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Small Towns, Healthy Places

Healthy communities require safe streets and sidewalks; inclusive gathering places and green spaces for everyone to enjoy; and easy access to medical services and fresh food. If you live in a rural town in America, these things can be hard to come by. Join Suzanne Kelley and Richard Amore in Small Towns, Healthy Places, the podcast that explores the intersection between health equity and community design in the State of Vermont. They’ll interview state partners, local leaders, and community members about creating vibrant places that support health and wellness. If you’re passionate about public health, improving the built environment, and placemaking, this podcast is for you.

Episode 6

Reducing Isolation and Building Social Connection in Small Towns

In the spring of 2022, the US Surgeon General released an advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. Social isolation is an issue nationally and people living in small and rural towns are certainly not immune. Rural places connected only by highways and dirt roads make it harder to get around if you don’t drive, and cold winters make it more difficult to enjoy outdoor activities and gathering places. Racism and socio-economic barriers can also make people feel isolated in the communities where they live.

To make small towns into healthier places, we need to reduce isolation and improve feelings of social connectedness.

We’ll hear from Arwen Turner, Executive Director of Come Alive Outside, Sung-Hee Chung, activist and founder of Powered Magazine, and Kelly Stoddard Poor, Director of Outreach at AARP. Each of our guests today brings a different approach to enriching our social fabric and social connectedness. A sense of belonging can improve people’s lives by almost every measure, from physical health to mental well-being.

Episode 5

Food Access & Community Gardens

Having access to nutritious food is a key ingredient in health equity. But it can also be a key ingredient in building healthy communities where Vermonters feel connected to one another and their neighborhood. Food can bring people together to share their culture, their heritage, and give them a sense of belonging.

Today we are focusing on gardening and produce. We are highlighting organizations and people that are helping to remove barriers to getting local fruits and veggies. Along the way, we’ll discuss the added social benefits of gardening together and sharing food.

We’ll hear from Michelle Gates, the Executive Director of the Vermont Garden Network, and Nour El-Naboulsi, the Co-Director of The People’s Farmstand. We’ll also chat with Cindy Delano and Jethro Hayman, leaders in their respective community gardens.

Episode 4

Vermont Strong: Stories of Resilience from the Floods of 2023

On July 10th and 11th, 2023, Vermont experienced historic rainfall and devastating floods. Maybe you heard about this weather event on the news – or maybe you lived through it.
But you may not know how Vermont’s communities came together during the storms, and over the days that followed. Today, we’re focusing on stories of resilience.

We’ll hear from the Mayor of Barre City, Jake Hemmerick, and the Executive Director of Montpelier’s library, Dan Groberg. We’ll also chat with the Executive Director of Friends of the Winooski River, Michele Braun, and Co-Director of The People’s Farmstand, Nour El-Naboulsi.

News Clip – ABC’s David Muir: We do begin tonight with the catastrophic flooding in the northeast Vermont under a state of emergency tonight, some of the worst flooding in nearly a hundred years, the capital of Vermont tonight underwater shut down most of the day authorities fearing a nearby dam may not hold. Vermont Governor Phil Scott tonight calling the devastation “historic” and catastrophic. Eight inches of rain in just hours.

Suzanne Kelley: On July 10th and 11th, 2023, Vermont experienced historic rainfall and devastating floods. Maybe you heard about this weather event on the news or maybe you lived through it, but you may not know how Vermont’s communities came together during the storms and over the days that followed.

Jake Hemmerick: They were getting water to people, they were getting meals to people, they were running dehumidifiers around the city, and it’s something that took a lot of pressure off our formal emergency managers and responders.

Suzanne Kelley: Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places. I’m Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore: And I’m Richard Amore. Before we hear from today’s guest, I want to take a moment and acknowledge that this event has been incredibly hard for many of us in Vermont. I personally live in Montpelier, which was devastated by the storm, and I saw the impact of the flooding firsthand.

Suzanne Kelley: People have lost their lives, their businesses and their homes, communities have been disrupted. But that said, today we’re going to focus on stories of resilience and optimism By examining how our towns were able to respond to the flooding, we can better prepare for future disasters.

Richard Amore: First, we talked with Jake Hemmerick, the mayor of Barre City in central Vermont. Barre was hit hard by the flooding.

Jake Hemmerick: I’m Jake Hemmerick. I live in Barre City. My pronouns are he/him. I’m the mayor of Barre City, and my day job is a community planning and policy manager for the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development. So, Barre’s a pretty dynamic community in Washington County. It’s the most populous municipality in Washington County, and that’s central Vermont where a city built around the granite industry, there’s a really unique vein of granite that runs about 10 miles deep, and we’re working-class town. We have about 8,500 people. And we have some of the oldest housing stock in Vermont.

It really began on the Friday before the flood because we had a huge thunderstorm that day and I noticed that my basement was taking on water, and like a lot of homes in Barre, I’ve stacked granite foundation, and so there’s a lot of cracks. It’s a 120-year-old home. I talked about we have an old housing stock in Barre. And I was scooping out water that Friday before. So we saw the forecast over the weekend and my partner, Lisa, she had a house that flooded when she was a kid and she said, “We’re getting everything out of the basement.” So we got everything up, and then I also went down to Bob Nelson’s Ace Hardware in downtown Barre City, and I bought a pump and that pump and us moving our stuff out of the basement, that’s really what saved our water heater and our boiler because we had four steady days of pumping in my house.

So by the time the flood hit on Monday, we were as ready as we could be, and we saw the waters come into Barre much, much faster than we were expecting. The city had set up a response and we were really monitoring things in real-time, but again, I think everybody was just surprised by how quickly that water came up and started to inundate downtown. And later the next day, I surveyed the damage and was still watching Floodwaters Retreat and talk to impacted homeowners that had been up all night doing what I was doing, trying to keep their cellars dry or try to salvage their keepsakes, people who had to be evacuated by boat from North Barre.
I talked with a homeowner there on Second Street that was rescued with their animals, and thank God we had the Red Cross shelter set up with animal support there because many people were taking shelter. We were set up for about 450 people there, but we were, I think at the maximum around 200 people that were taking shelter up on Auditorium Hill in Barre City. You could feel the anxiety, people were shaken up, running thin, but also really wanted to connect. So whenever I would stop, people were really wanting to share their story and their experience of the flood and what they’ve been through.

I gave a lot of hugs. I think people needed a lot of hugs. And the community was just coming together in pretty remarkable ways.

Suzanne Kelley: Just up the road to the northwest of Barre, Montpelier experienced record flooding as well. Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged. In downtown, the water was nearly waist high for over 24 hours.

Richard Amore: In the center of downtown is the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, a community space that has been a part of the state’s capitol for more than a hundred years. We chatted with the executive director of the library, Dan Groberg.

Dan Groberg: So the library is really a third place here in Montpelier. It’s the community living room. It’s a hub for community. We serve six towns. We serve Montpelier and five surrounding towns here in central Vermont. And in spite of being a relatively small population, we have the second-highest circulation of any library in Vermont and the first in-program attendance in the state 330,000 annual circulation. We have everyone from middle-schoolers who come after school and sort of take over the place to toddlers with their parents, playing with the crane table and reading books in the children’s library to people who come in to use the computers for their job applications.

We serve as a cooling center here in the summer. People who are unhoused use us. So we’re really a sort of a vital community institution, and we’ve been here since 1890-something, so it’s been a long time here in Montpelier. So I’ll start on Monday, which was the 10th. We saw the warnings about flooding, but I don’t think anyone realized what the impact was going to be. I don’t think anyone appreciated how bad it was going to be. Starting relatively early that morning on Monday, we started thinking about what we needed to do as a library. We did turn to some flood procedures that we have as part of our emergency procedures manual, and we’ve since learned that they certainly could use some updating, but we started taking steps to close the building early and to follow those procedures. But at the time, it was barely drizzling, and we felt like the steps we were taking were unnecessary. We moved some books in the basement up a couple shelves, which we later learned was wildly insufficient, and we did shut off power to the building, which was in the flood protocols.

But then at three o’clock on that Monday, the staff left the library shut down at two, and we went home. Finally, sort of mid-afternoon on Tuesday, I got a call from our facility’s coordinator here, and I rushed down here as fast as we could, and at first, I couldn’t figure out how to get into the building, certainly without wading into water. We came in and I think my first thought was relief because we saw that the first floor was dry. That’s where our main collections are, and really the beautiful historic part of the building. But we could immediately see just looking down the front stairwell that the water was up two-thirds of the stairs basically, and we could sort of peak down and see books floating in the water.

