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Small Towns, Healthy Places podcast

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 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 10

Final Reflections

In the final episode of the series, Suzanne Kelley and Richard Amore take a look back at how the Health Equity and Community Design Technical Assistance Pilot came about, share their takeaways from the program and reflect on how future work can take relevant concepts further. We’ll also hear from Charles T. Brown and Dr. Melicent Miller of Equitable Cities and Health Forward.

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Richard, I can’t believe it, but this is the last episode of our podcast.

I know, Suzanne. It’s been an amazing experience. We’ve done nine episodes on topics such as inclusive transportation, food access, outdoor recreation, placemaking and more. We’ve also taken you behind the scenes of our health equity and community design technical assistance pilot.

Along the way, we highlighted the communities in Vermont that worked with us during the pilot and also in the Better Places Program. Towns like Northfield, Barrie City, Cornwall, North Bennington, Marshfield, Bristol, and many more.

Today we’re going to wrap up the series by having a look back on how this program came all about, what the future holds and the lessons we’ve learned.

Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places for the last time, I’m Suzanne Kelly.

And I’m Richard Amore. For today’s episode. We started off in conversation with each other, throughout the series Suzanne and I usually interview other people about their towns and community projects, but today we had a lot of fun reflecting with each other on the success of our pilot. We started by taking a walk down memory lane to remember how this project came about.

I would say that this came about because the health department got quite a bit of money for health equity post-Covid, wanting to make sure that priority populations were better reached as far as making sure that their health needs and access to health services happened. Our original idea was to get this funding to be used for Better Places Projects that centered equity, but we quickly learned that that wasn’t going to work.

Better Places was a program created out of the legislature in 2022, and we became excited about the opportunity to use some of this Covid money from CDC to help further health equity in the built environment by tapping into the Better Places Program to support more local placemaking projects. I was very pleased with what we were able to accomplish in a rapid amount of time with just really a little bit of money to be able to support over 25 communities advancing these projects within. The connection and tie-in was still strong. I thought the better places because many of the projects that the TA team supported, it helped just further their development and get them ready for grant applications for either better places or other funding.

Yeah, and I’ll add, when we were thinking about this project and what to do with this funding, one thing that we were hearing over and over again was a lot of our small rural communities didn’t have the capacity to apply for grants, to hire subcontractors to really focus on this kind of work. It was coming out of Covid, staffing was light in a lot of places. There were a lot of other priorities when everybody was trying to get back up and running. I feel like it was really Richard who had suggested maybe we provide that assistance versus the money to the communities. So we were really creating something based on what everybody was telling us was needed. There was a really great variety of projects and things that people were asking for and about, from parks to food to the health of the lake, all sorts of projects all over the state, which was really kind of fun to see come up to the forefront.

When I think of healthy community design from the health department perspective, we’re thinking about building places that are livable, that are welcoming, that reduce isolation. Spaces that people really want to go and places where they want to be with their families and friends and feel welcome. With the healthy community design piece, it also allows people naturally to be physically active, to access healthy or nutritious food if they want to or need to. It helps with mental health because there’s vibrancy and abilities to connect with other people and to feel included. So one of the goals in addition to the equity piece is making sure that we were also doing these healthy community design projects, so thinking about the built environment and the outdoor spaces and making sure that they were created, reinvigorated, designed, envisioned in ways that would allow for people to be able to take care of their health in some way also.

This pilot would not have been possible without contributions from the team at Equitable Cities led by Charles T. Brown.

The Equitable Cities team brought together consultants, urban planners, and other specialists to develop health equity and placemaking projects in communities that receive TA. We spoke to Charles and his colleague, Dr. Melicent Miller from Health Forward who also served as a co-lead on the project.

My name is Charles T. Brown. I’m the founder and CEO of Equitable Cities. I’ve had the pleasure of working and living in small rural communities my entire life, and one thing that experience has taught me is that no matter how small the community is, people still want to be heard. They want to be valued, and they want to be respected. They’re not trying to become New York City, Los Angeles or Miami. They’re comfortable with things as they are. They simply want better for themselves, their friends and families and their neighbors.

I’m Melicent Miller and I’m the President and CEO of Health Forward.

