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Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces: Creating Healthy Communities

In Indiana, community leaders make decisions about public spaces such as parks, trails, and schools every day – decisions that affect the health and wellness of communities.

Purdue Extension’s Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces: Creating Healthy Communities program coaches communities through development of high quality action plans for public spaces, guiding decisions and better positioning communities to take advantage of opportunities to promote healthy eating and active living. The curriculum is designed for decision-makers and local leaders who have oversight and management of community public spaces, such as parks boards and plan commissions, public officials and their staff, and members of organizations whose missions relate to services, programs, or management of public spaces.

The program combines data collection and analysis with inclusive public deliberation to design action plans toward meaningful, sustainable improvements of public spaces focused on community health. The goal is to strategically guide policy, systems, and environmental changes to promote healthy communities.

Focusing on Blackford County, a series of online and in-person public participation workshops were conducted to gather residents’ input for the parks and recreation five-year master plan. Three visioning workshops – each two hours long – allowed community members to share assets and opportunities for placemaking, active living, and healthy eating. Podcasts and videos were provided, helping residents understand the conceptual framework. At the first visioning session, participants compiled assets and opportunities, and then voted on themes they felt needed to be the focus of the next two workshops. During the second visioning virtual session, participants focused on placemaking, active living, and healthy eating. In the third session, participants prioritized strategies. At the final session, also two hours, participants completed an action plan for each strategy for placemaking, active living, and healthy eating. In addition, a public survey was conducted to gather input from community residents who could not attend the sessions. Survey results, community data, and the action plan were presented to the community in a 62-page report.

There were 46 virtual participant surveys and 279 public surveys received. Demographics of survey respondents (n=182) were: 94% White, 69% female, and 44% age 25-44. A third (34%) reported they earned less than $50,000 annually, and 25% had attended some college but did not earn a degree. A post-program evaluation was completed by 26 participants (57%). Over 95% found the program informative, felt engaged in activities, and had meaningful discussions. Participants indicated significant takeaways were the concept of community capital, involvement is key, and the realization that there are resources and organizations in the county that can be partners for healthy living. Several mentioned takeaways were working together, communication, and that the program was a catalyst for progress.

Action strategies developed have seen progress since the plan was delivered. To expand and market community events in the parks and create outdoor movie nights downtown, Purdue Extension partnered with Taylor University Social Work Department, Hartford City, Firefly Children and Family Alliance, and Meridian Services to host a community movie night with a mental health awareness theme. More than 70 people attended. Resources, including a newly published community directory, were shared. To develop youth leadership opportunities for parks and public spaces, local students were asked what they would like to see in the community. Twelve high school students identified improvements to a basketball court, and asked for support from Purdue Extension to connect them with local funders. Students raised $1,700 through a Change War competition at school, and a pitch to the plant manager and human resource director at the local 3M factory resulted in an additional $1,600; new goals will be installed. As a result of this effort, a Mayor’s Youth Council will be started to focus on project-based efforts. Purdue Extension’s Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces: Creating Healthy Communities helped communities prepare public spaces action plans to boost economic development, improve the quality of life, and create a healthier place for individuals and families.

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