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An epidemic of obesity is gripping the United States, and it’s not clear how to reverse the trend.

One answer may be to attack the problem one neighborhood at a time, and that’s the idea behind Play Streets, a nationwide initiative that took root in Buffalo on Sunday.

Manhattan Avenue near Mercer and Hill streets was closed to traffic, turning the street and surrounding area into a festive stage for a host of events connected to promoting exercise, better diets and disease prevention, especially among children.

GObike Buffalo received a $50,000 grant for the Play Streets project, which was developed by the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit group whose honorary chairwoman is first lady Michelle Obama, and the national BlueCross BlueShield Association. Buffalo was one of 10 cities that received awards.

“The idea is to take back the streets and give people opportunities to use them safely,” said Justin Booth, executive director of GObike.

Five Play Streets are planned for the first Sunday of each month, including June 2 at Northland and Wohlers avenues; July 7 at Seneca and Babcock streets; Aug. 4 in Allentown; and Sept. 1 at Rees Street by SUNY Buffalo State.

The idea of creating “play” or “open” streets goes back decades, according to GObike and others. The Play Streets concept attempts to transform select city streets into car-free urban spaces, a throwback to the days in which physical activity was a regular part of daily community life. If people can walk and bike enjoyably and safely, the thinking goes, they are more likely to exercise.

“We have to reinstate that mentality,” said Booth.

His group, for instance, conducted workshops Sunday on bicycle repairs and safe riding. But there was an assortment of other things to do, from Zumba demonstrations and line dancing to drumming workshops and kickball games.

Brittany DiLeo, a Great Lakes educator at Reinstein Woods, manned a booth where children could play nature games and adults could pick up literature about one of the region’s environmental treasures. Reinstein Woods is a 292-acre nature preserve in Cheektowaga, but DiLeo came to Play Streets not so much to attract visitors but to bring attention to the preserve’s education programs, which include in-school sessions on recycling and composting.

“We try to match the program with the school’s curriculum,” DiLeo said. “It’s also a way to get schools and teachers involved in stewardship of our natural world.”

Visitors to Buffalo’s first Play Streets initiative included representatives from Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which was founded in 2010 to improve attendance, behavior and course performance at three Buffalo schools: Highgate Heights Elementary School, Bennett High School and Westminster Community Charter School.

“We’re trying to get the word out about our work and make a connection with the health of the neighborhood,” said Kenya Hobbs, the group’s community engagement specialist.

Other visitors included Patricia Clark, a member of the Delta Sigma Theta, a national sorority, who was waiting for the Zumba performance to begin.

“It’s a wonderful event that brings the community together,” she said.

During the last two decades, obesity has increased dramatically in the United States, with the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents almost tripling since 1980, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, more than 35 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years old are considered obese, increasing their risk for such conditions as diabetes and heart disease, the CDC reports.

“About 80 percent of our community is overweight or obese. It’s a challenge. You’re seeing an old person’s disease like Type 2 diabetes in young people, and it’s preventable, all through exercise and good nutrition,” said Gretchen Fierle, chief communications officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, a partner in the local Play Streets project.

“We’re trying to engage people in the neighborhood. That’s more effective than throwing a brochure at them,” she said. “It’s not the whole solution, but it can help.”

email: hdavis@buffnews.com