I am extremely lucky to get to work with communities in Kansas to use policy to improve the health of rural residents. For the past three years, the Kansas Health Foundation has provided grants to support communities working on active transportation and healthy, affordable food access local-level policies. As a staff attorney at the Public Health Law Center, I get to help support this work by sorting through the legal and policy landscape. But the coalitions are doing the hard, adaptive work to change the hearts and minds of their local policy-makers. This work has been full of experiments of what works and what doesn’t. I am continually impressed the dedication to the hard, messy, and sometimes frustrating work to improve access to biking and walking for all residents living in rural areas, and wanted to share just one of many stories that has inspired me.
Natasha Frost, J.D.
Public Health Law Center
President, National Physical Activity Society, 2015-2016
In Their Own Words: Health & Wellness Coalition of Dickinson County’s Story
Abilene is the largest town in Dickinson County (Kansas) with around 6,700 people. We are definitely considered a rural community with a lot of rich history that attracts thousands of tourists each year. Abilene was home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and houses the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Abilene is also famous for being the end of the Chisholm Trail and known for being a rough and rowdy cowtown. During the summer months, visitors can witness entertainment from shoot-outs to the can-can girls dancing in Old Abilene Town. Abilene is also home to the National Greyhound Museum and Foundation.
With this being said, the Health & Wellness Coalition has been very persistent in focusing their efforts on improving Abilene’s sidewalks and trails not only to encourage new visitors but for the current community members to have the ability to walk and bike safely. The vision is to build a community designed to encourage walking and biking as daily transportation for work, school and recreation. One area of focus is to not only educate the public but also to educate city officials on the benefits of active transportation. This has not been a speedy project, as it has been in the works since 2008. However, major advancements and great strides have been made in the past few years.
The Health & Wellness Coalition built support for their cause while also fostering relationships with interested community and business leaders. Timing also played a role in moving things forward. In May 2015, three new City Commissioners were sworn in. The coalition took this opportunity to present information on the economic, health and safety benefits of a community focused on active transportation. The commissioners perceived the presentation well as they agreed to set aside over $45,000 collected from franchise fees for sidewalk replacement and trails in the 2017 Budget. The City of Abilene also agreed to update and enforce the wording in the Comprehensive Plan to reflect stricter language on sidewalks and trails.
The Health & Wellness Coalition continued to educate the public. They conducted over 250 Active Transportation surveys at community events and through an online link to learn the community’s perception of mobility through active transportation. A Walk Audit was conducted with over 20 city officials and community members walking four different sections of Abilene. The Abilene Parks and Recreation Department wrote a grant and received funding from the Community Foundation of Dickinson County to help fund the first phase of the COWBOY TRAIL which will allow for safer mobility such as walking and biking to major destinations around town.
Through the coalition’s persistence, relationship building, community support and timing, they were able to capture some “wins.” These efforts were aided by technical assistance and funding from the Kansas Health Foundation. Rural communities like Abilene can incorporate access to the same amenities as in larger cities, it just takes work and TIME!
Quality of Life Coalition, Inc.
Vicki Gieber, Executive Director
Michelle Stephens, Community Project Coordinator
Ed. Note: The National Physical Activity Society is working on a second edition of Stories from Small Towns. If you know of a town of 25,000 or fewer people that has made changes to promote walkability, drop us a line with contact information.