Placemaking Begets Youth Sports, Promoting Healthier Communities

May 31, 2022 | Priya Shah, Meghan Auer, Kelsey Donnellan

Three youth soccer players at afternoon practice participating in a dribbling drillCreating community gathering spaces, or placemaking, has garnered considerable attention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With increased awareness of the importance of physical, emotional, and mental well-being, public health is committed to working with communities to strengthen environments for all people to feel safe and included and enjoy a high quality of life, no matter where they live.

Youth sports is an important outgrowth of placemaking as they can be a protective factor in preventing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and chronic diseases across the lifespan. What’s more, youth sports and recreational opportunities help to build not only optimal physical health, but also promote positive mental health and social cohesion. However, improving equitable access to youth sports is necessary to prevent poor health outcomes, especially among those most at risk of experiencing ACEs. Barriers to accessing youth sports in some communities include poorly maintained or nonexistent greenspaces, developmental cost, and poor air quality.

Placemaking and Youth Sports are Healthy Choices

Although ACEs are preventable, CDC describes them as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood, such as violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with poor mental health conditions or substance use. Preventable illness and other second-hand behavioral choices or exposures (e.g., depression, smoking and substance use, and socioeconomic barriers that have resulted from ACEs) have been linked to chronic disease and toxic stress can affect brain development and how our bodies respond to stress.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, resilience is the ability of a child to recover and show early and effective adaptation following a potentially traumatic event. Research has demonstrated how creating a built environment with programming and policies that support infrastructure changes (e.g., safe routes to school) have increased physical activity among children, helping to prevent ACEs, reduce risk for chronic disease, and promote resilience in children, families, and communities.

Public health has the capacity to add value to communities by utilizing state funding to leverage data and develop interventions—including placemaking to increase access to youth sports—to drive equitable health outcomes across the lifespan. Evidence supports youth sports as a positive way for children to increase their physical and mental well-being. In early studies, most sporting activities that increase cardiovascular activity have proven positive impacts on physical health, such as obesity and heart disease. Additionally, research suggests that many studies have also demonstrated a similar influence on psychological outcomes, including reducing levels of depression and stress coping in adults.

Placemaking Can Offset Negative Environmental Factors

Environmental impacts on air quality, ambient temperature, community design, and extreme weather events can create barriers to safe recreational opportunities for youth, and compound inequities already presented in our communities. Many communities, especially those of color that have been historically redlined, have limited access to indoor facilities that can be used during extreme weather events, as well as protected greenspaces where youth can safely engage in sports and other forms of physical activity.

The benefits of youth sports go beyond physical activity as they support personal development, socioemotional enhancement, leadership, and opportunities to practice effective communication with peers. However, not all youth have equal access to opportunities and facilities to participate in quality sports. Certain youth, such as those of racial and ethnic minorities and those living in communities with limited resources, are more likely to experience further disparities in access to physical activity opportunities.

On average, parents spend approximately $700 annually per child for sport participation. Additionally, families with household incomes above $100,000 tend to have almost double the rate of participation in youth sports than families with incomes below $25,000. Providing a cost-effective platform for youth to safely participate in sports and outdoor activities, through partnerships with local parks, recreation centers, and schools, can help bridge the gap in inequitable access to youth sports, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Where Placemaking is Happening

State public health agencies can lead policy initiatives, planning efforts, and strategic partnerships to increase equitable access to built environments for physical activity, often in coordination with local public health agencies. These efforts are aligned with several Healthy People 2030 objectives in reducing the likelihood of chronic disease as well as providing a safe space for youth and adults to pursue a range of outdoor activities to bolster overall health and wellness.

In Rhode Island, the state-led Health Equity Zone Initiative (HEZ) brings together community partners and local organizations to build healthy and resilient communities, while also recognizing the diverse needs of each respective community. To bring this effort to fruition, the Rhode Island Department of Health successfully braided and layered multiple state and federal funding streams to empower community agencies to serve as hubs of the HEZ. This unique, place-based approach aims to address the social determinants of health by investing in opportunities to build sustainable infrastructure so that adults and youth can have access to and participate in a wide range of activities.

In 2021, Washington State became the second state to implement the concept of HEZs following the enactment of SB 5052, which appropriated funding to support the development of HEZs in coordination with the governor’s interagency council on health disparities and other organizations. The Washington State Department of Health is currently in the process of developing strategic partnerships with local organizations and community partners to address the specific disparities that exist in their respective communities.

In order to support placemaking and access to youth sports, states can consider implementing initiatives such as HEZs by establishing strong local-state and community-based partnerships. A model such as Rhode Island's that utilizes a health equity approach to create community-led and placed-based solutions to address the social determinants of health is one way that states can actively strive towards building a more accessible environment for all.

Special thanks to ASTHO staff Caitlin Langhorne, MPH, Talyah Sands, MPH, Kerry Wyss, Jessica Bissett, Tanya Baker, and Maggie Davis, JD, MA, for contributing to this blog post.