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Faculty Research Focuses on "Active Living"

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What makes someone go for a run around her neighborhood at 6 a.m.? What makes a dad take his kids to the playground instead of turning on the TV? What promotes “active living” and how does it affect a community as a whole?

That’s what three Stuckeman School faculty members addressed in a multi-year research project in the Philadelphia suburb of Pottstown. Principal investigator Jawaid Haider, professor of architecture, and co-principal investigators Peter Aeschbacher, associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture, and Mallika Bose, associate professor of landscape architecture, recently completed the study, “Planning and Design Strategies for Healthy Living, Parks, and Recreation in the Pottstown Area,” which was aimed at revitalizing the community through improving the health and well-being of residents.

The project began in 2007, when the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation (PAHWF) asked the College of Arts and Architecture and the Hamer Center for Community Design to help the town promote healthy living through its parks and recreation system. After preliminary interviews and studies, Haider and his colleagues were asked to submit a proposal that led to a $235,161 grant in spring 2008.

“The project envisioned a leadership role for a Penn State interdisciplinary team of researchers who had expertise in community planning and design, health promotion, and parks and recreation, with an emphasis on creating a vision of health promotion through community design that encouraged active living,” Haider explained. “The study continues to be well received by the community and many relevant municipalities have embraced the objectives and guidelines.”

Those objectives include building awareness of nearby parks with desired amenities, such as playgrounds and sports courts/fields; addressing common barriers to park visitation, such as unsafe conditions; emphasizing “active transportation” (e.g., walking or cycling) to local parks; and providing a well-rounded range of opportunities at parks through facilities and programming.

Given the role parks and recreation systems play in promoting active living, the objectives, recommendations, and strategies developed for this study have widespread relevance beyond the Pottstown region, explained Haider. “Small towns all over Pennsylvania, as well as in other parts of the United States, are confronted with comparable planning issues. The predicament many communities are currently facing in terms of health, with an increase in obesity and other diseases related to sedentary lifestyles, has brought the role of the built environment in encouraging and facilitating physical activity into sharp focus.”

The researchers identified critical issues in the community, such as suburban sprawl and park accessibility, and developed planning and design strategies for addressing those issues. For example, they found Pottstown’s parks are accessible by foot for a large population, but there are many barriers to park use, such as lack of knowledge about facilities and fear of crime at the parks.

A team of architects and landscape architects may not seem like the most obvious group to address the issue of active living, but the built environment—where those professionals play a key role—is an important factor in a healthy lifestyle. As more and more land is lost to suburban sprawl, careful planning and design is needed to ensure there are adequate and easily accessible parks and recreational facilities.

Haider noted the implications of the study continue to have a significant impact on parks and recreation planning and design in the Pottstown area. He recently received a $20,000 grant from the College of Arts and Architecture to seek further funding from external agencies and to broaden the scope of the Pottstown parks and recreation research by incorporating active living strategies from urban areas and small towns in the United States and abroad.

The study’s full report is available at www.pottstownfoundation.org/pages/psu-report.htm.