In less than 20 years, tremendous growth has turned Phoenix into the nation’s fifth-largest city. But the expansion of critical infrastructure has not kept pace with its surge in population and land development. The imbalance is particularly acute in older neighborhoods, where there are too few safe and accessible parks, playgrounds, streets, bike paths and public pools for the burgeoning ranks of children.
Many of these youth are at risk of obesity and overweight, and the lack of community resources is a real hurdle for physical activity. Phoenix’s desert-hot climate is an added barrier; with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees for a third of the year, playing outdoors is unappealing and potentially dangerous.
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, Phoenix will implement “Maryvale on the Move” (MTM), an initiative named after the predominantly Hispanic village west of downtown that will serve as the pilot location for policies and environmental changes to prevent childhood obesity. Maryvale has more than 190,000 residents—36 percent of whom are less than 18 years of age—and the challenges to their active living and healthy eating are a microcosm of Phoenix’s concerns.
The community’s 37 square miles, for example, include only a few parks with limited safe access for children traveling on foot or by bicycle. The 13 playgrounds and tot lots are typically small, and hours for the four public pools recently were cut to save money.
"Like most states, Arizona has faced serious budget issues that impact the state and local level,” project director Jane Pearson said. The fiscal constraints heighten the need to be “very creative about finding ways to support new strategies and policies."
Through a broad partnership facilitated by St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, MTM will develop and implement initiatives to increase Maryvale residents’ access to healthy foods and physical activity. It aims to change local zoning and vendor licensing laws, advocate joint-use agreements to open school recreation centers to the community and help independent grocery stores upgrade their fresh produce offerings.
The partners, including foundations, community centers and community development organizations, will work to ensure that new policies and programs are a good fit for Maryvale’s diverse population. While a recent study indicated that residents would like greater access to healthy foods and places to walk, bike and play, various language and cultural barriers as well as a mistrust of government keep many from taking advantage of existing resources or pressing for neighborhood improvements.
And the shifting local and national climate over immigration issues, as well as the continuing economic downturn, could deepen divisions in Maryvale. That’s what makes the multiple partners and broad collaboration of MTM so important, noted Pearson.
“We have the tools and the strengths to create effective, inclusive solutions that allow us to build new bridges,” she said.