New wayfinding signs in two northwestern lower Michigan communities are encouraging public housing residents to get out and walk routes in their neighborhoods, as part of a greater effort to promote physical activity and healthier lifestyles. In September, temporary lawn signs marking the designated routes were placed outside Lawndale Apartments in Ludington and the Baldwin Housing Commission in Baldwin.
“We wanted to know if the signs and the routes are having an impact on people’s lives,” says Erin Barrett, a public health planner with District Health Department #10 (DHD#10), which serves 10 counties in northwestern lower Michigan. “We wanted to find out if they got out and used the trail system.”
Community changes that encourage walking are the result of a SNAP-Ed grant from Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) to DHD#10. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for SNAP-Ed. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers competitive grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.
Through their SNAP-Ed program, DHD#10 is working to support active communities by using MFF’s Promoting Active Communities (PAC) online tools, which helps communities assess how their policies, programs, and infrastructure are supporting or hindering active living. It also equips them with feedback, best practices, and action planning tools to make changes that support active living.
The work focuses on improving health for residents living in public housing in Lake and Mason counties that serve low-income residents and senior citizens. One of DHD#10’s SNAP-Ed program goals was to develop and initiate a policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change project to expand access to physical activity and reduce sedentary behavior among residents.
Lake and Mason county residents experience many barriers to physical activity. Many residents lack transportation to get to parks or outdoor recreation areas that offer walking, hiking, and other outdoor activities. Public infrastructure, such as pedestrian crossings and sidewalks, is often lacking, hindering the ability for people to walk safely.
DHD#10 and a team of community partners used the PAC online tools and walking audits to pinpoint areas of strength and places for improvement. Monica Schuyler, executive director of the Pennies From Heaven Foundation, one of the Mason County community groups helping in the effort, conducted a walking audit of the Ludington neighborhood.
“Ludington is a pretty safe, small town. But when you really look, I was surprised by the number of barriers. Disconnected sidewalks were much more common than I would have thought,” Schuyler says. “The other key barrier was the distance to places where people wanted to go. Many places were a little farther than most would like to walk or had an unsafe route crossing a very busy intersection not meant for pedestrians.”
While Ludington boasts a downtown walking route for tourists, the Lake Michigan city lacks similar pathways for its residents. Lawndale Apartment residents have to contend with crossing a busy five-lane road to access some services on the other side.
Based on results of the PAC online tools, the community teams planned to take action and provide wayfinding signage with cues for ways to be more physically active in the communities. Permanent signage and other infrastructure improvements are costly, so DHD#10 is focusing on the temporary wayfinding and route markers “to nudge people to move more in their own neighborhoods,” Barrett says.
Erin Barrett holds a walking trail sign in Ludington.
“We are a rural community. We don’t need a pedestrian light at every street corner, but we do have an opportunity for improvement,” she says.
In Baldwin, a village of about 1,200 people in Lake County, the Baldwin Housing Commission serves both low-income residents and seniors. DHD#10 created signage for a 20-minute walking loop that extends around the complex. This past fall, the lawn signs were posted at the benches that were already along the route.
“We really wanted to get residents of the housing commission to use those paths,” says Katie Haner, a public health educator with DHD#10 who focused on the Baldwin project. “We wanted to promote physical activity that was close to home. The housing director was really excited to see these signs go up. She had been looking for more ways to get residents outside and not be inside all of the time.”
Haner sees the lawn signs as merely a drop in the bucket in terms of promoting a more active lifestyle. The PAC assessment, she says, opened the eyes of DHD#10 staff and their partners about barriers to physical activities in the community.
“There are many factors that go into people leading active lives,” she says. “It was a quick win that we could do the walking signs during COVID season. We can’t really gather like we used to. There are things right in our backyard or in our neighborhood that we can do. We can have a COVID-friendly strategy.”
There's plenty more to be done, Barrett says. DHD#10 and its community partners want to look beyond the goals of their SNAP-Ed program and see what else can be done in their communities to promote physical activity. DHD#10 has also received MFF funding to continue their work in 2021, with a focus on neighborhoods in Big Rapids, Ludington, and Manistee. By using MFF’s PAC online tools and applying those learnings, they have gained a deeper understanding of the barriers to active living in their communities and now have best-practice solutions to overcome those barriers, setting the stage for broader collaborative efforts in the future.
“Lots of recommendations came out of the PAC online tools but some are much larger and not as simple,” Barrett says. “Some involve multi-million-dollar sidewalk installations, crosswalks and things like that. It’s definitely on our radar now and we’re seeing the power of collaboration. You can really see how it fits in the bigger picture of supporting community health. No one agency can address them all.”
They’ve taken the signs down for the winter and it’s too early to determine just how effective they were, but Schuyler is optimistic.
“One thing I love about our community is that when the weather is nice, people are outdoors. It has been particularly nice in the time of COVID to have safe outdoor spaces to go,” she says. “I can’t say for sure the signs have increased traffic, but I do know they have helped make the area more walking-friendly.”