You don’t think about the force of the water when there’s a flood. You sort of picture that it’s just slowly rising and that it’s almost gentle, and then it just slowly goes away again. But in fact, it’s powerful and things were knocked over and it had just sort of left a disaster in its wake. There was a children’s book that was still making noise. It must have been a book where you open it and it makes some sort of noise, and every few minutes you could hear it making this noise. And it was like something out of a horror movie. It was kind of sickening. It was really hard to see, and we’re all book lovers, and even though it wasn’t our main collection, knowing that we were going to lose all those books was hard. And now seeing the pile of them out on the side lawn is a challenging sight, and I know a lot of people have contacted us and told us how they felt really touched by seeing that.

Richard Amore: Despite the haunting site of books floating in the water, Dan and the library staff were able to adapt to the situation quickly. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library had some emergency procedures in place for resuming service to the community.

Dan Groberg: So in a way, we’re grateful that we had a practice run in the form of the pandemic because we had created systems for people not being allowed into our space. So immediately, we were thinking, how can we bring services back and we’re able to get some internet up and running and power to two computers for our circulation computers, and our phones are still not working, but we have internet again in the building. And so we were able to set up curbside service, which essentially means that people can either go log into their Patreon account on our website or send us an email and request a book or even request “I have a five-year-old who loves books about unicorns,” and we’ll have librarians pull a collection of books that they think the kids would like. And in a lot of cases, our librarians know the kids and know what books kind of books they like, and we’ll put them outside under a tent with your name on it, and you can come pick it up.

Suzanne Kelley: It’s amazing how quickly the library was able to start serving the community again even though the building remains closed.

Richard Amore: Meanwhile, in Barre, a community-driven organization called the Rainbow Bridge Community Center began helping folks in need of support.

Jake Hemmerick: So the Rainbow Center is a community center for the LGTPQA community in central Vermont. They’re a community space for people to connect for events, for resources. They stepped up in an incredible way as almost like a sleeper community development organization. They said, “We’re going to be a center for mutual aid.” And so they filled their front space with donations, diapers, food, cleaning materials, anything anybody could need. They were putting up a list of these are what the needs are today. People were bringing those needs in, and they were just going all over the community, helping people. They had in front of their building. And this is a building that didn’t have electricity at the time. They were just running with it. They had tents out front. So anybody that was just walking around downtown looking for support, they were doing intake of requests. And that was I think, critically important to people downtown who …

We still have downtown buildings that I know do not have power. People have been without power for more than two weeks. And so they’re making sure that those communities, those buildings, those residents are getting what they need on a daily basis. And it’s all inspiring.

Suzanne Kelley: The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier and the Rainbow Bridge Community Center in Barre show how existing community spaces can pivot and provide disaster relief. These places demonstrate social resilience on a local level.

Richard Amore: Resilience can also be found in our community’s built environment. By designing spaces that can handle extreme weather conditions, towns can prepare for the challenges of our changing climate.

Suzanne Kelley: Take the town of Northfield. In the Water Street neighborhood, many homes were built in a floodplain along the Dog River. In 2011, severe flooding from tropical storm, Irene destroyed these homes under mostly federal funds. The town bought back these properties and restored the floodplain. With future flood mitigation in mind, they turned the area into a community park, and it worked. During this recent flood, the property damage in Northfield was greatly reduced.

Richard Amore: Here’s Michelle Braun, a planner who led the floodplain restoration efforts in Northfield.

Michelle Braun: My name is Michelle Braun. I live in Montpelier, Vermont. I use she/her pronouns, and I’m the Executive Director of Friends of the Winooski River. In the town of Northfield, we used community development block grant funding to design a park so that it’s a public recreation area and also an active floodplain so that it could slow down and reduce flooding in the adjacent neighborhood. So I visited that site with one of the engineers who designed it on July 12th, two days after the flood, and it looked great. It had sediment deposited, which is fantastic because when rivers are allowed to spread out into their floodplain, they’ll slow down and they’ll drop sediment.

And after the river recedes, that looks like a mess to people because it looks muddy and yucky. But it’s actually awesome because all that sentiment that dropped out in the field is not coming to Montpelier, where we don’t need any more sediment, and water-carrying sediment and moving fast can scour out, stream banks can damage infrastructure, so it’s great to allow the stream to spread out.

Also, the trees and shrubs planted in there, caught lots of debris, which just sticks and leaves, but that also makes a difference in not clogging infrastructure. And the engineers who designed the project calculated that the flood elevation in that area was six inches lower than it would have been if we hadn’t done the project. And I know that we have an aerial photo of the neighborhood completely inundated, and the homes on the other side of Water Street had some basement flooding, but if the water had been six inches higher, they may have had water in their first floor. So it feels like that that project functioned well and made a difference.

Richard Amore: Building stronger climate resilience in our small towns is going to take even more innovation and collaboration, and it’s going to take ideas and help from everyone.

Suzanne Kelley: One great idea for resilience to extreme weather comes from an agricultural researcher and community leader named Nour El Nabulsi. Nour has ideas for keeping food plentiful even when climate change threatens ideal growing conditions.

Nour Noah El Nabulsi: My name is Nour El Nabulsi. I live in the old north end of Burlington, and I use he/him pronouns. I’m co-director of the People’s Farmstand, a weekly free produce distribution gained from local produce that we grow and collect from local farmers. I’m also a rotational grazing researcher for beef and dairy farms throughout the state. In the past 12 years now, we’ve had two floods that people said this would only happen once every a hundred years. I think farmers are kind of like, okay, if this flood happens every five years, we can justify it. If it happens every seven years, we can justify it. If it happens every year with climate change every other year, it becomes harder to justify potentially losing your whole crop. I think Vermonters are very protective of their soils and of nature, and that’s who we are. We need to allow for other forms of agriculture such as hydroponics, such as indoor growing.

And I’ll quickly plug my new 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Village Hydroponics that is going to be basically a hydroponic vegetable farm inside of a shipping container that will be producing a lot of vegetables, will hopefully keep the People’s Farmstand going year round. The original idea for it was because we have such a short growing season and the winter is so cold and dark that we can’t grow produce for most of the year, and a lot of the free food, free produce access programs get cut off and those people that kind of rely on those programs get cut off. So it was originally for the winter, but since this flood just in the past few days, I was like, man, what if each soil farm, and this is maybe decades from now, but each soil farm or if Barre, the city of Barre, the city of Montpelier, had a couple community shipping containers and then abandoned paved parking lot.

Hydroponics has kind of been a hot topic in Vermont. Understandably, farmers don’t want hydroponic farmers taking farmable land. It does use a lot of electricity and energy generation, but I think that used strategically, like when the sun is shining, its brightest and we can do soil farming, amazing, let’s do that, but let’s have certain contingencies. As climate change becomes more powerful in certain alternative forms of agriculture, like hydroponics could be a cool thing to look into.

Suzanne Kelley: We’ll hear more from Nour next month in our episode on the role of nutrition and food and healthy community design.

Richard Amore: Back in Barre, Mayor Jake shared some ideas for how the community can adapt their buildings for a changing climate and help better prepare residents for storms to come.

Jake Hemmerick: We have a lot of buildings in vulnerable neighborhoods like I’ve talked about, that may be able to be elevated above the base flood elevation. There could be opportunities to get their utilities, like their furnace out of the basement so that if flooding does occur again, the cost of that flooding isn’t as much that they don’t have the washer, the dryer, the water heater, the furnace all down in the basement that they know they’re going to flood and are really high ticket items. And also just thinking about community facilities, in Barre City, we had our public works’ garage flood. Our public safety building with our police and fire station was inaccessible due to floodwaters. Unfortunately, a lot of that equipment was moved up to the auditorium, and we had our auditorium that served as a regional hub for people seeking shelter, people seeking food, people seeking water for coordinating agencies for people who needed to take their dog or their cat to a safe place.
And so facilities like that are going to be really important in an era of climate change, and we need to make smart investments to make sure those buildings are ready for those types of events. I think people are feeling really proud. That’s since I got a council meeting last night of how well we have bounced back and how much people have stepped up in ways that required people to dig really deep. I know our city manager, Nicholas Storellicastro, has worked every single day and been answering emails from morning to night, keeping things moving, and it’s not only people who are paid to do the job, it’s volunteers like Shawn Trader at the Rainbow Bridge Community Center, or Pastor Earl Cooper Camp at the Church of the Good Shepherd who are out there just hustling water bottles around when we were under a boiled water notice. For three straight days, he was out doing that.

So I think we’re having this moment where people are taking our area. There’s a little bit of buffer space. Even though we’ve still had rain coming down, it feels like things are stabilizing and continuing to move forward, and we’re seeing fast repairs, but we know that the journey ahead is going to be long, but we’re a community with diverse working people, and we’re a community that keeps Vermont running in a lot of ways, a lot of tradespeople, a lot of artists, and we are scrappy town built by immigrants. So we’re going to bounce back with granted durability.