So what was your favorite aspect of working on this project and Vermont local communities and our team? Of course, your favorite aspect was Richard and me, but beyond that?

So yes, absolutely. I think from the outset, just meeting you and just seeing your passion for the project was definitely a favorite aspect and just your support throughout the project. More specifically, kind of looking at working with the communities and providing the technical assistance. So I myself, identify as a Black woman. I’m a southerner from rural South Carolina, and I can say that I was truly embraced by Vermonters. We were able to develop really close working relationships that allowed us to see that there are so many commonalities amongst us all, regardless of our backgrounds, regardless of where we come from, how we’re weird or what we believe in. Our communities are really facing a lot of the same challenges, and we also have shared experiences that allow us to have that instilled pride for our neighborhoods. So it was definitely a delightful experience to be amongst so many passionate community members who simply wanted to do good in their community. We all were there for the sole purpose and the common purpose of making our communities healthier and better connected. So this allowed us to engage in a very memorable and intangible human experience.

For me, it was the beauty of the small towns, the villages as well as the people, the diversity of the local culture and their fighting spirit to really protect their beliefs and those that they love and value. Working with you, Suzanne and Richard was also a highlight and mean that sincerely because not only are you all just good people, but you displayed excellent leadership by being open to new ideas such as this podcast for instance, and by keeping the focus on the needs of the community. You also demonstrated how resilient you can be in the face of adversity. You kept this project afloat during the catastrophic flash flooding and river flooding that occurred across much of Vermont in early to mid-July 2023. You all had to witness your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, everyone being affected by that. And while we had a project and we had a timeline, you all still stood strong and made sure that you kept the focus on the needs of the community and that really demonstrated your character, your values, and what’s most important to you.

When developing the project strategies and activities. We were very intentional about ensuring that key equity principles were interwoven into every aspect of the project, not just giving lip service to the word that I think has been commonly overused going through and coming out of the height of the pandemic. So some of those specific equity tenets that we wanted to ensure that were included were from the outset thinking about procedural equity. We wanted to take an equitable approach to engaging with and providing technical assistance to the communities. From the TA community application to the organizational and community health assessments, we gathered valuable information and data from the technical assistance communities and their community members, which were used in an effort to inform change. We made it our mission to establish true collaborative relationships with communities, sharing power and ultimately ensuring that their needs were addressed. We urged communities to expand their partnerships and seek input from community members, elected officials and nonprofits and a variety of other partners, and this really allowed for more meaningful input and participation in the planning process and ultimately its outcomes.

We think about representational justice, not coming up with assumptions of what communities needed was critical for the team, especially as we may be deemed as outsiders not being from Vermont. It was important for us to tap into the lived experience of those who truly had an understanding of the community. We enlisted 11 Vermont Healthy Community Ambassadors, who were instrumental in connecting communities and community members through the TA Pilot Project. Ambassadors are really those trusted leaders from diverse backgrounds and levels of ability. Through the Pilot Project Ambassadors use a person-centered approach to build trusting relationships among the community’s special populations and other community members and leaders. It’s important to note that the Health Equity Ambassadors were also compensated for their time with the communities in receiving training and on a variety of equity-focused topics such as outreach, engagement and data collection. A couple key things that I learned from this process is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this work.

Each community has its own unique challenges, politics barriers, facilitators that influence the breadth, depth and speed of change, and even in mostly White rural communities, there is diversity. Diversity exists. As diversity does encompass more than just race and ethnicity, which we typically tend to think of when we think about diversity.

So age, ability country or even state of origin as well as income and other intersectionalities are associated with the diverse makeup of communities, and I was also surprised that within even some of the smallest towns and villages, there are multiple communities in which there are very large income disparities, and this disparity specifically was seen to create some unique challenges within the communities and really allowed us to have a more tailored approach to developing community-led design approaches and really being more intentional about how we address the desires and needs of such a very diverse population.

Charles and Melicent remind us that when we think about diversity and equity in our communities, we cast a wide net. It’s not just about race, or gender, or age, or income, but it’s intersectional and can guide how we think about the built environment.

