Weight of the Nation Conference: Partnerships

May 8, 2012, 3:02 PM, Posted by

Model practices were the focus of a session, “Building Partnerships for Healthy Places,” on the first day of the Weight of the Nation conference. Bringing diverse groups together to improve community health was a common element of each of the presentations.

Chris Danly of Vitruvian Planning in Boise, Idaho, talked about his firm’s recently completed health impact assessment (HIA) on the Haywood County (North Carolina) Community Bicycle Plan—which aimed to determine what projects, policies and programs were needed to foster a bicycle-friendly community, through a collaborative process with diverse partners such as County officials, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, bicycle clubs and the local general store. The HIA found the plan would have positive health impacts on community health, including making virtually all members of the community aware of bicycling as an option for recreation and transportation, and also for drivers to be more aware of bikers on the road.

Danly also suggested to conference-goers that they work on both short- and long-term goals with partners when it comes to the built environment: “It’s a great long-term vision to have everyone walk or ride, but in the meantime existing conditions needs to be fixed.”

Danly’s other suggestions:

  • Identify places where people are active and build on those small areas to get your long-range vision.
  • Get excited about small victories such as kids walking two blocks to the pool, instead of driving.
  • Near-term improvements can include sidewalks, pedestrian lighting, landscaping, crosswalks, bike racks, public art and lighting for tracks to make them usable in the evenings.
  • Partnership opportunities include citizen’s patrols, site sharing, joint use agreements and organized runs.

“Optimize what you have, use health as a way to prioritize and don’t plan simply for the sake of planning,” says Danly.

Tanishia Wright, a community health liaison for Community Health Councils, focused on access to healthy foods in her presentation. “We bring decision-makers to the table early on in the process, which results in fewer roadblocks.”

A health impact assessment by the Community Health Councils found more fast food restaurants and less access to healthy foods in South Los Angeles, which has a higher ethnic and racial minority population than in West Los Angeles, where whites are the majority. They also found that fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles were less likely to offer healthier substitutions. A key part of their effort was to present the findings to two “political champions,” both members of the city council. Working with the council members they formed a coalition that was able to able to “consolidate a number of incentives” including favorable financing, which allowed them to introduce a greater diversity of restaurants into South Los Angeles. They also put a hold on development of further standalone fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, which currently make up 70 percent of the fast food establishments in the area. The coalition also worked with grocery store companies to show them the purchasing power of the community, and now have a commitment of four new stores over the next five years.

Former Maryland state senator David Harrington, now a community advocate, talked about including the individuals who will be affected in partnership meetings, from youth to senior citizens, a practice in place in Prince Georges County, Md. Harrington says community meetings with funders and legislators should include church leaders who bring church members and youth organization directors who bring their young adults to talk about what they need. “Engagement is a major strategy,” says Harrington. “It’s easy to get the stakeholders, but difficult to get individuals to look at health and connect it to their place.” Says Harrington: “If individuals don’t own it, it takes away any sustainability.”

Harrington says the objectives of partnerships, including funders and non-profits, in addition to individuals and legislators, include new approaches, applying evidence-based strategies, and using what is learned to create new policies for the county. “We want to identify opportunities to use our influence to shape strategies and advocate for system change,” says Harrington.

Model projects underway in the county, where ethnic or racial minorities make up eighty percent of the population, include urban farms on plots of land at low-income housing projects—a community suggestion as an additional food source alternative to corner stores—as well as new sidewalks and bike paths.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.