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East Harlem Bikes, Runs, and Walks Its Way to Better Health

Even though he’s only five years old, Moa is an expert on the happenings on Randall’s Island, having explored every corner of the park during visits with his parents, Nicole and Sandy. The family bikes to Randall’s Island up to several times a week via a vehicle-free pathway that connects their East Harlem neighborhood to the park. “On the bike path to the park, there’s a white board with daily activities and events listed,” said Nicole. “Moa loves to stop and find out about what’s going on for the day. He gets very excited about everything he sees and learns over there.”  

Like Moa, many community members of East Harlem have limited access to outdoor physical activity in their neighborhood. With less than half the amount of open space as recommended by New Yorkers for Parks, East Harlem has higher rates of obesity and diabetes as compared with other New York State communities.

NYSHealth is supporting a range of efforts to expand and improve access to healthy food and physical activity, build demand for public spaces, and get residents engaged in healthy behaviors throughout East Harlem—one of six communities in New York State where NYSHealth is working with grantee partners to transform through its Building Healthy Communities priority area.

For Moa and his parents, the ability to access Randall’s Island for fresh air and physical activity has been a boon. “It means we spend more time outdoors exercising by riding to the park,” says Nicole. “It’s beautiful once you’re there and a safe space to walk, ride, or play.”

NYSHealth grants to Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) and the New York Restoration Project are helping to make Randall’s Island an accessible resource to Moa’s family and other East Harlem residents, where they can participate in free community programming and events related to health and wellness. These projects also are targeting residents of the South Bronx in partnership with the New York Community Trust through a complementary initiative. Also in East Harlem, NYC Bike Share is growing and promoting Citi Bike (the citywide bike-sharing program) and its discount program for low-income residents. The Fund for Public Health in New York is supporting the East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center in engaging residents to use walking trails throughout the neighborhood.

Physical Activity and Nutrition Education on Randall’s Island

Connecting people to the 330 acres of park space on Randall’s Island will greatly benefit families in East Harlem. Conveniently located adjacent to the East Harlem neighborhood, the island offers year-round health and wellness programming for all ages, including free weekly running, yoga, dance exercise, and gardening classes. For youth ages 8–14,  the Jesse Owens Track & Field Club offers an introduction to cross-country distance running, proper running techniques, and nutrition habits. 

Despite the close proximity, many East Harlem residents are unaware of the health and wellness activities or even how to access Randall’s Island. Residents also have had safety concerns about getting to Randall’s Island using the walking paths or bike lanes. RIPA is working to overcome these perceived barriers and get residents engaged in the wide array of activities offered—some of which people are experiencing for the first time, such as the island’s urban farm.

“The children were able to taste almost every plant, mint, catnip, and other herbs,” said Lisa Schaffner, a teacher at Central Park East 2, of a spring 2017 trip with her kindergarten class to the urban farm, a 40,000-square-foot environmentally sustainable garden and outdoor classroom on the island. Urban farm employees took the children on a tour of the vegetable beds and greenhouse, engaging them in how to identify the different plants by color or leaf shape and how to pick and taste the herbs and vegetables. “It was a hands-on, multisensory experience,” said Ms. Schaffner. “We all were able to eat a small piece of the asparagus that was so delicious, the teachers and children remembered it when we were back at school.”

Through regularly scheduled school trips and periodic special events open to the public, the urban farm gives both children and adults an opportunity to experience and learn about sustainable gardening in an urban setting, including hands-on classes to help them better understand how food choices affect their health, the environment, and their communities.

On some of his trips to Randall’s Island, Moa likes to bring his grandmothers when they visit from out of town. On one occasion, as he guided one of his grandmothers around the urban farm, staff members overheard Moa teaching her everything he had learned during his previous trips. “Chickens are always a highlight, and he likes to taste and see all of the things that grow,” says Nicole, Moa’s mother. “His favorite is basil and he’ll eat okra right off the plants.”      

To help facilitate pedestrian access to the island, New York Restoration Project is partnering with neighborhood organizations to increase signage for Randall’s Island in East Harlem and the South Bronx. New York Restoration Project also is working to raise awareness of the physical activity and nutrition education opportunities among schools and community groups that could benefit from these underused resources.

Cycling and Walking Trails

Citi Bike and the East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center are encouraging residents to bike and walk around their neighborhood, as well as use the pedestrian and bike trails that connect East Harlem to Randall’s Island.

To help promote its discounted membership for low-income residents, Citi Bike is partnering with local organizations to organize and offer free community rides. It is also working with Bike New York to provide bicycling classes for kids, as well as regularly attending community events to share information about discounts and employment opportunities for East Harlem residents.

East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center worked with community partners to help develop the Community Walking Trail, a 3.5-mile pathway along sidewalks that run east and west by way of 106th and 115th Streets in East Harlem. It holds regularly occurring community walking groups on the trail. The walking trail has an added benefit of promoting or passing by public art installations, museums, community gardens, and cultural centers throughout the neighborhood. Through these coordinated group walks, residents are not only improving their physical activity but also learning more about their community’s assets. Additionally, the walking trail connects the neighborhood to Randall’s Island through a walkway at 103rd Street—providing residents with a safe, convenient way to access the island from East Harlem.

Through these collective efforts by NYSHealth grantees and their partners, residents of East Harlem and the South Bronx—communities with historically limited opportunity for physical activity—are engaging more in biking, walking, and other activities that improve the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families.

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