Equity in the built environment can mean lots of things, but I think one of the goals of this project was to make our communities more welcoming and accessible to folks with all ages and abilities and really make sure we design and plan our communities in a way that it’s accessible from a one-year-old kid who’s just learning how to walk to the mother or father pushing them in a stroller, to a teenager or a college kid who’s on crutches because they got hurt playing sports and being able to get around during their short-term mobility challenge. As well as people with long-term disabilities or experiencing other hardships with their mobility and being able to provide welcoming spaces, sidewalks, streetscapes businesses and buildings that are really truly welcoming and accessible to all people regardless of age, ability, or background. And I think that’s what this project really elevated, that there is small things that we can do to signal that we are more of a welcoming community for all people and really allow the built environment to display our values as we’re Vermonters.

A lot of times you look at it like equity in the built environment or healthy community design, and we think about the intangible things, how to make a curb ramp accessible to the sidewalk for somebody in a wheelchair, but we don’t think about the intangible things and the general surgeon last year claimed the US is in an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation, and we don’t really, historically have thought about it as a profession, as state government, how government can play a role in fostering community connection. And it’s great to see that need elevated at a national level and here in Vermont too, that the need for social connections, the need for helping alleviate social isolation, especially for our aging population, but also for communities that are underrepresented or have been marginalized historically, how they can be more engaged in state government, engaged with one another and how we can foster communities that create places for people to socially connect. And we need more places where we can meet people where they are, understand their values, their concerns, and just be human with one another again, and really talk face-to-face, creating a culture and community of trust where all are accepted.

These spaces are an opportunity to see people as people, as family members, as neighbors, as parents, as teachers, right? I mean, like you’re saying, it is reestablishing those human relationships. So all those things that you’re talking about, it’s harder to really make terrible remarks to somebody when you’re hanging out with them, when they’re educating your children, when you’re seeing them at the community barbecue, the 4th of July parade. So I mean, it sounds like a tall order that we’re saying that building a beautiful, welcoming inclusive space can solve all the world’s problems, but I think that there’s a lot to be said about creating these places that are inviting, hoping people show up and meet each other and have conversations with each other and treat each… I mean, it is a foundation to build a level of community, and respect, and connection that we, as you said, see less and less of these days because there’s so many opportunities not to do that.

I was also thinking, I think when Richard, when we were Middlesex, was it?

Yeah, that was with Bonnie and Lydia in Northfield, right?

Yes. Yeah, Northfield, yeah. They were talking about how they were doing, it was actually originally a Better Places, I think, project, and they made improvements for walkability across the little bridge, and it connected a senior center, and there are people in the senior center who were able to come out and finally just be a part of the community because this was a safer, more interesting space and more people were out there. So just this idea of these simple projects beautifying a space that were welcoming, allowed for people who had felt previously felt really isolated to now feel a part of something.

We went to visit the senior center, and we had this incredible dialogue with the, well, I guess it was at the Green Mountain Apartments, not the senior center, but 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.

Holly Wyatt, one of my favorite authors, calls sidewalks the rivers of life, and they truly are. They are where you encounter public life in that public realm where you connect with one of neighbors, both those formal connections, maybe you meet a neighbor and you talk about and ask, and you really have a strong relationship with about their kids and their family, to just the people you walk by every day, but you maybe not even know their name, but they walk the dog at the same time in the morning as you, you say, “Hello.” You pass them with a head nod and you see them several times throughout the week. Those even small encounters build community trust and start to build that connection to place in each other that is just healthy for a strong society, and we need more places like that to see and be seen in our communities.

Reflecting back at some of the prior podcasts, Michelle Gates talking about providing community gardens for our affordable housing complexes, but it wasn’t really about the food, which is important. We all know food, what sustains our life, but the other thing that sustains our life is social connection, and that’s what those communities gardens did. It allowed residents that were in apartments to connect with one another and build relationships and look out for one another, and it all started with them going to the community garden.

Some of the strongest benefits from this work was helping residents in these housing units learn to get along with each other. There was a lot of community building that went along with that, so property managers have become real proponents of the program because they recognize the value in people eating healthy and growing food and have food access, which gardens definitely do, but some of the reasons that our property managers are real enthusiastic about the program is that they’re seeing less conflict among residents and they’re seeing people being happier and healthier, which definitely contributes to community building among the residents.

