In the early days of Buncombe County’s history, no one worried much about whether county residents were physically active. Most people engaged in some form of physical labor in the course of their daily lives, and most thought little of walking miles to accomplish everyday activities like shopping, running errands, going to school and attending church.
Back then, Buncombe County focused its fledgling public health efforts on projects that included a vaccination program, inspection of water sources and establishing a clinic for the treatment of venereal disease. During the influenza epidemic of 1919, the Health Department set up temporary hospitals to accommodate the thousands of patients the area’s few private hospitals couldn’t handle.
But these days, the Health Department’s role has grown far beyond the prevention and treatment of disease. Now charged with providing opportunities for residents to make healthy choices within a healthy environment, Public Health Director Jan Shepard says her department is looking for ways to help the community shift the balance toward positive health outcomes.
Overcoming sedentary habits and encouraging physical activity as a normal part of everyday life are among the healthy choices Shepard wants to encourage. To accomplish that goal and many others, her department is embracing an innovative “collective impact” model.
While the Department of Health continues to serve as Buncombe County’s public provider of a wide variety of health-related services, it is increasingly focused on collaborating with other governmental entities, funding sources and community partners to achieve its mission, Shepard says.
“Part of what we try to do is to infuse public health into planning committee meetings or into a Parks and Recreation meeting, so that we are bringing awareness of the health consequences of the policy decisions that are made,” Shepard explains.
“Our role is to remain that anchor institution that doesn’t go away in recessions, that’s here under all circumstances, and to provide guidance, support and communication,” adds Lisa Eby, human resources director for the Buncombe County Health and Human Services department.
“Buncombe has made huge strides in placing public health professionals where they can have a greater impact,” continues Shepard, outlining programs to embed staff previously employed by the Health Department into community resource agencies to provide better reach and coordination of services. The changes are not intended to save money: County funding for the positions has stayed the same or increased, Eby clarifies.
School health program manager Alice Elio is one of the staffers who moved from the Health Department to the Mountain Area Health Education Center as part of the shift. She supervises some of the 24 school nurses working in the county and city schools under the auspices of MAHEC.
Elio says helping students incorporate healthy choices like walking and biking into daily life is one of the most effective approaches for promoting health and well-being among our community’s children. “Research shows a correlation between increased physical activity levels where school and community design and policy support walking, biking and transit use,” she says.
Terri March, a health improvement specialist who worked at the Buncombe County Health Department for 14 years before transferring to MAHEC 18 months ago, agrees that a focus on active transportation is a key strategy for promoting community health. March serves on the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission and its Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, and she also helps facilitate the Safe Routes to School initiative, which encourages kids to walk and bike to school.
Shaping the environment
But educating students and families about the benefits of walking and biking won’t convince residents to embrace active transportation if they are stymied by missing sidewalks, unsafe crossings or other obstacles.
“We look at connectivity and opportunities for all segments of the population to move across the city,” says Mariate Echeverry, transportation planning manager for the city. “Our job is to think of the system as a whole and try to enhance connection opportunities where there are gaps.”
Yuri Koslen, transit project coordinator, agrees: “The goal is to accommodate everyone: kids, older people, those with physical disabilities. A person’s willingness to make a trip using active forms of transportation is determined by the weakest link. The rest may be very safe. It’s those links that make it difficult.”
Eby mentions one example of how interagency cooperation bridged a gap and enabled a large group of residents to access opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation. “When Carrier Park was first built, we realized that the residents of the close-by Pisgah View apartments had no safe way to walk to the park,” Eby recalls. “(City transportation director) Ken Putnam sits on the county’s Health and Human Services Board, where he heard about the problem. He got a crosswalk installed to provide safe access to the park.”
To address these kinds of challenges, the city’s Transportation Department is engaged in a number of initiatives to increase both the number of active transportation options and the connections between them.
The city’s pedestrian plan, last updated in 2004, has guided city investments and development policies to create needed linkages for safe pedestrian travel.
