Flint, Mich.

    • January 11, 2010

In this city 70 miles northwest of Detroit, many young people don’t have much of an answer. Flint has struggled since the decline of the auto industry, and the community continues to grapple with high unemployment, acute poverty and vacant, blighted properties. Many parks are poorly maintained. Students can feel unsafe walking to school.

So the kids stay inside. One-third of Flint’s youth participate infrequently in physical activity.

Yet with the city looking to reinvent itself, an initiative funded through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities intends to get them up, out and moving. Revitalized parks are at the center of its plan.

The Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation, which uses fitness programming as a way to encourage children to be more active, is pushing for policy and environmental change that will result in improved park conditions and access. The approach will utilize one of the city’s best assets—for 114,000 residents, a 1,800-acre system with more than five dozen parks.

The Crim, local youth and a special partnership of agencies and organizations will work with residents to better understand what improvements need to take place to make parks safer for play. Based on community input and technical assessments, two to four “focus parks” will be selected and neighborhoods will get involved in turning them around.

“The city and the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnership are dedicated to investing time and money into city parks. We want residents to be excited and engaged in helping to create the long-overdue improvements to these public spaces,” said project director Lauren Holaly.

Each park will have a champion who will work with residents and groups to test different approaches to the issues of access, maintenance, safety and partnership development. If they hit upon a simple but successful process, other places with equally limited resources could follow their lead.

The partnership hopes to capitalize on the resulting synergy and momentum to drive an advocacy movement for dedicated park revenue. Given Flint’s financial problems, winning voter renewal of a separate tax assessment won’t be easy in 2016, but supporters will frame it as a crucial investment in the future.

At present, the city is very much a work in progress. More than a quarter of its majority African-American population is younger than 18, and nearly half of all children live in poverty. A quarter of adult residents do not have a high school diploma, and nearly three-quarters of adults are overweight or obese.

Still, thanks in part to local groups that in recent years have promoted a connected trail system, made downtown streetscape improvements and expanded the farmers market, Flint as a healthy, active community is a plausible vision.

“Our local partners are ready to take action to build upon the momentum,” Holaly said. “We want to strengthen relationships between the community and policy-makers to help create significant changes that will empower children and families to lead healthy lives.