Another thing I wanted to share, and I was looking back at the flood story that Dan and others were talking about the impacts of the July flood, and it’s starting to be elevated more and more in our profession about the need for public gathering spaces, healthy community design, welcoming inclusive places, not only for all the things that we’ve talked about today, but for climate resilience, communities that are more socially connected, have social capital, are more resilient and can bounce back quicker from disaster and the impacts of climate change. There was always talk about let’s change the hard infrastructure dams and dikes or maybe even green infrastructure, nature-based solutions, which are all fantastic to help protect our communities from disaster and flooding, but the intangibles, like I was saying earlier, the social resilience piece is time and time again, the most important thing from a community when they want to recover, not during the time of the storm, but how they bounce back, how they pull together to dig out mud, remove debris, and come over the tragedy that just struck them.

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 trash are above your head and every business that you’ve patronized and that I supported as Montpelier Live Director and my friends and my neighbors and my wife, 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.

As we look to the future of healthy community design work in Vermont and beyond, we have recommendations for policy makers, legislators, and government agencies.

I do hope that the future of government, the future of public health and community development and economic vitality, really look at the intersectionality of this work and look at it from a very multidisciplinary way rather than staying in our lanes, looking at how we can integrate, connect and leverage each other’s expertise to build complete, healthy, vibrant communities because it’s not a just silo approach that we should be looking at solutions. We really need to look at solutions from that holistic way of how to improve and better our communities from a public health, economic vitality, social, mental, well-being, sustainability and resilience framework, and looking at the value of cross agency, cross disciplinary thinking and supporting communities and meeting them where they are to advance their local goals. We need more of that at the state level. Be frank, we don’t do it enough.

I agree, and I do think that, that is really something. I think part of the success of this project and the reason why we were able to do it is because you and I, Richard have such a good relationship and we’re just really willing to collaborate and we’re in positions where we have a little bit of flexibility enough that we could work together. That is probably something that’s a little bit unique to Vermont and continues because of the people like you and me who are committed to doing this together and we see the value in it. But I agree. I think if there was a little bit more top-down support for it and encouragement for it, I think we could be doing so much more. Not only amazing projects, but better use of our resources. If we’re just thinking about the whole scope of resources and funding and how they’re being used and what money is going into which projects, if we were somehow working together and really identifying certain communities, or certain areas of the state, or certain projects that we could all invest in, we would see probably even better outcomes in the long run.

We’re not quite there yet, but this TA pilot could definitely be one of those examples that could be used to show how it’s possible.

It is really been a joy making this podcast with you, Suzanne. It was so inspiring to share these stories of people coming together and building community across our brave little state. Thank you for all your leadership, creativity and passion for this work and our partnership.

I agree, Richard. I found hearing people’s stories and playing a small part in each of these projects to be so inspiring. I have learned so much about how powerful one idea or one person can be in transforming a community. It has been so much fun doing this with a whole team, especially you, Richard, thank you for taking this journey with me.

Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns, Healthy Places. Visit HealthyCommunitiesVT.com to listen to the other nine episodes and to learn more about how this initiative helped communities build healthy and inclusive places across Vermont. I’m Suzanne Kelly.

And I’m Richard Amore. 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.

Episode 9

Leveraging Technical Assistance to Empower Rural Communities

As part of the Health Equity and Community Design Technical Assistance Pilot program, about 25 Vermont communities applied for and received Technical Assistance, or “TA.” When a community receives technical assistance, they get direct support and access to experts for consulting on public health projects.

In this episode of the podcast, we’ll take you through two communities that received different kinds of TA from our support team. We’ll hear from Gail Isenberg and Meg Harris, community advocates in Cornwall whose vision for a place to play pickleball blossomed into a multi-purpose recreation and gathering area. We’ll also hear from organizer Michelle McCormick, who describes a mobility audit in downtown Marshfield.

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Suzanne Kelley:
In our last episode, we talked about how this podcast is part of a unique technical assistance program. Today we’re going to be talking about exactly what technical assistance or TA means for our pilot.