The city’s Neighborhood Sidewalk Plan was approved on Oct. 13 as a tool for evaluating new sidewalk construction needs. The plan provides a transparent method for ranking about 90 miles of potential sidewalk projects in order of priority. However, the city’s current annual budget for new sidewalk projects is $350,000, which will build about 1,000 feet of new sidewalk; as a result, residents shouldn’t look for a big increase in the number of sidewalks in the city anytime soon.
Asheville adopted a comprehensive bicycle plan in 2008, and in the years since then, new bike lanes, bike racks on public transit buses, facilities for bicycle storage and many other efforts have increased options for bicycle commuters and recreational cyclists. “In general,” says transportation planner Barb Mee, “we are trying to build connected networks.”
Planning efforts currently underway include the Asheville in Motion plan, which will provide a framework for meeting the transportation needs of a growing Asheville through health-oriented and sustainable transportation. This plan will address the full range of transportation options in Asheville, bringing together automobile, bus, bicycle and pedestrian transit into one unified and updated planning resource.
The city is also undertaking a plan to improve Livingston Street and a portion of Depot Street with an approach called Complete Streets. The goal of the project is to make the street safer and more comfortable for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. Construction on the project, which is funded by a Federal Highway Administration grant, is scheduled to begin in 2017.
Creating new greenways — while ensuring that the city’s greenways connect to other transportation infrastructure as well as to the county greenway system — is a popular initiative that will bear fruit in the near future. “We will have 11.91 miles of completed greenway when the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project and other greenways are finished in 2019,” reports Echeverry. “Over 10 miles of that total will be the River to Ridge system that will connect the greenways at the river to the Beaucatcher Greenway.”
According to Buncombe County recreation services manager Josh O’Conner, the county is pursuing funding for two greenway projects that have the potential to extend greenways developed through the RADTIP projects to the north and the south. The northern extension would run from Broadway to Woodfin, while the southern route would extend all the way to the county-owned Lake Julian Park.
“Over the past decade, our thinking about greenways has shifted away from considering these corridors as purely recreational amenities,” O’Conner explains. By focusing on greenways as components in an active transportation system, O’Conner says, “We can accomplish multiple goals at one time, and we can meet a wider range of needs in our communities.”
Both Echeverry and O’Conner agree that coordination between city and county greenway efforts is a top priority to ensure that the completed system forms a seamless network. “Our citizens don’t need to know whether they are using a city greenway or a county greenway,” Echeverry explains. Adds O’Conner: “And by remaining in close communication, we avoid competing for the same funding sources or duplicating efforts.”
While many of these efforts are still in the planning stages, changes in public attitudes and behavior surrounding active transportation are becoming evident. According to March, data collected by local volunteers in Asheville’s annual bicycle and pedestrian survey indicate steady growth since advocates began collecting the information in 2009. “If you pay attention,” March says, “you will notice a lot more people on foot and on bikes.”
Referring to groups like Asheville on Bikes and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Taskforce, March says, “We have a lot of individuals, advocates and passionate folks who have been working to promote active transportation in this community for many years. We are at the point now where we are beginning to see a lot of things happening as a result of those collaborations.”
Parks and Recreation
City and county park facilities present still more opportunities for healthy activity. Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains 54 public parks and 11 community centers. The department offers activities and sports programs for young people, adults and seniors.
Buncombe County maintains 16 parks (five of which include pool facilities) and a recreation program with offerings for all ages. O’Conner says that the county’s premier facility is the Buncombe County Sports Park located in the Enka/Candler area. The park boasts seven soccer fields (which are used by the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association, among other groups), a walking trail, a picnic area, a playground and community gardens. “We want to make sure that our programs and facilities appeal to people at all ability levels, O’Conner explains.
Amber Weaver, the city’s sustainability director, sees active transportation as a critical part of Asheville’s commitment to sustainability. “The best way to have an appreciation for the resources we are trying to conserve is to experience them directly,” she explains. “What’s the best way to experience them? Be outside.”
Providing a range of active transportation options will reduce fossil fuel use, conserve land that might otherwise be needed for parking and roads, reduce chronic disease and improve overall well-being, Weaver says. She believes that encouraging active transportation through the collaborative efforts of government and the community can only increase our common commitment to a sustainable future.
“I think we care most about the environment when we are connected to it by being outdoors,” Weaver concludes.