Suzanne Kelley: Finally, let’s return to Dan Groberg, the library director in downtown Montpelier.

Dan Groberg: I think ultimately, what’s going to stick with me is how quickly the community came together to help, how generous everyone has been in time, in money in can-do spirit, and it’s hard to see your community affected like this. You walk downtown and the piles of crash are above your head, and every business that you’ve patronized, seeing them stripped and empty, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. But I know because of how quickly this community came together to help, I know that we’re going to get through it, and keeping that in my mind is what’s able to get me through this.

Suzanne Kelley: Dan’s words are a great note to end on. No matter how difficult the task is ahead, as Dan says, “I know we are going to get through this,” and getting through it together as a community can be a healing and even rewarding experience, one that strengthens social ties for years to come.

Richard Amore: If you want to hear more stories about Vermonters coming together during this challenging time, there’s a great episode of the podcast Rumble Strip called The Civic Standard In A 100 Year Flood. We’ll link to it in the show notes, and we’ll also provide links to resources if you’d like to help with the recovery efforts.

Suzanne Kelley: Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns Healthy Places. Please follow the podcast so you can get updates on new episodes. You can find us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.

Visit for more episodes and to learn more about how we are helping communities build healthy and inclusive places across Vermont. I’m Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore: And I’m Richard Amore. We really appreciate all our guests that have appeared on the podcast so far. Y’all are amazing. Thank you to the Equitable Cities, Health Forward, and Puddle Creative Teams. This podcast is supported by the state of Vermont and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s produced, written, and edited by Sam Peers Nitzberg, Jonah Geil-Neufeld, and Derrick Clements.

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Episode 3

Outdoor Recreation in Community Spaces

You might think that Vermont’s small towns have a lot of places for people to go and enjoy the outdoors. The state has so many opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing, and more. But rural towns don’t always have an accessible place for outdoor recreation and social gathering. Today, we’re going to share three different community projects in Vermont. These are outdoor gathering spaces that are designed for all to enjoy: Lake Paran, in North Bennington; Oakledge for All, in Burlington; and the Middlebury Skate Park Project, in Middlebury.

Guests include Camille Kaufman, Director of Paran Recreations; Elizabeth Schumacher, Community Health Ambassador at Paran Recreations; Lindsey Restino, AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer at Paran Recreations; Annie Bourdon and Nate Besio, community volunteers at Oakledge For All; Jill Quackenbush, Secretary & Treasurer of the Middlebury Skatepark Project; and Ethan Murphy, President of the Middlebury Skatepark Project.

Suzanne Kelley: Every time we ask people what they love about Vermont, there’s one thing they almost always tell us, they love getting into nature and enjoying outdoor activities of all kinds.

Speaker 2: I’m a skier and a mountain biker, so Vermont is a great place to do those things and enjoy the natural world.

Speaker 3: I love all of the outdoor beauty and activities that Vermont offers.

Speaker 4: Access to abundant recreation.

Speaker 5: The fresh air, the nature.

Speaker 6: I love the outside access to the lake, to the mountains.

Speaker 7: Like the lake. I like the mountains.

Speaker 8: Whether it’s the mountains or the lake or your neighbor’s field.

Richard Amore: You might think that Vermont’s small towns have a lot of places for people to go and enjoy the outdoors. The state has so many opportunities for hiking, biking, skiing, and more.

Suzanne Kelley: But rural towns don’t always have an accessible place for outdoor recreation and social gathering. Playgrounds, parks and village greens are all locations where people can come play safely and enjoy fresh air together. These places strengthen a town’s identity and give folks a sense of belonging as long as they’re open to everyone. Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places. My name is Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore: And I’m Richard Amore. Today we’re going to share three different community projects in Vermont. These are outdoor gathering spaces that are designed for all to enjoy. Ideally, they don’t require an investment in equipment like skis or bikes. You don’t necessarily have to pay to play. But creating gathering areas closer to where people live allows them to meet their neighbors, build social connections, and it provides opportunities for physical activity and conversation. This is the power of public spaces and building equitable communities that serve all Vermonters.

Suzanne Kelley: First, let’s go to southern Vermont in the town of North Bennington. There’s a small lake outside of town called Lake Paran.

Richard Amore: Lake Paran has been around since the 1960s and it holds a special place in the heart of many community members.

Alisa Del Tufo: My name’s Alisa Del Tufo, and I have lived in North Bennington for 17 years. I love Lake Paran. In fact, when I die, I will be … I know this is not legal, but I will be like one of those Viking funerals. I’ll be put on a floating raft that has a lot of petrochemicals soaked into it, and I’ll be flaming and I will be shoved out into the middle of the lake and I will burn up and I will sink to the bottom.

Suzanne Kelley: Although there’s been a lot of love for Lake Paran, many people have never heard of this little swimming spot so today we’re spreading the word. Lake Paran gets most of its financial support from the community and it’s uniquely devoted to accessibility and equity. The team at Lake Paran has made intentional efforts to ensure all community members can access this local resource. You’ll hear them discuss how they’ve addressed barriers like transportation and financial need.

Richard Amore: Here’s Camille Kaufman, the Director of Parent Recreations. This nonprofit organization owns the lake and operates its facilities and activities.

Camille Kaufman: Many people, even in downtown Bennington, Northern and Bennington County and Manchester area, I’ll talk to people that I work at Lake Paran and they say, “Oh, I’ve never been there. I’ve never heard of it,” or, “I can’t believe I haven’t come since I was a young kid in the ’70s.” People don’t always know that we’re here and we want people to come and be able to experience the beauty of southern Vermont, be in nature and connect with the Green Mountains.

We really believe in the power of nature as medicine. This is a very beautiful place, but it’s very accessible to the community and the village of North Bennington. But we also in the summer have a transportation line through the local Green Mountain Express that stops here. So people from Bennington can come if they don’t necessarily own a car. We have school break and summer camps where we give away about 40% of our participants scholarships, Free Camperships we call them.

And with that, to also go along with our mission of being an accessible recreation facility, we also give away free memberships to other low-income individuals or families that live in the greater Bennington area. So we really believe in being accessible to our community and making it a place for everyone to come and being a melting pot of the greater Bennington public. You can definitely see that community cohesion anytime that you come to Lake Paran, and I think that’s really unique about us and being a place of gathering for the community in a safe space and also a beautiful space.

We have boating. We can rent out canoes, kayaks, standup paddle boards. We have a concession stand and then a changing room in pavilions to rent. We have many different niche events that make us known in Greater New England as well. One of those being the Stone Skipping Festival where the world’s best stone skippers come. I’m talking world’s best world record holder comes and skips stones in the lake in September. It’s always the third Saturday of September, and it’s just a great community event. We say that we’re New England’s only stone skipping festival, and yeah, it’s just a beautiful time of year to hang out by the lake, have some good food. There’s a band, and we have little competitions with kids, amateurs and pros to see who can skip the best stone. You should see our shed. It’s filled with flat rocks. So we’ve been doing this for about, I think this year will actually be our 10th year doing that.

Suzanne Kelley: Wow, that’s amazing. You guys are making me want to move down there and just go to Lake Paran every day. Can you walk us through the scenery at Lake Paran, being as descriptive and sensory focused as possible?

Elizabeth Schumacher: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Schumacher. I’ve been working with and volunteering with Lake Paran since about 2021. So as you drive up to Lake Paran or you walk or bike, however you get here, there is the playground where lots of kids are laughing and playing, and then as you enter the pavilion, the lake is right in the backdrop. Sound travels pretty well in the water, so you hear sometimes people’s conversations, people jumping off the dock, people chatting. You hear people kayaking on the water. In the wintertime you can hear people sledding down the hill, so it’s quite a big hill going down. So there’s the lake on the bottom, and then there’s the hill and the pavilion sits up top, so it’s a good hill for sledding.

You’ll hear the swishing of the water underneath the ice and then the ice cracking, which is a little terrifying at times if you’re not used to it, but lots of people go out there ice fishing and drilling their holes. Then in the summertime we have the concession stands and grilled cheese is one of our specialties. So the smell of grilled cheese wafting through the air. Everyone loves grilled cheese, myself included.

So Lake Paran has a full service licensed commercial kitchen. It’s been that way for a while, but it was underutilized. So back in 2021, Camille and I started doing cooking classes. We taught healthy cooking on a budget for about six weeks, and we continued that, did a few different series, and this series kind of spurred other chefs and teachers to do their own classes. So we’ve had cabin fever classes, we had winter baking, we had a Japanese milk bread cooking class. So a really diverse set of meals have been cooked in this kitchen. And so basically each Friday, a different chef comes in, cooks a meal from around the world. We’ve had Portuguese food, German food, Belizean food, just food from all over the world.

