Promoting healthy lifestyles through the outdoors

Working in the shadow of one of the best medical facilities in the country — in a county with some of the worst health statistics in the nation — Dr. Mark Wilson, director of the Jefferson County Department of Health in Birmingham, Alabama, knew he needed to focus on prevention.

May 26

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital, doctors could fix people if they got sick, but Wilson knew the key was to stop people from getting sick in the first place. The people of Birmingham needed to get outside and get active.

Wendy Jackson, former executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust, also knew the importance of outdoor physical activity and had been spreading that message when she met with Wilson at the health department. This partnership led to other partnerships with like-minded organizations and resulted in the development of a 750-mile master plan for a network of greenways, bike and pedestrian paths and trails to improve the environmental, economic and social well-being of the community while promoting healthy lifestyles.

Champions for health

The Jefferson County Department of Health invited the Freshwater Land Trust to become a member of the Health Action Partnership, a group of more than 100 organizations and agencies working together to improve the health of Jefferson County. From this partnership, 19 organizations joined forces to form the group Champions for Health. Together this group wrote and received the “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010. With this $480,000 grant, the group was able to hire a professional consulting firm to help develop a master plan for an extensive greenways system through stakeholder engagement.

Connecting with the community

Meeting and talking with a variety of stakeholders during the planning stages of the trail system was a critical part of the process of bringing the plan to completion. “When you talk about holding stakeholder meetings, you’re not just holding them to check something off the list. Listen to these people, stay in touch with them and communicate throughout the process—that is how they become the biggest champions for what you are doing,” advises Jackson. In its grant proposal, Champions for Health agreed to hold about 20 meetings with stakeholders, but because of an overwhelming response, it held 45 meetings, during which it asked community members what should be kept in mind when creating the plan.

The Freshwater Land Trust had the ability to include hundreds of different miles in the plan, but staff recognized that most people are mainly concerned with the one mile that connects them with the places they want to go. Out of this idea arose an initiative they called “Our One Mile.” Community members were asked to illustrate, on a paper map, the one mile they wanted in the system. “We found so many places where people knew of trails, and potential or abandoned streetcar corridors that have now become part of the trails,” says Jackson. “These people know their neighborhoods and they know what they want.” Individuals who were not able to attend a meeting were given the option to voice their one mile through the land trust’s website. In total, the public provided over 3,000 separate comments in 18 months.

The night the plan was unveiled, the 400-seat room was packed, leaving standing room only. The community also participated in the “Name Our Greenway System Contest.” The Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System was the winner, reflecting the natural, historical and geographical themes of the region.

Embraced by all

During the planning process, the land trust approached a local television station about hosting a segment now called “Red Rock Tuesday.” Every first Tuesday of the month, Jackson visits one of Jefferson County’s municipalities with the host of “Good Day Alabama,” one of the most-watched news shows in the state. Freshwater Land Trust invites the mayor and his or her constituents to walk a greenway in their community. The mayors love the opportunity to share how their community is contributing to healthy living through greenways and walkability. Not only does Red Rock Tuesday give the health department an opportunity to share the health benefits of green spaces with a wider audience, it also gives Jackson the chance to educate the public about the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System.

The public’s response to the trail system has been enthusiastic and widespread. “This trail system was embraced by every sector of the community; it doesn’t matter whether you are in an affluent or an economically challenged neighborhood,” explains Jackson, highlighting one of the most important aspects of this project. The land trust worked with the health department to identify the portion of the trail in the area with the greatest health disparity. In general, poor health follows poverty lines so, congruent with the grant request, the first major funding went to an underserved community with the greatest health disparity. In this way, the Freshwater Land Trust has broadened its reach both in terms of conservation and awareness. “Everybody in the community, regardless of age, regardless of physical ability, regardless of race, regardless of financial ability, has been a true champion—every single person,” says Jackson. By all accounts, the Champions for Health partnership has lived up to its name.