Rochester identifies itself as the City of Play, and even boasts being home to the National Museum of Play. Yet for many children in the city, there are still barriers to play. Rochester’s Healthi Kids partnership has been interested in knowing where children play long before HKHC put out its request for proposal. Healthi Kids initiative, part of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency (FLHSA), was formed in 2008 with funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation. Since that time, they have put together “Playability Plans” for Rochester neighborhoods, which use community input to identify current and potential spaces for children to be active.
Planning for Playability
The Playability Plans are intended to be Healthi Kids’ strategy for change through: assessment, engagement, awareness and advocacy. The Healthi Kids’ key partners include the University of Rochester’s Center for Community Health and Department of Pediatrics and community representatives from the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Wegmans Grocery Store, the Children’s Agenda, Rochester School Board and many more. With the help of community leaders, residents and youth, they were interested in looking at the safety and “playability” in five Rochester neighborhoods and asking some basic questions, such as “Where do kids play? Where would they like to play? What changes could be made to enable more play?”
The first question was: What is a play space? The partnership took a very open view of the term “play space,” and did not just focus on the traditional places people think of, like parks, playgrounds, trails and ball fields. They wanted to include the play spaces that are common, but perhaps under-reported, like streets, alleys, vacant lots and other nontraditional locations kids use for play. With this broader definition, they had a better understanding of what neighborhood places they needed to learn more about.
The partnership looked for an existing assessment tool that would best fit their needs. They found the Bedimo-Rung Assessment Tool – Direct Observation (BRAT-DO), which was originally created by Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center to assess New Orleans neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina. With modifications to fit Rochester’s context, neighborhood residents and partners were trained in using the tool. The results identified 60 play spaces in five neighborhoods. Parents and youth identified where children play, which included in the street, parking and vacant lots.
When Minerva Padilla, the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Program Coordinator for FLHSA, came on board, she had her work cut out for her. Minerva started “listening tours” within the five neighborhoods to complement the BRAT-DO results. This was another way to engage residents, get parents on board, identify barriers and consider changes needed for safe places to play. This task didn’t come without its challenges, as neighborhood residents had been “surveyed” before and rarely saw benefits to them. Minerva said, “They’ve seen empty promises…and we didn’t bring any false hopes and dreams. At first, we just let people vent.” HKHC staff, graduate students and volunteers were in the neighborhood, simply listening. The Healthi Kids coalition knew in order for people to talk about their challenges to play, you have to go to them. Minerva said, “I’m coming to where you are and where you need me to be.” Over time, the partnership’s commitment to be in the community helped gain some trust among neighborhood residents. Rachel Pickering, the Associate Director for Community Engagement for FLHSA said, “[We came] without our own agenda, we wanted to engage the community to advocate for their agenda. If that meant putting in a police camera or fixing a fence, we’d work on that together.”
The listening tours and the BRAT-DO assessment tool provided comments and input (or data) that were shared with a committee in each neighborhood. The residents then used that data to prioritize steps to improve playability. Healthi Kids then wrote up a Playability Plan for each neighborhood. All the results were brought back to the Healthi Kids policy team and three common needs emerged to increase playability:
1. Traffic calming
2. Neighborhood improvements (litter, equipment, crosswalks, vacant lots)
3. Perception of safety (crime and violence)
As soon as residents heard what common themes had emerged in the Playability Plans, they knew they were being heard, which in turn built more trust.
The “listening tour” feedback had further impact beyond the Playability Plans. The Department of Park and Recreation, an active partner in the Healthi Kids coalition, started an innovative initiative, “Recreation on the Move.” This program leaned heavily on the information collected during the “listening tours,” and brought active play toys and fresh fruit – by way of a roving truck with Parks and Recreation staff – into the neighborhoods. The “Recreation on the Move” sites were already identified in feedback from residents pinpointing where children are playing.
Currently, the partnership and the residents are making change happen and feeling empowered. Community leaders in one neighborhood are meeting with leaders in another to exchange ideas. Residents feel like they can take action by calling the Planning Department directly. “Now that all the neighborhoods can see the Playablity Plans for the five City neighborhoods, there’s a friendly competition between them. They’re taking ideas from one another and adding their own flavor,” said Minerva. In some of the Playability Plans, unkempt front lawns were listed as a barrier to play. While there has always been a policy on the books encouraging people to keep their yard clean, more residents are feeling pride in their neighborhood and taking action to do so.
Over 1,500 copies of the Playability Plans have been distributed at neighborhood events, block clubs, and sent to policy makers. Rochester’s congressional representatives in Washington, DC, received a copy of the plans during a recent trip through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Connect” training. The Healthi Headlines newsletter, distributed by Healthi Kids, will track the progress of the changes as they occur.
The next steps for the partnership include measuring community engagement, advocating for selected improvement in each of the neighborhoods and working towards adopting a city-wide policy to support physical activity. All of the Playability Plans together will help the City to look at the bigger picture of policies that can create safer streets and neighborhood spaces for Rochester children to play.aid, “If a seed is being planted in a community, we’re just trying to bring it to full harvest.”