Suzanne Kelley: We want to apologize if this podcast is making you hungry.

Richard Amore: I’ve never even had Belizean food.

Suzanne Kelley: I think it’s clear that Lake Paran is an amazing resource for the Bennington area, but there’s a problem. The lake is in trouble. Here’s Lindsey Restino who started working with Lake Paran in the summer of 2022.

Lindsey Restino: Our lake is absolutely plagued by invasive weeds as well as native species. To be more specific, it’s Eurasian water mill foil, which is invasive, and pondweed, which is a native species. These weeds, they grow so fast, they spread more and more every year. Our lake, it gets more and more shallow every year. In some parts of the lake, you can’t even get through it by boat or kayak. A lot of the fishermen complain about it, a lot of swimmers complain about it. And because Lake Paran is a manmade lake, essentially the trajectory of the lake’s future is to become a swamp if these weeds aren’t taken care of. Currently, we are looking at purchasing a mechanical harvester for the lake to finally do something about these weeds.

Richard Amore: Lake Paran is getting technical assistance from our Healthy Communities pilot program to help fundraise for their mechanical harvester. That way they can keep the lake open for generations to come.

Suzanne Kelley: Another way Lake Paran is staying accessible is the unreal entry fees. As of right now, admission for an adult is $3 and 50 cents, and kids get in for a dollar with low costs to visit and tons of scholarships and free memberships, Lake Paran is demonstrating that it’s a welcoming place for people of all income levels.

Richard Amore: Next, let’s travel north where the state’s first universally accessible playground is being built by the city of Burlington. It’s called Oakledge For All.

Suzanne Kelley: Many playgrounds are designed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA, but when we say universally accessible, we’re referring to design principles that go beyond ADA standards for accessibility. For example, the Oakledge For All playground features equipment and spaces that are usable by people with mobility, visual and sensory challenges. It has accessible pathways between play equipment, parking, and amenities like restrooms. We’ll get more into universal design in a little bit.

Richard Amore: For now, you’re about to hear from Annie Bourdon, a parent and community member who volunteers her time to make Oakledge For All a reality.

Annie Bourdon: So I became involved with Oakledge For All about seven years ago. I time it by the age of my children who are now, I’ve got twins who are 10, and at the time my twins were about three and my son has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, and we were in the full realization that it was becoming really difficult to take my twins to a playground where they both could play and it was kind of heartbreaking.

So the swing area at Oakledge is already open and we love it and we use it regularly. It was a tearful, joyful moment the first time that my kids could swing side-by-side, which is awesome, and there’s two swings next to each other. One of them is universally accessible, the other is not. A lesson learned is put in a whole bank of swings like that because everyone loves to swing, and so there’s sometimes a wait to swing, and then there’s a big saucer swing that everybody loves, but it’s easy to get to. The surface is smooth. I can push my son in his wheelchair. It overlooks the lake. It’s beautiful.

Richard Amore: Another volunteer with Oakledge For All is Nate Besio from Colchester. Nate uses a wheelchair and his son is able-bodied. So his experience with this park is a little different than Annie’s, but no less important. Remember, this is Oakledge For All. They’re pretty serious about considering everyone’s needs.

Nate Besio: So I’m going to take it almost from the reverse point of what Annie talks about as a mother with a son in a wheelchair as a father in a wheelchair with an able-bodied son. So right now with most parks, when my son gets on his swing and wants to be pushed, only mommy could do that, because I can’t go on there. On this swing, my son gets on the swing and I can help push him and I can help get involved in that. So if my son is at the top of the slide, I could be able to go to my son and help him down. It’s just being able to be involved in the activities that my son is doing, rather than sitting on the sides saying, “Hi, daddy’s here,” and waving to him. And my son wants to be, “Daddy. I want you to be involved. I want to play with you and do that stuff.”

One of the big things I want to do, and I do this at my son’s daycare, is really going in and interacting with the kids so they get used to me. So I think going to the playground just like it would if having another kid with a disability play, having a parent with a disability be right in a mix and involving things, not only helping my son, but maybe also helping other kids really brings together that inclusiveness, looking as people with disabilities as just members of the community and friends and family.

Suzanne Kelley: We already touched on how Oakledge For All is universally accessible rather than just ADA compliant, but Nate and Annie gave me a really good example of how universal design makes a big difference in this playground. Instead of using wood chips or mulch as a soft surface, Oakledge For All has a better solution.

Nate Besio: A lot of times when you are on a playground, there’s usually mulch and mulch is something that is ADA approved. For somebody in a wheelchair, that chair will just sink and you’ll get stuck. So while it may be approved by the ADA, it’s not accessible.

Annie Bourdon: Oftentimes these playgrounds that are covered in mulch, usually for cost and maintenance issues, they’re often surrounded by barriers to contain the mulch. So in addition to having to traverse mulch, you might have to leap over a 12-inch-high embankment that’s keeping the mulch in place, and so you literally are stuck outside the playground.

Suzanne Kelley: So does Oakledge For All use a different surface other than mulch in order to make it universally accessible?

Annie Bourdon: It’s essentially a material that is, I believe it’s like recycled rubber, but it is a flat porous surface, so it’s not going to puddle. It’s better for the environment, but it has some bounce and give. It’s not like hard concrete and it is a smooth surface, so there are no barriers if you’re a wheelchair user. But even if you’re not a wheelchair user, it’s really fun. It’s soft, it’s more forgiving if you fall. It is more expensive, but for those listening, Oakledge For All is glorious and big and beautiful, but not every playground needs to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are still innovations in ways that people can make more inclusive spaces within a smaller budget and just getting really creative and I think talking to the people who are currently left out and involving them in the process instead of just opening a catalog and ordering a piece of equipment that meets ADA compliance, but may unintentionally be pretty exclusive in design.

Nate Besio: One other thing I’d like to add to that point is that disability, when you put together all disabilities with physical, developmental, mental is the largest minority group in the United States. It’s also a group that is growing and will grow, and the way I say is disability can affect anybody, race, color, income brackets, anything. It’s time and different issues hit people. So again, going to what Annie was saying, or the expense of universal design, it’s going to affect later down the road because many people who may not need it now may need a later.

Richard Amore: Finally, we’re heading to the town of Middlebury where local community members are planning to build a new skate park. We spoke with Jill Quackenbush, who volunteers full-time as a secretary and treasurer of the Middlebury Skate Park Project.

Jill Quackenbush: The Middlebury Skate Park Project is an all volunteer nonprofit dedicated to the construction and stewardship of a concrete skate park in Middlebury. As a person who came to skate park sports later in life, I started when I was 40. I can just share my experience that it’s been, I don’t want to exaggerate, but it’s been life-changing for me. It’s given me so much confidence. I never thought I would be able to do anything like this, and it has just kind helped unlock, almost like unlocking my inner child a little bit. All these things that I have kind of gravitated towards my whole life, and I think that the community, the people that I’ve met through skating of all disciplines, all ages. I could strike up a conversation with the 12-year-old scooter rider and then a 50-year-old dad, and we’re all in the same place cheering each other on.

It’s something that I really envision is a gathering place. So beyond the skate park itself, having sidewalks connected to other areas of the park, shade structures, places to sit and watch. So it’s kind of an inviting area where even if you’re not coming to the skate park, maybe you’re just walking by, but you can stop and check it out. Or a group of middle school kids hanging out after school, maybe just a couple of them are skating, but the rest are just hanging out and having a great time. Younger kids going to the playground, older kids riding Scooter at the skate park, then we’re all going to go to the pool and have a picnic at the pavilion later. That’s kind of what I see in recreation park. And Skate Park, I think can really be kind of a central gathering place for families, especially the people of all ages to get together and support one another and learn from one another, really.

Suzanne Kelley: Jill makes a pretty good case that skate parks can be a fun gathering place for people of all ages. We also heard from Ethan Murphy, who is the president of the Middlebury Skate Park Project. Ethan gave us a ton of reasons why a skate park like this is a safe, equitable resource for a community like Middlebury.

Richard Amore: One thing that Ethan told us is that you don’t have to skateboard or roller skate to enjoy a skate park.

Ethan Murphy: The wheels that are most common in a skate park are skateboards, scooters, bikes, traditionally kind of BMX biking. The smaller BMX bikes are what you see in a skate park, but mountain biking in Vermont is huge. Quad roller skates and rollerblades and wheelchair motocross. You might see it as WCMX, so that stands for wheelchair motocross, and that is gaining popularity as well. And you may see some non-traditional uses at a skate park. I’ve actually seen RC cars using skate parks, and they’ll use the same transitions that other wheels will use to do flips and different things with their little RC cars.

