GreenTown: The Future of Community | Creating Healthy, Sustainable Communities

PlanItGreen: Community Sustainability in Oak Park and River Forest

Two communities, one sustainability plan. In 2011, Oak Park and River Forest completed and launched PlanItGreen, a sustainability plan developed through an extensive community involvement process and facilitated by Seven Generations Ahead with significant support from the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation’s CommunityWorks program.

PlanItGreen provides clear, tangible goals and action steps to work toward creating a healthy, sustainable future. And this fall, the YMCA and Robert Wood Johnson-supported Pioneering Healthy Communities (PHC) Initiative, will launch a community-wide aimed at changing policies, systems, and environments with the long-term goal of getting residents to move more and to eat healthier.

Four years ago, the Village of Oak Park hosted GreenTown. At the 2011 event, the Village once again hosts, and is joined by the YMCA, The Pioneering Healthy Communities Initiative (PHC) and Cook County’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work, all of which are working toward a healthier future. GreenTown spoke with David Pope, President of the Village of Oak Park, Jan Pate, President and CEO of the West Cook YMCA and Elizabeth Lippitt, the PHC Community Coach and Executive Director of the Children’s Clinic, sponsored by OPRF Infant Welfare Society, about getting people to eat better and exercise more.

GreenTown: Tell us how Oak Park came to focus on sustainability, and how GreenTown and PlanItGreen have been helpful in moving toward a healthier community.

David Pope: Over the past decade there’s been an increasing awareness of the need to be better stewards of our planet. The focus has been on interactions between the natural environment, and the human-made environment, including understanding the implications of our actions regarding energy utilization, fossil fuel consumption, depletion of water resources, impacts to air quality, generation of refuse and land management practices. We have a responsibility to preserve the viability of our planet for future generations. Oak Park began to look more seriously at what we could do, starting about six or seven years ago. We hosted the first GreenTown in 2007. That was a strong early public step to engage our community in this initiative. The connection between living sustainably and living a healthier lifestyle is clearly a concern of many of our residents. For example, encouraging all of us to increase our levels of physical activity and to improve our choice of foods to live healthier lives will have a carryover effect to help us get out of our cars. When we get out of our cars we also gain the benefit of coming into contact with others and building relationships, thereby strengthening our community. An outgrowth of such community-building has been the PlanItGreen effort with River Forest in which we have collectively created a road map for becoming a truly sustainable community. That effort, conducted with strong support from the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation, was a real collaboration between our two communities. No community, on its own, can impact the broader environment without supporting and collaborating with others. Together, we want to serve as a model for the region.

GreenTown: And how does the YMCA’s Pioneering Healthy Communities fit with PlanItGreen?

Jan Pate: Since 2004, the YMCA of the USA has been looking at how health is impacted in communities, and began working with the Centers for Disease Control on PHC initiatives. In 2009, the first group of Robert Wood Johnson-funded PHC communities were chosen, and we were part of the second group in 2010 (Illinois, Michigan and Ohio). While the YMCA is the initial convener and accesses the funding, once the community is selected the Y simply becomes a participant in the broader effort. Elizabeth Lippitt is our Community Coach, and we will be focused on policy, systems and environmental change. We’re talking about healthy policies leading to a healthy environment, which leads to healthy behaviors, which leads to healthy people. PlanItGreen fits in with PHC, it’s really phenomenal that OP has two initiatives, independent yet complementary that are coming together.

Elizabeth Lippitt: More and more children are coming into our clinic overweight, diabetic, and from families really struggling with how to get their kids active and feeding them healthy food. We have a dietician on staff but this is not just a medical issue. A dietician alone cannot solve these problems. It’s the entire environment these children are living in. If our kids maintain the current pace of overeating and lack of exercise, our kids will have a shorter lifespan than us, their parents, and the healthcare costs for these kids who have early heart disease, cancer and diabetes, is going to be catastrophic.

Jan: We have seen projections of the massive increase in healthcare costs: $343 billion in ten years, four times as much as is spent now. Today the healthcare cost is $361 per person and projected to be $1,425 per person by 2018.

David: And that doesn’t even talk about quality of life…

Elizabeth: …or mental health, substance abuse, depression. A recent study showed that being an obese child has the same stress level as a child going through chemotherapy. What a burden it is to be terribly overweight. In Oak Park, we have had incredible support of our community leaders, and they’re really thinking hard about what we can do as a community. There are six overall objectives to the PHC program:

– Increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food for preschool
   through school-aged children
– Increase the number of community activities that promote healthy eating
– Increase capacity of families to provide healthy food to children
– Increase number of youth walking and biking to school
– Increase the number of after school programs that align with the new Physical Education Guidelines
– Increase number of families foregoing car usage for trips within one mile of home

Jan: It’s really about eating healthy foods and moving more. We are trying to make healthy option the default options. It’s not a child issue, it’s a family and community issue. PlanItGreen has gone through its planning process and is in implementation. We are just getting started now on our implementation as well.

Elizabeth: We need to increase the number of activities that encourage everyone to move. There are so many programs where snacks are part of the event. How do you encourage healthy snacking at these gatherings?

David: We in Illinois face this to a greater extent than almost anywhere in country. Some of this is about access and making it possible for folks to live a healthier life. Some of this is about encouragement and helping to motivate people to make healthy choices. But a critically important part of this is education – helping us all to understand the implications of our actions. It’s surprising sometimes what’s in some of the “food” that we put in our months… and it’s shocking the impacts that this can have on our kids and all children.

Elizabeth: Illinois ranks number four in the country for obese children; 21 percent of our kids age 10 to 17 are obese.

David: And obviously none of us are suggesting that we shouldn’t ever
eat a donut.

Jan: …All things in moderation.

GreenTown: In addition to food and exercise, PlanItGreen looks at infrastructure, energy, water and more. What kind of changes might we see in Oak Park in the future?

David: This is about creating a culture of wellness. There will be physical infrastructure changes that can benefit all demographic groups. If you can foster a culture in which a few thousand people a day are biking in your community, then the question of whether to install bike lanes is no longer really optional. Together, here in Oak Park, we are fostering more walkable, pedestrian friendly, aesthetically appealing areas—including downtown, for example with retail and service offerings, and throughout many of our other neighborhood commercial districts. We want people walking to restaurants, to the dry cleaner, etc. rather than driving to shopping malls and then driving back home. That’s where PlanItGreen and Pioneering Healthy Communities and Communities Putting Prevention to Work intersect the village’s efforts to help foster and build community.