Nebraska Walkable Communities Initiative Steering Committee Got It Right From the First Step

Guest Blogger Manuella Hancock (www.mwhcopy.com)

In 2014, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services set out to make increasing physical activity a statewide initiative, with a focus on helping communities prioritize walking, biking, and overall health. With the help of a CDC grant, the Nebraska Walkable Communities Initiative (WalkNE) built on existing in-state expertise to create or enhance existing walking and biking projects in local communities across the state. WalkNE, led by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, partnered with S & G Endeavors (S&G) to launch a steering committee. Four years later, WalkNE has doubled its partnerships with local communities and helped DHHS fulfill its goal to make walkability a state-wide health priority.

Getting the right people to start the journey

The Steering Committee moved towards success from its very first steps. S&G, together with Brian Coyle, the DHHS Physical Activity Coordinator, designed a committee to engage key stakeholders from the bottom-up. Coyle and Jeremy Grandstaff of S&G brainstormed a list of potential Steering Committee members and invited them to participate in a launch meeting. Invited guests included representatives from some initial key partner organizations as well as six local health departments, across the state, who were each simultaneously identifying a local community to target with the initiative.

While walkability, and increased safe access to walking, was the essential theme, the targeted communities themselves were incredibly diverse. They ranged from urban centers to rural, varying in size, demographics and multiple other factors that would make a cookie cutter approach impossible. As an additional challenge, some of the targeted communities had implemented programs to increase walking, biking, and even transit, so the steering committee would need to successfully engage with communities in vastly different phases of their work.

“We knew we would not be effective if we didn’t have the voices of the target communities at the table and, moreover, meaningfully engaged in creating our overall initiative strategy,” said Coyle. “Otherwise, the Steering Committee interactions with local communities would no doubt have met resistance to the cultural change we were trying to create in our state, which would reduce its effectiveness.” Making sure the constituent voices, as well as the wisdom that each brings to such an initiative were heard, became a hallmark of the Steering Committee’s efforts.

The initial guiding team wanted to tap into expertise that existed outside of the DHHS sphere. According to Coyle, “increasing walking is about more than health. We wanted those voices to meaningfully contribute to the success of the Initiative.” In addition to the local health departments and communities,  the launch meeting invited representatives from the Nebraska Safe Kids Initiative, local hospitals, Nebraska Bicycling Alliance (“NeBA”), Omaha and Lincoln City Planning Departments, and an expert in real estate development who could speak to the impact of increased walkability on the real estate values in a community.

In deciding who else to invite to the meeting, Coyle and Grandstaff had several priorities. “We wanted to make sure that we had Nebraska-based expertise,” recalls Coyle. In-state resources would be more appealing to local communities – reducing the “us versus them” problem. Also, in-state resources were likely to have established relationships in local communities that would add value to the expertise and technical assistance they brought to the table.

“Trust the people; trust the process.”

Among the very first questions put to the participants: “What do we need to accomplish with this initiative to make it worth your time to contribute and lead?” Grandstaff recalls, “We knew from experience that participants who own the process and the project will bring about success. So, we went into the first meeting with a very high level mandate, and turned it over to the participants. We told them, ‘This is our best thinking, but help us take it to the next level and make it yours.’”

“We challenged the invited participants, and the results were so much more than we could have hoped for,” says Coyle. “Engaging in a collaborative driven process has allowed the Steering Committee members to own it and bring some truly innovative ideas to the process.” For example, the initial members challenged themselves to add to the diversity of the committee and suggest additional members. As a result, input has been obtained from other unexpected and useful stakeholders like the AARP Nebraska, the Nebraska Department of Tourism, the Nebraska Department of Transportation,  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, who all now serve as members on the committee.

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In addition to bringing in new members, the launch meeting of the Steering Committee took advantage of the 

collaborative planning dialog to create measurable and specific action plans for WalkNE and the committee itself, a key to the success of the S&G process. “One of the hardest things to do with multiple stakeholders is get the dialog to turn into planning for action unless it is a specific commitment in the process,” says Grandstaff. “From the outset, we wanted to empower the Steering Committee to collaborate and create both its own vision, and accompanying action plans, at its first and subsequent meetings.”

WalkNE is moving forward successfully

The Steering Committee has been an overall success. “We really benefited from having the Steering Committee support as we launched our local initiative,” said Amy Roberts, the previous Health Educator for the Central District Health Department. The community of Grand Island, Nebraska had no walkability initiatives in place at the time that WalkNE began. With the support of the Steering Committee, Grand Island planned and hosted a local summit to engage the community in the initiative.

WalkNE was instrumental in Grand Island bringing in policies and new master plans that prioritize biking and walking in decision-making. Grand Island will also pass a Complete Streets policy in the near future that supports this new prioritization of walking and biking. The Complete Streets approach to urban planning integrates cars, pedestrians and bicyclists to make the streets safer and usable by all. It is a nation-wide movement. Having Nebraska voices advocate for Complete Streets, or increased safety and access for walking and biking in general, proved better than having a national organization come in to try to achieve the same results.

Grand Island has replicated the Steering Committee collaborative-driven process by inviting other stakeholders to participate. The Grand Island advocates, supported by leadership from the local Health Department and other partners, actively engages with the new Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), city planning, public works and parks and recreation departments. These are new partnerships that Houser expects will be useful in other projects going forward as well.

The Steering Committee has been an important place for the local community representatives, from Grand Island and the other 12 communities, to meet and share stories about the successes and challenges in their respective communities. “Hearing about best practices in other communities and talking about ways to replicate that in our community has been invaluable,” says Roberts. The Steering Committee meets 3 to 4 times a year, and local community progress and impediments has been an integral part of every agenda.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has made walkable communities a part of both its strategic and business plans. With walkability as an agency priority, the WalkNE Steering Committee has been a substantive report-back on implementation. The structure of the Steering Committee has been able to increase walkability in Nebraska in a way that boasts a successful intra-governmental cooperative effort, accomplishing both the health priority and the goal of efficient government.

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Since the  launch of the community-driven engagement process in 2015, participation has gone from 6 to 13 communities by expanding within the participating health departments and adding a new local health department to the membership. “Without the Steering Committee support, we could never have expanded our efforts using just local resources,” says Jennifer Hanson of Public Health Solutions  who has worked with Hebron, Fairbury, and Beatrice over the past 3 years under the WalkNE agenda.

Partnering walkability with cycling has proven particularly fruitful. “Having NeBA involved on the Steering Committee from the outset really opened up some great conversations in our communities,” says Coyle. In 2017, NeBA and WalkNE collaborated on a bike-walk summit attended by a large, enthusiastic group of interested Nebraskans.

As the Steering Committee reaches its final year of its grant funding, the journey is far from over. “We have so much progress to build on,” says Grandstaff. The Steering Committee is seeking additional funding and looking for ways to continue the transfer of its expertise and perspectives to local initiatives. By careful planning with concrete stakeholder input, the Steering Committee has been able to successfully improve walkability in Nebraska.

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