We held an event last year for National Go Skateboarding Day, and I’ll tell you what, there were just a lot of kids running up and down the ramps and sliding down on their butts or on their stomachs and having a great time, so that’s another way that skate park can be used. No wheels in that case, but totally fine.

We’ve seen stats between 30% and 40% of youth don’t participate in organized sports, and so we think there’s an opportunity there to expand and enhance outdoor recreation. A skate park is one of the few places in a community where kids can participate in unstructured play, and that’s important for physical activity. It’s important for kids mentally and socially, and safety. That’s a huge thing. Most severe skateboarding injuries involve a motor vehicle. We are not a major metropolitan city where we have a ton of street skating, but there have been historical incidents of tragedies here in Middlebury and they have involved motor vehicles. So providing a safe and legal place to skateboard is one great way for the community to answer that need for kids who are interested in physical activity and socializing with friends have a safe place to do it.

Suzanne Kelley: Jill and Ethan don’t work for their town, state government or a planning agency. They just want to make a difference in their community. Ethan has an inspiring story about how he became a local leader.

Ethan Murphy: It’s still tough to even talk about myself as a leader in the community because it is definitely not natural for me. We were all coming out of the pandemic, and I personally was looking for a way to take really a lot of negative energy and to put it into something positive for the community. I would watch school board meetings and I would get frustrated and rather than being someone who just does something on the outskirts and then doing nothing about it, I was like, what is this doing? And so kind of slowly and reluctantly through the skate park, I started to meet a lot of people, and now this year I’m a full member of the Parks and Rec committee, so it has definitely driven me to take steps that I wouldn’t otherwise have done. I mean to present in front of the school board or the select board or the Parks and Rec committee. I would not have done that. I might write a nicely worded email, but I would not have done that.

Richard Amore: Just like Lake Paran, the Middlebury Skate Park is receiving assistance from our Healthy Communities pilot. If you know of a local project that is centered on health equity, accessibility, or diversity, then we really encourage you to reach out to us. I also run the State’s Better Places grant program, which can help you create vibrant public spaces in your community.

During production of this episode of the podcast, our state experienced historic flooding that has devastated communities like Montpelier, Barre, Londonderry, and many other smaller villages across Vermont. In a few weeks, we’ll be releasing an episode, examining the impacts of the flooding. We’ll talk to local leaders and community members who have been affected by the disaster. In the meantime, if you need assistance, contact Vermont 211 to reach state emergency management officials.

Suzanne Kelley: Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns, Healthy Places. Please follow the podcast so you can get updates on new episodes. You can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. Visit for more episodes and to learn more about how we’re helping communities build healthy and inclusive places across Vermont. I’m Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore: And I’m Richard Amore. We really appreciate all our guests that have appeared on the podcast so far. Y’all are amazing. Thank you to Equitable Cities, Health Forward and Puddle Creative. This podcast is supported by the State of Vermont and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is produced, written, and edited by Sam Peers Nitzberg, Jonah Geil-Neufeld, and Derrick Clements.

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Episode 2

Transportation for Everyone

Active transportation like walking and biking is fun, healthy, and often more accessible than driving. Some people can’t drive, or can’t afford a car, and they’re disproportionately impacted when they’re unable to safely walk or bike to their destinations. Join hosts Suzanne Kelley and Richard Amore as they explore the joys and challenges of walking, biking and rolling in Vermont’s small towns. You’ll learn about implementing complete streets and pop-up projects, barriers to finding funding and political will for infrastructural improvements, and small actions that you can take to make a difference in your own community.

Guests include Jonathon Weber, Senior Manager for the Complete Streets Program with Local Motion; Mary-Catherine Graziano, Senior Manager for Education and Safety Programs with Local Motion; Naomi Ranz-Schleifer, a community volunteer from Greensboro Village; Bryan Davis, a Senior Transportation Planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission; and Dan Castrigano, a climate educator who works with VPOP (Vermonters for People Oriented Places).

Bryan Davis: Walking and biking are fun ways to get around. They’re healthy ways to get around. They’re inexpensive ways to get around. It doesn’t have to be just getting from point A to point B. We may just want to get outside and enjoy the sunshine or the fresh snowfall. If you’ve ever walked or biked across the Winooski River Bridge, connecting Burlington and Winooski, it’s a really beautiful setting because you have the dam on one side with the river, and you can look up river at the rocks and the woods back there, but at the same time you’ve got 18-wheeler wood chip trucks going by. You’ve got traffic, and you’re very exposed to that if you’ve ever walked or bike there. Is very challenging and noisy and unsafe.

Suzanne: That was Bryan Davis. He’s a Senior Transportation Planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Bryan captures the theme of today’s episode – the value of walking and biking, and how car-centric design can make these forms of active transportation difficult and unsafe.

This is especially important when considering equity. Some people can’t drive, and they’re disproportionately impacted when they can’t safely walk or bike to their destinations. The question is, how can we make walking, biking and rolling as convenient – or, more convenient than driving in our small towns?

Richard: Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places. My name is Richard Amore

Suzanne: And I’m Suzanne Kelley. There’s a state-wide organization called Local Motion that advocates for walking, biking and rolling. They provide assistance to communities, rent out bikes, and operate youth bike education programs.

Richard: They also run this really fun bike ferry. It connects Burlington’s Greenway to the Champlain Islands, South Hero and beyond to Quebec.

Suzanne: Yeah, that ferry is super cool. I’ve taken it a few times. So, we went down to Local Motion’s headquarters on the waterfront in Burlington and chatted with them. Jonathon Weber is their Senior Program Coordinator, and he loves helping communities make bikeable, walkable spaces. But, surprisingly, he’s not the biggest fan of the phrase “active transportation.”

Jonathan Weber:
So for me, I don’t just want active transportation to be available to people. I don’t really want people to think of it as active transportation. I would like for it to just be considered transportation and for it to be the most convenient and easiest thing to do. And we’re clearly not there yet in any communities in Vermont. There are no towns in Vermont where it’s like walking and biking, rolling using transit are the easiest, most obvious things and ways to get around. But there are lots of places in Vermont where the way the place is built does actually really suit itself to walking and biking and rolling, being the primary ways to get around. You think about Burlington and Winooski, St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, Montpelier or or sort of these bigger places in Vermont. They have the density and the housing and the destinations close enough to each other to support that kind of transportation.

But the challenge in those places is that the transportation system is not built to allow for those modes. So the built environment is there in terms of how the buildings look and where they are, but the streets are really dangerous and scary for walking and biking and rolling. And so in the communities where we work, in every single one, there is a motivated group of local residents that we partner with to work to create change there towards safer streets that are better for walking, biking, and rolling.

Richard: One such local resident is Naomi Ranz-Schleifer. Naomi is a community volunteer with a background in public health, and she worked with Jonathon and the team at Local Motion to set up a pop-up project in Greensboro. This is a really small town, with a population of about 800 people. It’s located in the northeast corner of Vermont, referred to as the Northeast Kingdom. In their village center, they experimented with temporary changes to the sidewalks and crosswalks. The goal was to make the area feel safer and more walkable and bikeable.

Naomi Ranz-Schleifer:
My name is Naomi Ranz-Schleifer. I live in Greensboro, Vermont. Over a decade ago now, the town really needed to repair its sidewalks and in that process, we sort of were like, “Well, what are some things that we can do to help show people the way that it could be and sort of show people that it could be a really encouraging village center that makes it so that people want to walk through here, they feel safe walking through here and that it really fits for everybody of all abilities and ages?”

So it was in talking then with Jonathan Weber and Local Motion, and they do these pop-up demonstrations like removable temporary infrastructure like you use hay bales or sort of poles. We also got some flower pots and things like that to just sort of spruce it up and used color chalk and paint and just to sort of visually change it in a way that people could see and could liven up the space, but that the rain would wash away and you could move at the end of the pop-up demonstration. And that something as simple as just angling the crosswalk differently can make it so the visibility is much, much higher and people then are more likely to cross in a space that all of the different other modes of transit can see. This community really does lend itself to walking and biking. It’s beautiful, and if there are safe ways to do it, people would.

Suzanne: I know that some people in small towns and rural communities are hesitant to ride their bikes, because they feel that the roads are not safe. There might be poor lighting, or narrow shoulders – these rural communities tend to be very car-centric because people have to drive long distances to get anywhere. This means parents might also be cautious about allowing their kids to ride on these roads.

Richard: Here’s Mary-Catherine Graziano, Outreach and Training Coordinator with Local Motion. Mary-Catherine does a lot of bike education work with schools and children.

Mary-Catherine Graziano: I’ve had people tell me that they don’t want to teach kids how to ride bikes because their town is too dangerous for children to ride their bikes, and they don’t want to encourage that behavior. That’s understandable but horrible. Kids should learn how to ride a bike and if you are worried that the child is going to get themselves in a dangerous situation in their town after learning this skill, that’s a tragedy.

