active living and healthy eating.

"The Active Living by Design communities faced the challenges of changing the built environment, re-thinking the design and land use policies that shape the environment, and, in some instances, re-inventing the practices of an entire community. They demonstrate how creativity, determination, vision and a willingness to see into the future can help make change happen," said Jamie Bussel, RWJF program officer.