Parque Madureira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, provides a place for residents to engage in physical activity and connect with the local community. Photo by Higor de Padua/Flickr.

Parque Madureira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, provides a place for residents to engage in physical activity and connect with the local community. Photo by Higor de Padua/Flickr.

Worldwide, people are moving less – taking their car, abandoning walking and bicycling, or perhaps unable to visit a neighborhood park or play space because it may not exist. In real numbers, as outlined by the Designed to Move campaign, physical activity is also declining in key emerging economies, though attention to the issue in the United States dominates the airwaves.

As previously addressed on TheCityFix, in Brazil, physical activity is expected to decrease by 34% between 2014 and 2030. In China, where physical activity has already plunged 46% between 1991 and 2009, it is expected to decrease by an additional 51% by 2030. We’re also seeing a corollary in mode share changes – more driving and less walking, bicycling and transport use.

We’ve discussed these challenges and the need for research to identify what works for cities to change the course. In a recent paper in Health & Place, some key researchers have pulled together viable potential solutions. In this paper, one key observation was that cities should identify existing actions and integrate physical activity into them – from actions to mitigate climate change, reduce congestion, or improve mobility. This paper used New York City’s PlaNYC as an example of how health can be woven into a citywide strategy.

To this end, we highlight two Latin American cities, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, where recent actions to improve each city’s air quality, pedestrian mobility, and contributions to climate change offer potential lessons for further building upon success by integrating physical activity into city initiatives.

Mexico City: Progressive and pedestrianized

Mexico City has taken some of the most progressive actions in the last ten years when it comes to livability, almost unrivaled for a city of its size. To clean up its poor air quality and improve livability, the city has built five high quality bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors since 2005. The system serves more than 900,000 passengers each day, and research shows that about 10% of passengers switched to use the Metrobús BRT from private cars – a move that can induce walking to transit stations. The city has also made it easier to get around via bicycle, implementing the Ecobici public bike-sharing program in 2010. Since then, the system has grown to 271 stations, 100,000 members, and 10 million yearly trips.

The city has also improved public spaces where people can walk, bicycle and enjoy the outdoors. This includes revitalizing Chapultepec Park, the city’s 680 hectare (1,690 acre) urban oasis that now sees 18 million yearly users. On Sundays, the city hosts a Ciclovía, a time when roadways are shut down to cars, making room for people to jog, stroll and bicycle in the street. The city has pedestrianized key streets in its historic center, as well as developed parques de bolsillos, or pocket parks in under-used street space.  All of these actions have been important in helping residents choose to be more active, whether it is walking a bit on their way to the bus station or spending leisure time at the park.

Rio de Jainero: Investing in livability

Far from the high plain of the Valle de Mexico, Rio de Janeiro is a city that in many ways symbolizes physical activity, with its famous beaches and soccer-crazed citizens. However, it too faces challenges with rising obesity rates. With the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics approaching, the city is making key investments to ensure that its reality lives up to its image. The city last year opened its first BRT, TransOeste, and will soon open a second, the TransCarioca, which will go a long way in providing better public transport.

Not far from a main TransCarioca station and commuter rail station sits the new 11 hectare (26 acre) Parque Madureira, the largest park to open in the city in years. This park provides cycling paths, skateboard ramps, weight training equipment, and multi-purpose sports courts that have held everything from samba dancing to theatre performances. Elsewhere in the city’s favelas, investment is trickling in to better public spaces and recreational amenities that offer children places to play, as well as improved staircases and streets for older residents to travel through the hilly favelas. The city has also installed new protected bikeways and implemented a bike-share program called Bike Rio, which has 600 bikes at 60 stations. Even the city’s famous beaches are getting some attention – one side of the main beachfront boulevards now closes on Sundays to cars to allow bikers, joggers, pedestrians and skateboarders to use the space more actively.

Active cities are livable cities

New York City engaged multiple agencies to help shape a more active city, engaging officials in parks and recreation, planning, transportation and public works. Though it is daunting when looking at the trends, increasing physical activity can come as a co-benefit to other targeted measures aimed at making cities more sustainable and livable. The examples of Mexico City and Rio je Janeiro serve as important examples, yet they too can go further in promoting physical activity. It is important that city leaders recognize the importance of increasing physical activity now and actively look for these co-beneficial opportunities. Connecting this important work to health can be one way to ensure continued progress and scale up success.