During COVID, I got a cargo bike and biked all around my community with my daughter, and I can’t begin to tell you the difference between my connections and interactions with my neighbors after I started using the cargo bike. I had so many. My daughter got sick of it. And I got so many conversations with my neighbors and people I was friendly with but had never really interacted with and they just created these spaces.

The thing about cars is they’re like a bubble, and so are the buildings we live in and work in and shop in. So when we move through space right now, we basically go from our house bubble to our car bubble to work that bubble and then into your car again. And all of it keeps people out. So we don’t have any of those opportunities to engage with people. Walking and biking, they do not have a bubble. I mean there’s safety implications to that lack of a bubble. It’s why we’re called vulnerable users, but what it also does is it gives you these opportunities to have conversations with somebody, to notice things, and to meet your neighbors and have a human chat. And especially in middle of Vermont, we don’t create spaces for that.

Richard: As Mary-Catherine says, the safety risks of active transportation are very real in our communities, especially the way many streets are currently designed – but the opportunities that come from using these forms of transportation can be amazing and lead to healthier, more connected, and vibrant lives.

Suzanne: Richard, when we were talking to Mary-Catherine about this, I was thinking about those spaces that do exist in Vermont where people can walk and interact with each other safely. One place that came to mind is Church Street, in Burlington.

Richard: I really love Church Street. It’s a great public space in the heart of Burlington. Church Street is always filled with people walking, shopping, and hanging out with friends. It has a great sense of place, with historic buildings, street trees, decorative lighting, and daily life and culture spilling out into the street.

Suzanne: When we were talking about this with Jonathon Weber, he called Church Street an example of a “Complete Street.” Let’s find out what that means.

Jonathan Weber: So a complete street is a street that meets the needs of all of the users that it needs to meet the needs of. So that can include walking and biking and driving and transit and rolling in a wheelchair or a light electric vehicle. And there are lots of different ways Forest Street to be complete. I think of Church Street as a complete street, even though you can’t drive a car up and down it except for during certain hours. Oftentimes in a community there isn’t political will or necessarily funding to build a perfectly complete street the first time around, the first time we go and try and make changes to it. But we can start.

And oftentimes that means working with paint. So if you’ve got maybe a four-lane road, that can often be narrowed down to three lanes, and then bike lanes can be added. Hopefully, there are already sidewalks on that road. If there aren’t, maybe we should take another lane away so that we have sidewalks as well. That means bike lanes are typically totally separated from the roadway, oftentimes at sidewalk level or bike paths that are not necessarily on the street or aligned with the street. And where the bike infrastructure is on the street, that usually means very slow car speeds, like slower than 20 miles an hour. So that’s a sort of what a complete street typically looks like, but it’s always different based on the context.

Richard: In Burlington, there’s a city program called the Great Streets Initiative. It helps create Complete Streets that encourage active transportation with wide sidewalks, bike lanes and stormwater management.

These streets are welcoming, improve water quality, and support local commerce and economic activity.

Suzanne: The Great Streets Initiative is terrific. But I’m sure that it wasn’t easy to start a program like this. Large towns and smaller communities all face challenges with funding, political will and local capacity. Here’s Bryan Davis again, talking about some obstacles that smaller communities can face.

Bryan Davis: In many small towns across the state, they’re filling in gaps in their sidewalk network to make it safer and more convenient to choose walking or biking. Some of the challenges … A big one is cost. You can do a planning study that identifies the best location for it, but then when it comes time to actually building, it’s finding the dollars to do that. And there are grant programs available, which is very, very helpful. There’s oftentimes a match requirement for the community to put into that. And sometimes it’s just out of the reach of their budget that gets voted on a town meeting day.

Sometimes there’s landowner issues that may or may not want a project to happen there. Because of our rural nature in Vermont, there’s some places where the sense is we don’t want a sidewalk here because then it changes the rural nature of where we are and people choose to live in this space because it’s rural. And if there’s a sidewalk now, that changes that feeling of it.

Suzanne: When Naomi Ranz-Schleifer was working to repair and expand sidewalks in Greensboro Village, there was definitely some skepticism in the community. Some folks in town were concerned that designing streets for bikes and pedestrians would make it difficult for larger vehicles to pass through. But the pop-up project showed that there was room for all kinds of traffic.

Naomi Ranz-Schleifer:
There is a way to design road systems that works for everybody, but you do have to consider it. And that was something that came up in the pop-up demonstration actually. It’s the perfect opportunity to sort of see all the different types of traffic that come through there.
Our intersection here at the nexus of Greensboro village is tiny, and here at this intersection we have public beach access where the boat launches. And so there’s a ton of trailers that are going through there with boats on them. And then this time of year, you have all of the huge-hang tractors that are coming through. And so you have a big 18 wheeler coming through, and then you have the big milk tank trucks coming through, and those are not small vehicles. And then you park all the cars in there and you have people there and you have bikes, and you’re like, “Well, how does everything get through?” And part of it is reducing speed, increasing visibility, but also making sure that you’re thinking through all of the different modes of transit.
It’s sometimes tricky because some people don’t want to find the money to replace the sidewalk. There’s always naysayers. There’s always people saying, oh, we don’t need any change, it’s expensive, it’s not worth it. If you try to walk on the sidewalks, even the small amount of sidewalk that exists, it’s really, really difficult even for an able-bodied individual because they’re really uneven, at sort of odd heights, they’re broken up. And I think that you start to see if you’re walking, say with a stroller, you can’t actually do it. And same with wheelchairs. And so what happens is that then people are walking in the road instead of on the sidewalk. Even though one exists, you can’t actually do it. You’re more likely to stumble, fall, injure yourself, or you just can’t actually get the wheels to go over the little bits of concrete that are broken up.

Richard: As Naomi is pointing out, people using strollers or mobility devices can be challenged by sidewalks that are in disrepair. But even able-bodied pedestrians can stumble over uneven sidewalks. Improving equity and access is helpful for everyone. Jonathon Weber also makes a good point that people from other underrepresented groups are strongly impacted by walk-bike advocacy.

Jonathan Weber:
On a fundamental level, I feel really strongly that work that improves conditions for walking and biking and rolling and transit is a really beneficial thing for the people that we typically consider as underrepresented or marginalized. Low-income folks, folks who don’t have generational wealth for various reasons, people whose families and ethnic groups have been segregated against, all those groups I think really benefit from infrastructure that allows them to get around in a safe way by a mode that’s really affordable and accessible.

I take the North Ave bus in the mornings to get to work sometimes if it’s too snowy to ride my bike. I mean the population on those buses is totally different from what we think of as the Vermont population. It is often like … when I look around those buses, it’s like majority people of color, a lot of folks who … my perception is they have a disability and a lot of younger folks and a lot of older folks.

And so when we talk about the folks that really need support, who are vulnerable in our communities, that’s who transit is serving. And when those folks are getting to the bus or getting off the bus, they are walking or they’re biking or they’re rolling. So we administered a active transportation survey last fall, and this was a statistically representative survey of Chittenden County residents. Of all the demographic factors, we looked at a strong majority of people of color support investing in walking and biking. And in fact, of all the demographics we looked at, people of color had the highest net support for investing in walking and biking. People with lower household incomes were close behind and actually across Chittenden County, people of color support investing in walking and biking at a higher rate than Burlington residents in isolation, which is pretty impressive.

Richard: Suzanne, hearing Jonathon discuss and share this socioeconomic data on walking and biking is really powerful. Communities need to invest in all modes of transportation, especially active transportation.

Suzanne: I really think so too. Community-level decisions about improving and adding infrastructure are mostly made at selectboard meetings. But as Naomi Ranz-Schleifer points out, those meetings are not always representative of a community’s diversity.

Naomi Ranz-Schleifer: I think. So often in these committees and community conversations, we do really have to reflect on who’s not at the table, why are they not at the table. And then add that whole question mark in there of we don’t even know. There’s all the people that you might list the people who can’t get childcare. So they’re not there at that meeting. The people who don’t have transportation, so they’re not there at that meeting. The people who just never heard about the meeting, the people who don’t feel welcome at the meeting, the people who if they go to the meeting, they can’t really hear very well. And so it’s just frustrating. And in a small town, you really could knock on every single door and find out why do you never come, have you ever wanted to?

And when you think about all of the people that exist in a community and how diverse it really is, it’s like we have to constantly be looking at how can we bring more and more people into the fold. How can we take every opportunity to hear what somebody has to say about their experience? And then also think, hm, who have we not heard?

Richard: We need to broaden the conversation, listen more, and engage all members of the community. Maybe you live in a small town, and want to advocate for safer streets. It might feel difficult to know where to start. But small, simple actions can have a powerful impact. There are a lot of different ways to make your voice heard in your community.

