They live in an area known for its great outdoors. They breathe its Rocky Mountain air. But for the 55,000 residents of seven low-income neighborhoods in southwest Denver, what matters is their own community environment and the obstacles there that make an active, healthy lifestyle almost impossible.
The barriers are just too high. Despite the proximity of schools, parents fear letting their children walk to class or bike to playgrounds because of dangerous traffic and violent crime. Major roadways isolate neighborhoods and force a reliance on automobiles, which many residents cannot afford. Such factors combine with the dearth of supermarkets in this part of the city and leave most people no option but to do food shopping at nearby convenience stories. Fresh fruits and vegetables seldom are available.
Still other factors create additional hurdles. More than half of adults do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many are recent immigrants from Latin America or Vietnam and know little English. The dual problems of limited language and education isolate residents further, from social services, medical care, recreation opportunities and better paid employment.
Together, it all adds up quickly—to an unhealthy community. Overweight and obesity rates are far higher here than in Denver as a whole.
Yet “Living Neighborhood and Streets for Healthy Kids,” headed by the Denver Health and Hospital Authority and powered by a strong community coalition, is on a mission to reduce obesity by transforming policies and the environment. The coordinated effort intends to maximize the leadership, experience and momentum of residents, government officials and city agencies, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups.
“The strength of our success will be due to the very strong coalition we have put together, including the local mayor, City Council members and various non-profits and community organizations,” said project director Chris Urbina. “And importantly, we are involving kids too. We always assume we know what is best for kids, but we don’t. Having kids engaged in the beginning will encourage them to participate more fully in what we are doing.”
With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, their efforts are focused on policy change that would help the pilot neighborhoods develop community vegetable gardens and attract large-chain grocery stores. They’re also targeting policies and plans that could help redesign the local “streetscape” to encourage residents to walk, bike and exercise, with fewer concerns for their safety.
“Our streetscapes are for passenger cars, not residents. We want to make streets friendlier to give local residents the opportunity to make healthier choices. We want our neighborhoods to be living, active communities as opposed to destinations,” Urbina said.
The work will take place in Westwood, Villa Park, West Colfax, Sun Valley, Barnum, Barnum West and Valverde. If successful, it’s expected to lead the way to comprehensive change at the city level.