New Hampshire Municipal Association
New Hampshire Municipal Association

New Hampshire Town And City

Building Healthy Communities: How a Community Health Initiative Launched a Regional Active Transportation Movement

New Hampshire Town and City, March/April, 2017

By Liz Kelly

“We hear the same thing over and over again when we talk to people about their communities,” says J.B. Mack, Principal Planner at Southwest Region Planning Commission (SWRPC), one of New Hampshire’s nine regional planning commission that assists municipalities with community planning and development issues. “They say ‘I want to get out and walk and bike more, but where I live, walking and biking is not safe or convenient. There are limited sidewalks, bicycle trails, or safe walking paths near my home or office.’ Unfortunately, we as a society have designed physical activity out of so many of our communities, we have inadvertently created a public health issue.”  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lack of exercise is a major risk factor in children and adults and contributes to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Though New Hampshire ranks as the 35th lowest in the nation for adults who are obese, nearly 2 out of 3 adults, 1 out of 4 high school students, and 1 out of 3 third graders in New Hampshire are overweight or obese.

Research has shown that the conditions in which we live, work, and play have a significant impact on our health. Walkable and bikeable communities encourage daily physical activity, and is one of the most effective and equitable ways to support healthy habits for all ages and abilities. According to Smart Growth America, residents in walkable neighborhoods are 65% more likely to walk and less likely to be overweight or obese.

Historically, there have been many obstacles to walking and bicycling that communities face, including lack of sidewalk, crosswalk, and bike path infrastructure, lack of connected pedestrian and bicycle routes, and actual and perceived dangers of walking and bicycling. However, this is changing. Communities throughout New Hampshire are recognizing the link between pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets and public health and are making decisions to improve walking and biking conditions.

Building Community Partnerships to Promote Active Transportation

In 2015, SWRPC entered a partnership with Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth Hitchcock Keene and Healthy Monadnock to participate in a program of the CDC called “Partnerships to Improve Community Health,” or PICH. PICH is a 3-year initiative that funds a multi-sector coalition in Cheshire County that’s working to address the leading risk factors for the causes of death and disability in the United States: lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, and tobacco.

SWRPC’s role in the initiative is to improve physical activity in Cheshire County by increasing the number of people who have improved access to physical activity opportunities. In order to accomplish this goal, SWRPC is providing technical assistance to municipalities to develop “Complete Streets” policies, assisting schools in developing Safe Routes to School programs, and working with the private sector to install bicycle racks at important community destinations. Since PICH has started, SWRPC has worked with four communities and ten schools to promote active transportation in Cheshire County. Approximately 450 new bicycle parking spaces were created near businesses, parks, trails, and community institutions. This robust, multi-faceted approach engages diverse stakeholders to not only make streets safer and more accessible for all users, but to encourage the entire community to support and encourage healthy and active lifestyles.

Complete Streets: Auto-Oriented to User-Oriented

Central to SWRPC’s work has been its Complete Streets technical assistance. Complete Streets is a context-sensitive approach to transportation planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance. It takes into consideration the needs of all users, regardless of age and ability, to provide safe, affordable, and accessible transportation for everyone. Complete Streets promote regular walking and bicycling, increase foot and bicycle traffic for local businesses, improve public safety, and accommodate all transportation users including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transit users. Though once on the fringe of transportation planning, Complete Streets are now being embraced by state agencies, municipalities, and public health and safety advocates throughout the country.

In 2015 and 2016, SWRPC partnered with four communities (Keene, Swanzey, Troy, and Hinsdale) to assist them in developing a customized Complete Streets Policy for each town. A policy formalizes a community’s intent to routinely plan, design, and maintain streets to enable safe access for all users of the road.

Complete Street Demonstrations

Without examples of Complete Streets in a town, it can be difficult to communicate with elected officials or the public about the benefits of improving safety and accessibility with better street design. To address this issue, SWRPC used PICH funding to work with each town to coordinate a Complete Streets demonstration. During a demonstration, a roadway is temporarily converted into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages and abilities. While many transportation projects have multi-year timelines, a demonstration can be planned, designed and implemented over the course of several weeks. Temporary biking and walking infrastructure can generate public interest and build community support for permanent street changes. 

In Keene, Swanzey, and Hinsdale, events were organized around the demonstration itself and featured protected bike lanes, pedestrian crosswalks, narrower travel lanes, parklets (parking spaces transformed into temporary pocket parks), and curb extensions. In Hinsdale, two parklets were positioned across the street from each other to create a “pinch point” to help slow traffic.

The demonstration events also included live music, bike safety demonstrations, and public art. A simpler demonstration was set up in Troy where SWRPC installed a temporary bike lane and two crosswalks for part of a weekend and allowed residents to try them at their leisure. Comment boxes were set up to collect public feedback.

Building Momentum

SWRPC is currently part-way through its final year of the PICH initiative and is working with four more communities (Jaffrey, Harrisville, Walpole, and Winchester) in Cheshire County. At the conclusion of PICH, SWRPC hopes to build upon the momentum it has achieved in the Monadnock region. Potential next steps include assisting other municipalities in adopting Complete Streets policies, helping communities set up municipal transportation improvement funds, assisting towns in applying for bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvement grants, helping municipalities measure their progress and communicate with the public regarding their Complete Streets implementation activities, and providing technical assistance in developing additional Complete Streets demonstrations.

Liz Kelly is a Planning Technician for the Southwest Region Planning Commission. Liz may be contacted by email at lkelly@swrpc.org or by calling her at 603.357.0557.

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