Suzanne: Here’s Dan Castrigano, a climate educator who works with VPOP, which stands for Vermonters for People Oriented Places. Dan regularly attends community meetings and advocates for better walking and biking infrastructure. I asked him how people can participate in community meetings if they’re nervous about speaking out, or they’re not sure what to say?

Dan Castrigano: You don’t have to be an expert. If you’re a human being on earth, you can advocate for whatever you believe is right. If you’re somebody listening to this podcast and you work in a community and you want to bring more people to a public realm and empower them to speak up, here are some specific things you could do. You can make it really easy with your communication. You can say, here’s the time, you can show up in person, you can show up online, you can tell them exactly when public comment occurs. What we’ve done is create a doc with all of the pertinent information and then editable by everybody where everybody puts in what they’re going to say. And then tell people, you can just use my language. You can also tell people that they can show up in solidarity and not say anything. And that’s really powerful. You can say one sentence or two sentences, and that’s really, really important.

And so emotionally and … logistically, removing that barrier and empowering people to speak up is if you’re listening to this and you can do that, I encourage you to do that. And I know your neighbors and friends will be grateful.

Suzanne: Richard, I hope our listeners are empowered to take some small steps in their own communities after hearing what Dan just said.

Richard: It’s truly inspiring, Suzanne. Next month, we’ll be talking to Annie Bourdon and Nate Besio, parents who volunteered with a grassroots effort to make Vermont’s first universally accessible playground in partnership with Burlington Parks and Rec. We’ll also be talking to some folks who are working to save Lake Paran, in North Bennington.

Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns, Healthy Places. Please, follow the podcast so you can get updates on new episodes. You can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. Visit for more episodes, and to learn more about how we’re helping communities build healthy and inclusive places across Vermont. I’m Richard Amore.

Suzanne: And I’m Suzanne Kelley. Special thanks to the team at Local Motion: Christina Erickson, Jonathon Weber and Mary-Catherine Graziano in particular. We also want to thank Naomi-Ranz Schleifer, Bryan Davis and Dan Castrigano. Thank you to Equitable Cities, Health Forward, and Puddle Creative. This podcast is supported by the state of Vermont and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is produced, written and edited by Sam Peers Nitzberg, Jonah Geil-Neufeld and Derrick Clements.

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Episode 1

Igniting the Spark

In this introductory episode to the podcast, you’ll learn about the importance of healthy community design in Vermont’s small towns and rural villages. Folks who live in these towns know it can be hard to access fresh food, essential services, and safe places to exercise. Join hosts Suzanne Kelley and Richard Amore as they discuss how to revitalize towns that need a little spark; how Vermont community leaders strive to include everyone’s voices in their work; the state’s new Technical Assistance (TA) Pilot, and much more.

Guests include Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s Commissioner of Health; Josh Hanford, Vermont’s Commissioner of Housing and Community Development; Michelle Gates, Executive Director of the Vermont Garden Network; Bryan Davis, a Senior Transportation Planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission; Lydia Petty, Vice Chair of the Select Board in Northfield, Vermont; and Annie Bourdon, a volunteer with Oakledge For All.

Russ Bennet: You know, it’s the best place on earth. And then after that it gets better. Vermont I think, is woefully misunderstood by the outside world. We’re neighbors first. Somebody runs off the road cause it’s mud season. We threaten not to pull ’em out because they didn’t vote the right way. But we do because we’re neighbors.

Lydia Petty: We went to visit the senior center and we had this incredible conversation with the folks who lived there about how important walking in general was to their lives. It was tender and emotional, even at times like, a number of them said that it literally kept them alive to be able to go out and walk around the town.

Annie Bourdon: There’s two swings next to each other. One of them is universally accessible, the other is not, and it was a tearful, joyful moment the first time that my kids could swing side by side… the surface is smooth. I can push my son in his wheelchair. It overlooks the lake. It’s beautiful..

Suzanne: Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places. My name is Suzanne Kelley, and I work for the Vermont Department of Health. Part of my job is to create communities where people have access to be physically active and find healthy, nutritious food.

Richard: And I’m Richard Amore, and I work for the Department of Housing and Community Development. I work with small towns, helping them build vibrant, inclusive and walkable places.

Suzanne: Richard, I just want to say that I am really excited to be doing this podcast with you. You do amazing work, and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

Richard: Thank you Suzanne! We’ve done some amazing work together through the years.

Suzanne: I bring the public health perspective, you bring the placemaking and community design expertise. We’re a great team.

Richard: It’s cool that we finally get to share that work with our listeners.
I hope we can inspire folks to make their own communities healthier, vibrant and more inclusive.

Suzanne: Yeah, it’s not as hard as it might seem. People who live in small towns actually have a lot of opportunities to make a difference in their community.

This is so important, because anyone who lives in a small town also knows that it can be hard to access things like fresh food, essential services, and safe places to exercise. Here’s Michelle Gates, Executive Director of the Vermont Garden Network.

Michelle Gates: If you haven’t lived in a small town, you might not realize that you have to walk a mile and a half to the nearest bus stop or drive 45 minutes to get to your dentist appointment. There’s often only one grocery store, and sometimes most of their shopping is done in a convenience store. So, folks that live in small towns really have to prioritize their time a little bit differently than those of us who have easy access to food and medical services and things like that.
And there are a lot of rural communities in Vermont, more rural than urban.

Richard: Vermont is a state of small towns and villages – the average town population size is about twelve hundred people. There are no county governments – these towns pretty much govern themselves. They get some help from state and regional partners, but they’re most often led by dedicated volunteers.

Suzanne: In the past few years, we in the world of public health, have been focusing more heavily on health equity. This has been an important lens for evaluating whether our work is reaching everyone.

For example, data shows that on average, Vermonters are very healthy. We consistently rank among the healthiest states in many national reports.

But if you zoom in on people from priority populations – like people with disabilities, older adults, people of color, and lower income people – it quickly becomes clear that we need to improve our efforts to reach them.

Here’s Bryan Davis, a Senior Transportation Planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

Bryan Davis: Health equity to me… When I hear the term makes me think about, does everyone have access to do the things that make them healthy? Whether that’s physical movement or social connectedness, or the mental support that they need, but it also encompasses other things, more built environment, structural things like, can I get to work today?
Are my children, can they get to school? Can I reach my doctor’s office? Can I check on my neighbors and make sure they’re doing fine? Does everyone have the same access to those kinds of services through their environment?

Richard: We really want to share that the place you live determines your health, wealth and happiness more than anything else.

Here’s Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Mark Levine. He gives us a high-level perspective on how the places we live determine health equity.

Mark Levine: It’s almost always your zip code that is way more important than your genetic code, if you want to see what it’s like to be healthy. So, you know, that is illustrated historically in the country…

You know, people know the term redlining and how communities of color often have been really forced to live in certain parts of urban environments or even rural environments for that matter.

And just by the fact that they live there, they have less opportunities to be healthy. They have excess in chronic medical conditions. They have more exposure to air pollution and water pollution, and that’s completely unfair. Health equity is also somewhat inextricably linked to the social determinants of health, as we call it, in public health, which, you know, are all those basic things:
Access to wealth and not poverty, access to housing, food security, transportation, all of those big ticket items. So to really achieve health equity, we really need community strategies to improve access to healthy food places, and to be physically active. We have to be inclusive of individuals in all of the populations ….all of the time.

Suzanne: Richard, what Dr. Levine is describing sounds a lot like what you and I have been working on together.

Richard: That’s right, Suzanne! We work with small towns to build healthy and inclusive public spaces and safe streets. That means accessible parks and village centers, as well as sidewalks and bike paths.

Suzanne: It’s especially great when we can connect “amenities” like schools, libraries, town offices, and local businesses with places to walk and bike. But we know we can do more.
Here’s Dr. Levine again.

Mark Levine: When we talk about health inequity, we always focus. On some of the same kinds of things like race, like gender, et cetera, I always include rurality because rurality turns out to be a determinant of health inequities. Now, rural, as we know, is wonderful. Uh, most of us are living here because of the rural nature, because of the access to the outdoors.

But of course when you have rural, you also have to contend with some of the transportation issues that get involved, some of the weather issues that get involved, et cetera.
If you look at a disease, even like cancer, we’ve learned from the data that the farther you are from a treatment facility, the longer you may go before you actually get the treatment you need, and that will have a direct impact on your outcome.
So rural and the context that that brings in so many areas in health are so critical. And we have communities, unfortunately, that can illustrate all of that.

Richard: Vermonters cherish and love our small towns. As Dr. Levine said, these communities can offer a high quality of life. But some of Vermont’s rural towns have fallen on hard times in the last few decades.

