Students Take on a Community Goal: Help Charlottesville Become America's Healthiest City

February 06, 2008
February 6, 2008 — Charlottesville has a goal: to become America's healthiest city by 2015. To that end, city officials sought the assistance of two urban and environmental planning classes in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture. The students, led by assistant professor Nisha Botchwey, a specialist in community development and neighborhood planning with an emphasis on public health, recently made their recommendations to city officials, based on the work they did in the fall semester researching strategies that could help make the city’s goal a reality.

One of the recommendations made by undergraduates in Botchwey’s class that focused on activities to improve the physical, mental and social health of local residents was a weekly event to raise awareness and promote walking and bike riding. The event would involve closing off West Main Street to vehicular traffic. The students also customized a health impact assessment for Charlottesville — an evaluation of how a building or development contributes to or impedes the health of its residents — and studied low-income residents' access to health facilities, to help officials guide development and promote the incorporation of various strategies and building technologies.

The students noted that these types of changes would be simple to implement, while influencing heavy traffic or reducing air pollution are complicated and in many instances almost impossible to implement. Others, such as the health impact assessment, would require deeper investigation and commitment by leaders for official implementation.
Findings and suggestions from Botchwey's second class, comprised of graduate and undergraduate planning students, included improving signage on trails, addressing perceptions about safety on the trails or providing a crosswalk from one of the neighborhoods to a nearby park.

These students worked with the Thomas Jefferson Health District to assess four trails located near or adjacent to low-income neighborhoods and their potential to increase physical activity in the residents' daily lives, and to outline a social marketing plan to encourage their use.

"The exercises provided opportunity for the students to link theory to local issues, investigate the concerns on the ground, and develop a plan to achieve agreed upon goals," Botchwey said. "They successfully engaged the clients and leaders in the community." 

Armed with studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, among many others, that have concluded that many illnesses can be prevented or improved through regular physical activity, the students acknowledged that it is a personal responsibility, but there is much that can be done on a community level to promote physical activity.

At the outset, fourth-year planning major Nick Bonard said he was surprised that "Charlottesville's current planning regulations did nothing to address the health concerns." He was also delighted with Charlottesville's commitment to creating a healthy city. Bonard said he appreciated the opportunity to go beyond theory and work on a project that would be implemented.
The students met with leaders including Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, working on the policy level, and others working on the implementation level, as well as stakeholders — residents, outdoor activity enthusiasts, emergency personnel, developers and business interests. Several officials and stakeholders attended the students' presentations of their findings.

In a meeting with city officials in the early days of their research, the undergraduate students learned that Charlottesville has a high incidence of cancer, diabetes and asthma. Armed with that information, they identified several factors that may improve physical health and activity related to those diseases — factors that they felt were readily measurable and easy to alter.

The factors they chose to analyze were interior air quality, quality of building and street design, safety, access to recreational and community space, and convenience of public and alternate modes of transportation that would reduce dependence on the automobile.

They used these five factors to create a framework, or matrix, as an evaluation tool for their health impact assessment and tested it out on a planned development site at Ridge Street and McIntire Road. The matrix was conceived of as a flexible evaluation that could be applied to any project, and would help both developers in designing and officials in evaluating each project within the framework of the city's health goals.

Another group of Botchwey's undergraduate students, focusing on Charlottesville's Quality Community Council target areas, evaluated low-income neighborhoods for access to "healthy living facilities" like grocery stores, parks, gyms and recreation centers, as well as hospitals and health clinics. The analysis covered the Meadows, Prospect and Starr Hill neighborhoods.

Using census data, they profiled each neighborhood and identified nearby healthy living facilities, designating those within a quarter-mile as "very accessible." Some of the findings identified barriers to these facilities, such as the narrow streets and lack of a grid system in the Starr Hill neighborhood and the heavily traveled routes 29 and 250 in the Meadows neighborhood that limit or impede access for ambulances.

The group made recommendations to improve access in each neighborhood, including a proposed bus route to run through the Starr Hill neighborhood; clearly marked bike lanes on major routes in the Meadows neighborhood, along with an initiative to provide low-income residents with access to bikes; and in Prospect, improved access to bus service, enhancement of sidewalk networks and traffic calming on the areas' narrow streets.

"What surprised me most about the findings was that the residents who depend most on public transportation and viable infrastructure for safe walking and bicycling, those in lower-income neighborhoods generally, live in communities designed for heavy dependence on the automobile," said Katie Willis, a fourth-year urban and environmental planning major.

To promote citywide health goals, the students proposed "The Main Event," a plan to close off West Main Street to traffic on Sundays to promote pedestrian awareness and provide an opportunity to not only improve mental and physical health, but to encourage social connectivity. The team researched and presented examples of similar successful efforts in cities in the United States, including Chicago and San Francisco, as well as in other countries.

Asked by one of the audience members at the presentation to city leaders how their "Main Event" proposal differs from what the Downtown Mall already offers, the students explained that they envisioned the event as an extension of the activities offered on the mall, with added enhancements, like the opportunity to encourage bike riding and the use of other recreational items banned from the mall.

City planning staff member Ebony Walden suggested the plan needed a focus, an added attraction, in addition to the businesses and restaurants in the area to attract people to the event. She recommended an event at the train station, or a Sunday Market on the street.

Mayor Norris, who originated the City Council's "healthy city" proposal, commended the students' research and suggestions. "One of the many blessings of having the University here in our community is the fountain of ideas," he said.

While undergraduate students tackled their research, those in the graduate-level course worked with members of the Charlottesville Local Motion Campaign, who acted as the project client, and the Thomas Jefferson Health District, the Charlottesville and Albemarle Departments of Parks and Recreation and City Council to assess trails near low-income residential areas and develop a social marketing analysis to highlight ways that community members could be encouraged to be more active in their everyday lives.

Teams looked at two model recreation areas — the Saunders-Monticello Trail along Route 53 in Albemarle County, a popular public space with a regional draw of users, and Greenleaf Park and Trail in Charlottesville, a community-oriented public space — to help them develop questionnaires to use in their research into the relationship between trails and members of the neighboring low-income communities in four case-study areas. Each team interviewed current and potential users of the trails about factors related to their use and what improvements would encourage future use.

The teams focused on residents' access to parks, their knowledge of the parks and trails and what they have to offer, and their safety concerns.

The City Parks and Recreation Department shared information about trails in the city and challenges they face in implementing new trails, said graduate planning student Amanda Moore.

To address the social marketing component — promoting healthy behavior for social good — the researchers advocated creating a campaign to promote better accessibility to the trails and parks for the community members. Some suggestions included increasing and improving signage, offering information in multiple languages and improving and better maintaining trails. Destination points within each park — ballfields, benches and access to the Rivanna River, in the case of Riverview Park — were also cited as way to draw people to the trails. Publishing promotional materials, creating walking clubs and partnering with outdoor activist organization programs were also identified as ways to motivate physical activity. It was suggested that safety issues, real or perceived, could be addressed by debunking myths and by promoting solutions to barriers perceived by users, such as instituting a leash requirement for owners who bring their dogs to the park.

"As planners, we can provide recreational and utilitarian options for physical activity through community planning," Moore said. "I know that, from the work that my group did with the Park's Edge Community, [city officials] are planning to do a traffic study on Whitehead Road for the possibility of placing a crosswalk in that location for resident access to Charlotte Humphris Park."

Whether learning about process, solutions or challenges in implementing community change, it was a test run for what a planner deals with in the public realm. Willis, who is evaluating the pros and cons of the public vs. private sectors of planning to decide her own future course, said, "I love this major. I love the idea. I am trying to figure out where I can have the most impact in my community."