THE BLOG
11/20/2014 05:44 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Are We Failing Our Kids?

Our children's health and welfare is our responsibility. As countries across the globe are celebrating Universal Children's Day and recommitting to improve the welfare of kids everywhere, I can't help but wonder if we're doing enough to protect our kids here at home.

Today's children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. More than one-third of kids and teens in America are overweight or obese and even fewer are meeting the recommended national physical activity guidelines. Half of our kids have zero access to safe places to play and get active like parks, community centers, bike paths and sidewalks. Kids of color are more likely to live in park -- poor communities, and not surprisingly, have higher rates of obesity.

As if the lack of safe places to play wasn't a significant enough hurdle in and of itself, many of our kids have been hit with a double whammy: air pollution. According to the American Lung Association, nearly 50 percent of all Americans live in communities where pollution makes it dangerous to breathe on a far too regular basis. Children and teens are at increased risk from exposure to dangerous air pollution as their lungs are still developing. And low-income kids are at an even greater risk since they are more likely to live near the pollution sources.

While these aren't the only challenges to a bright and healthy future our kids face, they do share a common solution; what I like to call nearby nature.

Close-to-home access to nature improves the health and wellness of our kids and communities. Kids need places to play, run, laugh, discover, make friends and breathe fresh air. And those places need to be nearby and safe so that parents and care-givers can easily take their kids outdoors or feel comfortable giving them a little bit of freedom to roam as they get older and increasingly independent. We know that investments in neighborhood parks and green spaces increase the likelihood that children will be physically active. Natural open spaces also promote social activity and increase the overall happiness and wellbeing of nearby residents.

At the same time, parks and trees help to clean the air, making it safer to spend time outdoors. Here in Washington, D.C., we are lucky to have about 8,000 acres of parkland, with nearly 5,000 acres of tree cover, estimated to remove 244 tons of air pollution per year. Across the country, the clean air and carbon storage benefits of trees in urban parks are valued at $500 million and $1.6 billion, respectively. While greening efforts alone won't clean the air -- we also need to cut our dependence on dirty fuels -- they can make a difference at the neighborhood level. Kids living in neighborhoods with more street trees have been shown to have a lower prevalence of asthma.

So as we recommit to the welfare of our kids, let's start by making sure that every child in America has access to safe places to play outdoors. One thing we learned in the recent mid-term election, is that voters, regardless of party affiliation, overwhelming support investments in parks and open spaces. According to the Trust for Public Land "a record $13 billion for land conservation was approved by voters across America, including large statewide measures in Florida, New Jersey and California."

Now it's time for Congress to follow suit and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Fifty years ago, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan commitment to safeguard our natural areas and provide recreation opportunities for all Americans, was signed into law. The Fund is intended to support national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes, state and local parks and recreation projects, trails and ball fields in all 50 states. Unfortunately, nearly every year Congress breaks its own promise to the American people and diverts funding to other uses, putting the health and wellbeing of our children on hold.

It is time to take action to benefit and promote the welfare of the world's children, starting with our own. Let's ask our leaders to fulfill the promise made 50 years ago to fund the parks and recreation opportunities that will help make our children healthy and happy.