Josh Hanford is the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development. He explains why some rural communities are struggling – and how we can help.

Josh Hanford: I think there’s some rural places that they’ve had consistent opportunities, whether, you know, they have local leaders or they have wealth, or they’re a place where visitors have been coming for generations and they’ve sort of developed in a way that has everything you’d want. And then you have rural places that just have been left behind.

You know, they’re not the communities that attract the leaf peepers or the skiers. They had an economy that sort of changed, you know, whether it was, um, a factory or it was, um, forestry in the past, or it was a highly agricultural based community. If you go visit, you’ll see what once was a thriving community, you know, beautiful architecture, beautiful main street, but empty and the communities are, you know, struggling and what is their future, right?

Those communities need some of these basic attributes that really call people to those communities. They need that gathering place. They need that park. They need some interesting art or trails.

They need something to bring the new workers to those communities, and it doesn’t have to be millions of dollars. I mean, we’re talking. Small projects, small little things that, um, that, that make a, a community pop, that make people stop and say, wow, this is a cool town. Look at this. There’s, there’s homes for sale here.

We could actually make this work. Where some of the more discovered communities, they’re already beyond the reach of the average. American looking to settle down, buy a house, maybe, you know, in Vermont from, from more, um, populated areas where we have these hidden gems in Vermont that I think could be, you know, the, the future.

But they need a little investment. They need a little spark to be attractive for folks.

Richard: I’m always talking about that little spark.

Suzanne: You are always talking about that little spark. That’s what placemaking can do, right? It really elevates a town when there are places you can go hang out, talk to your neighbors, and take pride in your community.

Richard: Absolutely! In fact, Commissioner Hanford shared how public gathering places can help build community and promote healthy behavior. He told us a story about a place that was important to him personally.

Josh Hanford: You know, I can think of a community in Vermont I lived in for about 14 years, and we had a park right on Main Street and had a gazebo, and it was the place people gathered on Sunday in the summer. Because there was always some sort of music. You could bring your food, and your lawn chair, and the kids would be playing Frisbee, kicking the soccer ball around.

The adults were chatting, having informal conversations about anything, the visitors to the community that folks that didn’t live there were driving by and saying, wow, look at this community. You know, wow. Look, look what they have here. I wish we had something like that in our town.

But the reality was it’s where ideas sort of generated. It’s where folks saw each other gathering place, and they had these informal conversations that built trust and sort of built a common purpose for what we all could do to make our community better.

Whether it was around the school or it was around, you know, the fire department needing to be, you know, rehabbed. It was a way to, to get together and have those conversations, which. You’re not gonna recreate that in a formal way where you know you’re at town meeting or you’re at some discussion that’s been organized by someone.
This was a low barrier, um, fun way to get that community together mixed with people that were visiting and, and were there. And it’s just, it’s so important to your identity as a community.

Suzanne: A park like Commissioner Hanford describes can be such a valuable part of a community – it allows different people to mix and meet, develop friendships and social connection, exchange ideas, and make their community better as a whole.

When we help Vermont’s small towns with healthy community design, we want to be really intentional about making sure everyone’s voices are heard in the planning process. The idea is “Nothing about us, without us.” Here’s Dr. Levine again, Vermont’s Commissioner of Health.

Mark Levine: You may think that every policy we’ve made, every decision. Every program you’ve designed is like, this is exactly what we need, but until you look at it with a health equity lens, you really have fallen down because you don’t know that it’s going to completely engage and sustain some of those populations that need to have that the most.
So part of that comes with building trust in the populations that you’re dealing with, so that they engage with you on the planning and the design and the implementation. If you’ve been involved in your own planning, you are going to be more likely to exhibit those healthier behaviors because you were part of the planning process in the first place.

Suzanne: During this podcast, we’ll be exploring and sharing how Vermont community leaders are striving to include everyone’s voices in their work. Oftentimes, it means finding creative, non-traditional ways to get input. It means going directly to people from under-served communities, working to build their trust, and asking them how we can include their needs and interests in community projects.

Richard: Here’s a great example, Suzanne. Lydia Petty is vice-chair of the Select board in Northfield, Vermont. Lydia reminds us that well-maintained sidewalks without cracks and bumps are vital for parents, people with disabilities and older Vermonters. But it can be easy for folks to overlook this.

Lydia Petty: We would have a lot more sidewalks if we could maintain them.
And the ones we do have are frequently crumbling and not because anybody wants them to be crumbling, but because of really difficult monetary decisions.

Often in our community, for instance, a lot of people don’t even use the sidewalks, whether that’s because they’re not aware that they’re there or they’re just so used to driving in their car, but you don’t notice a bump in the sidewalk until you have a stroller or a wheelchair or any other mobility device. And even just when you’re walking, um, when you trip, or you can’t go somewhere and it can be such small obstacles, but it’s hard. There’s a challenge to communicate why those problems matter and why they impact inclusivity.

Richard: That pretty much sums it up for me, Suzanne. Lydia is amazing. We’ll be talking to her more in a future episode about her work in Northfield.

Suzanne: Yeah, Lydia’s example really shows us why we need to hear directly from community members. I have another example for you, Richard. Annie Bourdon is a volunteer with Oakledge For All, which is Vermont’s first universally designed playground. You actually heard Annie’s voice at the top of the episode, describing how her two children could finally swing side by side. When we spoke with her, Annie told us about a community meeting where people realized the importance of planning local projects with accessibility in mind.

Annie Bourdon: There’s an anecdote that John from Parks and Rec told me when he was part of the design process for another playground in Burlington: That a lot of the people that attended the public meeting were very opposed to having any sort of paved structures or surfacing in what would become the revitalized playground. And he just asked people to think, ‘well, do you see many wheelchair users who come to this park?’ and the people kind of paused and said ‘no,’ and he said, ‘why not?’ and they physically couldn’t access it. And it was this a-ha moment where people weren’t intentionally trying to leave people out, they just weren’t intentionally including them.

Suzanne: In parallel with this podcast, we have launched a pilot program to work with towns that are looking for help with healthy community design and placemaking efforts. So if a town wants help revitalizing a park or some other public project, they can reach out to us and get assistance to make that happen.

You know Richard, a really unique thing about this program is that we’ve hired a number of “health equity ambassadors.” These are people from priority populations who are passionate about making sure all voices are included in these public projects. They serve as liaisons between planning experts and local community members.

For example, a town might ask us for help installing a crosswalk with a pedestrian signal in a village center. As an able-bodied person, I might not realize that someone with impaired mobility needs a bit more time to cross before the light changes. But a health equity ambassador can point that out and make sure it is accounted for before being installed.

Richard: Yeah, we’re really trying to embrace that idea of “nothing about us without us.” You’ll hear more about the health equity ambassador work later this season.

Our hope is that by supporting community projects in Vermont’s small towns, we can make meaningful and positive change in people’s lives.

For example, you can start with a single gallon of paint to create a temporary sidewalk, or walking path.

We call this a “pop-up project.” Pop-up projects can encourage people to walk more, get to know their neighbors, or even safely visit main street businesses.

Mark Levine: If you have the way to get from point A to point B, that will actually encourage not using your car, but using your feet, you may be more likely to actually do that. You may be more likely to be physically active cuz you can arrive at the playground and actually take your kids there and everybody will; have exercise that they wouldn’t have. If transportation can cut the commute time, people in their very busy lives are then gonna have time earlier, late in the day to engage in healthy behaviors and physical activity that they wouldn’t have found time for before, cuz they have so long to travel. So all of that together, I think, really fits into how this has a rippling effect on people’s lives and health.

Suzanne: That rippling effect is so important to understanding the scope of community design work and placemaking. Richard, I can’t wait to share more about the projects that local residents have been creating in Vermont’s small towns.

Richard: Yeah, I think our listeners are going to be really inspired by what’s possible when you step up, get involved, and take pride in your community. Pretty soon, we’ll connect with the team at LocalMotion, a statewide advocate for active transportation, vibrant communities, and safe streets.

Suzanne: In future episodes, we’re also going to dig deep into topics like parks and green spaces, food security, engaging older adults who live in isolation, housing and zoning, and so much more.

Richard: Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns, Healthy Places. Please, follow the podcast so you can get updates on new episodes. You can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. Visit healthy-communities-Vee-Tee-dot-com for more information on our Technical Assistance Pilot Program. I’m Richard Amore.

Suzanne: And I’m Suzanne Kelley. We want to thank all of our guests: Dr. Mark Levine, Josh Hanford, Michelle Gates, Lydia Petty, Annie Bourdon and Bryan Davis. You also heard the voice of Russ Bennet. Thank you to Equitable Cities, Health Forward, and Puddle Creative. This podcast is supported by the state of Vermont and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is produced, written and edited by Sam Peers Nitzberg.

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