By Henry Raess

These days too many people are getting too little exercise – especially children. In Buffalo more than 25 percent of public school students are overweight or obese, and in some areas the rates are well over 50 percent. We’re also spending more and more time on computers, flexing our brains rather than muscles.

We need to get people of all ages – especially future generations – thinking, learning about and establishing healthy habits. Play Streets is a creative, fun way to get our youth outside and active, making use of our largest public space – streets – to create parks by simply removing cars.

Buffalo has been selected as one of 10 cities nationally to host Play Streets, a program designed to combat childhood obesity and championed by BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and the Partnership for a Healthier America, of which first lady Michelle Obama is honorary chairwoman.

Locally, GObike Buffalo spearheaded the effort to bring Play Streets here. As a result, this summer Western New Yorkers will enjoy a series of free events, closing streets to cars and opening them to the community. These events will address social issues such as public health and wellness, and encourage biking and walking as healthy, inexpensive, environmentally friendly forms of transportation. Play Streets will provide opportunities for community engagement, reduce congestion and pollution and provide children much-needed activity.

Initiatives like this have been successful in the past and are working in more than 100 cities.

Through the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities – Buffalo partnership, our city’s youth have identified what they want: to feel safe from vehicle traffic and crime, to have safe places to play sports, access to healthy food and neighborhoods that are lively and well-maintained, including expanded pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Play Streets addresses these concerns by transforming select streets into car-free urban parkways, creating a community space for individuals, children and families to safely walk, jog, ride bicycles, skate and have easy access to physical activities like dance and games.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine streets, the largest public space in just about every city, as the primary place to walk, bike, play, socialize and interact with members of our community. In just the past 100 years, our streets have been taken over by automobiles. Far too many people, including architects and urban planners, don’t think of our streets as public spaces anymore.

We can re-evaluate our car-centric culture, reimagine our streets as the public places they once were and use that public space to get people outside and physically active. This spring and summer, Play Streets will provide the opportunity to do just that.

Henry Raess is Play Streets coordinator for GObike Buffalo.