Before You Go - January 2013
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Play Spaces
BCBS Association, Savannah Support Play Streets Initiative

By Deborah L. Vence

The city of Savannah and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia (BCBSGa) are supporting the initiative to create Play Streets, which are described as roads closed to traffic and opened to the community to encourage physical activity.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) and Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), which works with the private sector and its Honorary Chair First Lady Michelle Obama to end the childhood obesity epidemic in America, are working with the city of Savannah and BCBSGa to create new places for kids to play.

"Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia and the national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) are supporting PHA's Play Streets program by funding 10 select localities to help get Play Streets off the ground in their communities," said Morgan Kendrick, president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.

"Each city will receive funds, technical assistance, and communications and marketing support from PHA, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, and the BCBSA to create at least four Play Streets events. The winners were chosen based on their ongoing commitment to increasing physical activity among kids, health education and programming, sustainability of the program, and community development," Kendrick said.

The program involves 10 cities that each will host at least four Play Streets events over the course of a year. The cities were chosen based on their ongoing commitment to increasing children's physical activity levels. The cities set to have Play Streets include: Buffalo, N.Y.; Caguas, Puerto Rico; Chicago; Durham, N.C.; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Omaha, Neb.; San Francisco; Savannah, Ga.; and York, Penn.

"One of the drivers of childhood obesity is kids' inactivity. Most kids are not active for the recommended 60 minutes a day," said Elly Spinweber, PHA's director of marketing and communications. "On top of this, one in five kids-15 million across America-doesn't have access to a playground, and more than a third of all U.S. children have no access to recreation or community centers. It is because of these statistics, and the need for innovative ways to address the childhood obesity epidemic, that Play Streets came about."

Spinweber indicated that the Play Streets concept has been well-received by a number of cities that already have hosted similar programs, such as New York City, San Francisco and Minneapolis.

"Observations and onsite surveys at past events similar to Play Streets demonstrated the concept's potential to provide space needed for children to get more physical activity-a critical component in the nation's fight against the childhood obesity epidemic," she said. "For instance, in New York City, 64 percent of the kids using Play Streets reported that, if not for the local Play Street, they would have been engaged in a sedentary activity. Seventy-one percent reported that they walked to the Play Street, an added benefit. Past Play Streets have also been well-received by business owners operating in or around the designated roads, with business owners in New York City reporting more foot traffic through their stores during the event."

With the Savannah Play Streets, the hope is to engage more than 4,000 residents in active play while connecting families to resources available in the community on an ongoing basis to help support their health even after the event ends.

"We also hope to establish the basis for a standing, large-scale Play Streets program that will continue to provide these types of opportunities for families. Participating in the national Play Streets initiative truly elevates our city's efforts while providing the funding to produce meaningful and memorable events," said Garrison Marr, sustainable development coordinator for the city of Savannah.

"It's our hope that by establishing a track record in 2013, and being able to articulately communicate the impact of the series, we'll have the community support to continue to facilitate a series on this scale," he said.

Marr pointed out that the Play Streets events in Savannah will take place in areas without regular access to physical activity programming, fresh and local foods, and arts programming.

"Because the total distance of the street space dedicated to the events will vary from a quarter mile to well over a mile, the proximity to playgrounds will vary based on the event. Broadly speaking though, each is sited in an area with some barriers to outdoor playgrounds," he said.

The city of Savannah became involved with the initiative after having previously conducted a Bicycle Ciclovia event for children and their families that was well-received.

"The Savannah community also has an initiative called Healthy Savannah, which is a public-private partnership that identified the national initiative," Marr said. "They identified it as an opportunity to grow the existing event to reach a larger audience and provide a stage for overlapping community initiatives that were improving public health.

"Our community is fortunate to have leaders growing a first-class Farmer's Market, launching a compelling Food Day Festival, working in neighborhoods and community centers to engage residents around healthy food and physical activity," he said.

Furthermore, Marr explained that to design a compelling series for 2013, "we put as many of those community groups in the same room as we could, and let those experts design engaging programming, with the city's role being to help coordinate the provision of the physical space for the programming to take place within-in this case, street space. We wound up with 18 groups from the private, public and nonprofit sectors, and a mission of bringing arts, local foods, and fun and active programming to the doorsteps of neighborhoods without as regular access to those amenities."

And, besides the benefits of exercise, it is hoped that the Play Streets activities will result in more foot traffic and business activity at nearby businesses as well.

"We think that in addition to city residents, we'll attract quite a few folks from our region who are just a drive away and looking for something fun and unique to do with their families," Marr said.

Details about the location and dates, and the collaborative of community groups taking on Play Streets events in Savannah can be found online at