“As councils cut their spending on outdoor spaces and society encourages physical idleness, obesity is becoming an epidemic. Young people now face heart problems, diabetes and other diseases because of their sedentary lifestyles. This puts them at risk of premature death and confronts the NHS with a rocketing bill,” said Professor Lamine Mahdjoubi, from the University of the West of England, who chaired the conference.
Children are denied the opportunities for playing out of doors that previous generations took for granted. Delegates heard moving testimony from four mothers from Glasgow who contrasted their experiences of playing in the street with the restrictions placed on children in the city today.
“The streets are unrecognisable from our youth,” said Marie Forsyth, of the parents' group To play or not to play. “Now, they are full of traffic, and play spaces are desolate and scarred by drug-taking. We were poor but at least we had a childhood.”
Surveys of children and young people reveal they are increasingly dissatisfied with their outdoor environments and many of them would prefer to spend time in healthy activities, if only more were available. Fears about health, safety and litigation have resulted in councils trying to minimise the risks of public spaces, leading to unchallenging playgrounds that do not appeal to young people.
However, now is the time to act, with improving urban spaces and tackling childhood obesity increasingly on the government agenda. Delegates at the conference – which brought together parents' lobbying groups and experts on planning policy, safety, transport, health, food and physical activity, and the psychological impacts on children unable to socialise out of doors - shared views on overcoming barriers to outdoor play. They identified the need to assess the socio-cultural as well as physical benefits of outdoor play; the need to measure the way our environment encourages idleness; and found that design can be used to encourage a diversity of activities.
They found that open spaces were more cost-effective than indoor fitness centres, and were of benefit to a wider range of people. Fitness facilities tend to be exclusive, typically appealing to a segment of the population aged 18-45 who can afford membership and can travel there by car. In contrast, outdoor recreation areas appeal to a wider range of social and age groups and are usually accessed by foot. Investment on urban parks and open spaces dropped from 44% of local authority spending in 1976/7 to 31% by 1998/9.
“Open urban spaces cost £600 million to run for 2.5 billion visits,” said Lamine. “In contrast, the fitness culture costs £400 million for 100 million visits and 80% of customers use their cars to get there.”
Keynote speaker Professor Dick Jackson, an adviser to President Bush and Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the impact of the built environment on health, warned that the UK was fast catching up with American levels of childhood obesity and that mental illness can be directly attributed to poorly designed neighbourhoods. Highways planning still dominates urban design and new housing developments, and the biggest single impact on children's freedom has been the rise of the car and the subsequent lack of connection between home, street and neighbourhood.
“This is a subject that affects us all,” continued Professor Mahdjoubi. “The cost of obesity will have to be met ultimately by society – it is a time bomb waiting to go off, like climate change.”
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