Picking up a hula hoop, Azmina Lakhani began to twirl it in a street she helped make safe for play. Alongside dozens of children, the fourth-year student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine couldn’t help but smile.
Designed to increase access to safe play spaces while promoting healthy activities with the aim of reducing childhood obesity, PlayStreets, as the name implies, is a program that closes off city streets to provide a supervised space filled with organized activities.
The ribbon-cutting event on Friday, September 28, in the Pilsen neighborhood, was the culmination of a project Lakhani took on while spending a year away from medical school to be an intern at Chicago’s Department of Public Health (CDPH).
“Azmina is the perfect example of starting a project from the concept to designing the model, writing for funding, getting funding, and then seeing it executed,” said Bechara Choucair, MD/MS, adjunct associate professor in Family and Community Medicine, and commissioner of the CDPH. “It was important that she got to witness what she’s worked on for a whole year. Literally thousands of kids in Chicago will benefit from this program.”
Endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! physical activity and fitness campaign, PlayStreets originated in Philadelphia and New York, where blocked-off city streets have helped bring play areas to parts of the city which lacked them. Chicago’s kickoff event included an impromptu basketball court, bouncy house, jumping rope, hula hooping, and more.
For Lakhani, who fit the event into the final week of her sub-internship at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, PlayStreets and her time at the CDPH brought to life theory and skills she learned in the classroom and refined her understanding of what urban public health can be.
“It was an excellent opportunity, especially working with Dr. Choucair. Because he was a medical student, he understands what being a good mentor is all about,” Lakhani said.“He gets students involved, and really gets them interested in public health.”
While at the CDPH from August 2011 to June 2012, Lakhani worked on a number of projects, the most successful and visible being PlayStreets, where she actively researched the program, presented it to staff, and applied for funding.
“I remember the meeting when I prepared a PowerPoint presentation to describe the concept, and today, to see it happening is amazing,” Lakhani said. “It really turns the stereotypes of nothing getting done in city government on its head. Things can get done and do get done, and this is a perfect example of what can happen when people work together.”
Lakhani was one of three Feinberg students at the event. Second-year students Pietro Bortoletto, a policy and planning fellow, and Philip DiSalvo, who is evaluating the efficacy of PlayStreets, work at the CDPH part time.
“We want to make sure that we are preparing the next generation of public health leaders, and one of the ways to make that happen is to expose them to some of the work that we do at the CDPH and give them the opportunity to be a part of it,” Choucair said.
A coordinated effort between the CDPH, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, and community partners, more than 50 PlayStreets events are scheduled in six Chicago neighborhoods through mid-November.
At Friday’s event, Lawrence Soler, President and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, applauded Chicago’s efforts to promote healthy behaviors.
“Today in America, one in five kids doesn’t have access to a playground – that’s millions of children who can’t pick up a ball, run outside, or have fun in a safe environment. Chicago and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois deserve to be commended for working to ensure that every kid has a place to play and be active,” he said.
PlayStreets is a public-private partnership, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois providing a $317,000 grant. Nonprofit community organizations are responsible for implementing the program and for coordinating day-to-day logistics and operations of PlayStreets events.
Follow the CDPH on Twitter: @ChiPublicHealth.