Health Organizer Spearheads Efforts to Promote Physical Activity in Chicago Neighborhood

    • February 22, 2010

The problem. Lucy Gomez-Feliciano never uses the E-word. "A lot of people don't like to exercise," she said. "The word makes them cringe." But the health organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago understands the importance of active living, and the connection between the built environment and the ability to be physically active.

Gomez-Feliciano has been working for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association—which focuses on health care, affordable housing, school reform, living-wage jobs, land use, and zoning, economic development and neighborhood safety—since 2004, and with Chicago families for more than 20 years.

As the coordinator of Active Living Logan Square, one of 25 community partnerships in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) national program Active Living by Design, Gomez-Feliciano spearheaded efforts to create an environment that promotes physical activity and health.

Logan Square, where Gomez-Feliciano works and lives, is a dense, predominantly Latino neighborhood in the north central part of the city. It has the least amount of open space per person of any Chicago community except South Lawndale.

Gomez-Feliciano helped community residents and the partners involved with Active Living Logan Square find creative ways to get people moving, with a focus on schools and green space.

Integrating physical activity with schools. With leadership from Gomez-Feliciano, Active Living Logan Square worked with McAuliffe Elementary School and Ames Middle School to expand opportunities for physical activity.

With the strong support of the principal and the assistant principal, McAuliffe Elementary integrated the Take 10! curriculum for children in kindergarten through 5th grade. The school also replaced two parking lots with playgrounds and institutionalized a 10-minute recess. With the Active Transportation Alliance—an Active Living Logan Square partner—the school installed bike racks and created a bike lock library so students can ride their bikes to school.

Ames Middle School, across the street from McAuliffe Elementary, also installed bike racks. The school, in partnership with West-Town Bikes, offers bike repair and safety classes during the school day. Both schools piloted Walking School Bus programs, in which parents walk groups of children to and from school.

"In partnership with the school, we really changed the culture in these schools, so that health mattered, not just for the students but for the school community—teachers, staff and parents—too," said Gomez-Feliciano. "People are starting to understand the role that schools have in health."

With McAuliffe Elementary and Ames Middle School as models, principals at schools in the neighborhood are starting to talk about integrating physical activity into the school day.

Advocating for more green space. Green space is important for the mental and physical health of Logan Square residents, says Gomez-Feliciano. "When you meet your neighbors in the park, you feel connected and less isolated. In terms of physical health, if people go to the park to ride a bike or take their kids there, they're not even going to realize that they're being active."

Active Living in Logan Square has been working with the City of Chicago to turn 2.5 miles of elevated rail line into the Bloomingdale Trail. As spinoffs of these efforts, a tiny park has already opened, two others are planned, and a fourth park will be expanded to provide access to the trail. The trail will soon have a design and engineering plan.

Active Living Logan Square has spurred adjoining neighborhoods to think outside the box about ways to claim open space, says Gomez-Feliciano. For example, their partnership piloted the Open Streets program, in which eight miles of boulevards were closed to cars connecting five communities so people can participate in non-motorized activities on weekend mornings.

Gomez-Feliciano also served as the coordinator of Chicago's Healthy Eating by Design project. (Chicago hosted one of 12 Active Living by Design partnerships that implemented strategies to provide affordable, healthy and appealing food options to children and families by changing local food and nutrition policies and environments.)

What comes next for Gomez-Feliciano. Through her work in Logan Square, Gomez-Feliciano has become a member of the national advisory committee for RWJF's Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, a national program to implement healthy eating and active living initiatives through policy and environmental change strategies. The program focuses on children who are at highest risk for obesity based on race and ethnicity, income and geographic location. The Chicago project in the program, which she directs, was selected as a Leading Site—a community poised to build upon their already established track record and to serve as a mentor and leader in the childhood obesity prevention movement.

Gomez-Feliciano serves on the board of directors for the Active Transportation Alliance and on the advisory council for the Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities, a part of Northwestern University's Community-Based Participatory Research Program. And she has taken a leadership role in promoting Chicago's Open Streets program (formerly called Sunday Parkways).

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.