Safety and poor street design blamed for Islington’s child obesity figures
14 February, 2020 — By Sam Ferguson
Islington Play Association founder Anita Grant
A LACK of green spaces, fears over safety and streets designed for traffic is contributing to the problem of excess weight among the borough’s children, say experts, as figures show almost 40 per cent of 10- to 11-year-olds were overweight last year.
The most recent NHS figures show sizeable numbers of children in Islington are above a healthy weight.
Last year, 21 per cent of children aged four to five years old were overweight, a statistic that hasn’t changed significantly in the past three years.
Among children aged 10 to 11 years old, 38 per cent were overweight in Islington, which is similar to the rest of London but higher than the England average.
Part of the reason, according to Islington Play Association founder Anita Grant, is the borough’s lack of green spaces, with parents too frightened to let their children walk far to play.
“The biggest issue we see is that parents don’t let their children out to play,” said Ms Grant. “Parents are very fearful about lots of issues. The bad press about knife crime and county lines, it’s a massive concern for parents.
“So we find that children’s play outside is massively restricted.”
David Harrison of Living Streets agrees that a lack of time spent on the streets is a problem for children in the borough. He points to the way roads are designed for traffic, rather than pedestrians.
“Obesity is always linked to diet and exercise,” he explained. “But there’s also a great deal of exercise that can be done by walking around and playing on the streets.
“The way that we have designed our streets and the way that we’ve let traffic go on almost all of them reduces the extent that parents can let children wander off on their own, walk to school on their own or go to green spaces on their own.”
Examples Mr Harrison points to include areas of Waltham Forest and Hackney, where low traffic neighbourhoods have stopped through traffic on residential streets, meaning children and adults walk more in streets where there is less traffic and pollution.
He said: “Closing off many of the residential roads, so that you can still access your homes but through traffic doesn’t go through, as it does in Islington, means that people will now walk to the shops and schools instead of driving.”
Research agrees. A University of Westminster study showed people cycled and walked more in Waltham Forest every week after the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods, while King’s College London academics found improved life expectancy in areas with lower pollution from road traffic.
“It’s important to congratulate the council, who say they are going to roll out low traffic neighbourhoods, and it’s vitally important that they implement them,” added Mr Harrison.
But Ms Grant says there’s a deeper problem in the borough contributing to the plateauing of childhood weight. The index of multiple depravation shows 47 per cent of children in the borough live in relative poverty.
“There’s the immense gap between the haves and have-nots in Islington,” said Ms Grant. “There’s no easy answer. Some children grow up with parents able to afford holidays and activities, while a whole other half of children in the borough don’t.”
Ms Grant also pointed to schools, where punishments for children usually involves taking away their play time.
Cllr Janet Burgess, executive member for health and social care, said the council take childhood obesity very seriously, and used a wide range of methods to tackle the problem.
“In 2018, for example, we joined the nationwide SUGAR SMART campaign, which brings together local organisations to promote healthier, low-sugar alternatives to foods and drinks with high sugar content,” she said.
“We’re developing more work in this area with the NHS and other partners to ensure children and families get the help and support they need.”