Richard Amore:
When a community receives technical assistance, it means rather than getting funding to hire experts for consulting on public health projects, they get the expertise and support directly. Through our pilot program, we made technical assistance for healthy community design projects available to 20 to 35 communities.

Suzanne Kelley:
In the end, about 25 communities applied for and received the TA. During this episode, we’re going to take you through two communities that receive different kinds of TA from the team. Welcome to Small Towns, Healthy Places. I’m Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore:
And I’m Richard Amore.

Suzanne Kelley:
Gail Isenberg and her husband moved to Cornwall, Vermont over 40 years ago. They began attending town meetings and eventually decided to train to become EMTs because there was a shortage of local emergency medical staff.

Richard Amore:
It was the beginning of Gail’s time as a volunteer and community advocate. In 2022, Gail had an idea that would eventually become the project known today as CORA, which stands for the Cornwall Outdoor Recreation Area.

Gail Isenberg:
My name is Gail Isenberg. I live in Cornwall, Vermont, and I’ve lived here for about 40 years. Cornwall, the location is on the western side of the Green Mountains, and it is just south of Middlebury. We’re about an hour away from Burlington. Originally it was a farming community, and until maybe the last 20 years, it was primarily dairy farming. Now it’s almost a bedroom community of Middlebury. However, Middlebury doesn’t have a lot of people either. We have about 1,200 people. The community is currently older. The average age or the median age, actually around 55 to 60.

So in October 2022, I had started to notice in other areas when traveling, pickleball courts. They’re everywhere. They’re like little mushrooms. And this was two years ago. And I just thought, wouldn’t it be fun if Cornwall had a pickleball court? We got old people, old people are playing pickleball. I told two people what I was thinking, and it really was just a lark. And one person was a retired surgeon, Stan Grzyb. I just said, “Wouldn’t it be fun?” And he said, “That’s actually a pretty good idea, and I’m on the planning commission for the county, and you need to talk to the select board. Why don’t you talk to Ben?” And so Ben’s on the fire department, and I went to Ben and said, “What do you think about a pickleball court?” He’s a little bit more serious and he was like, “Well, if you want to do that, you need to talk to the recreation committee.” And that’s when I said, “There’s a recreation committee?”

And so I did. And they thought that was a great idea. And then they said, “Well, get some people who are interested, and I know some pickleball players from Cornwall and we’ll give you their names. And let me tell you, they are not only pickleball players, they are a little over-the-top pickleball players. They love this game.” And it turned out that each of us has some skills that really enabled us to start figuring out who we needed to talk to about money, funding, technical assistance, and that’s how it got started.

Suzanne Kelley:
Along with Gail, we spoke to another Cornwall resident named Meg Harris. Meg heard about the CORA project from a friend and got involved along with community leader Stan Grise.

Meg Harris:
I live in Cornwall, Vermont and have lived here for about 26 years. Stan, who’s just so well-connected, said, “I’ve heard about this technical assistance grant that we can get to help us think through some of these ideas.” And he contacted them and it was a very simple and really easy application that he did. And they basically immediately said, “We’d like to meet with you.” And so we set up a Zoom call, we meet at our town hall, and we went through this process and we thought we were sort of being interviewed for the TA. And it was like, oh my gosh, it was amazing. There were all these engaged people from around the country that were interested in our little tiny project in little tiny Cornwall, Vermont. And by the end, Stan said, “Well, when will we hear from you about whether we can be accepted into the TA?”

And Aaliyah, who was our project manager in all sense were like, “Well, you’re accepted. You’re in.” And it was like, “Oh my gosh.” We were just so excited because that happened really early on in the process and it just jump started and it provided us with a sense of, “I think we can do this.”

The first meeting, Sue Johnson, who’s our town clerk, who’s on the committee… I said, “Well, the first thing we need to think about is what land are we going to do this on? Should we ask the fire department? They have a big space behind the department. Should we look at private land and talking to people?” And Sue said, “We have two acres of town land that abuts the school property that’s not being used. It would be perfect for this.” And I’m like, “Can we use that land?” She said, “I don’t see why not. We should ask the select board and we should move forward with that idea.” So that was like the first meeting. We had land, which was unused, undeveloped land that was made available to us from the town. So with that information and with the TA really jumpstarting our thinking and how to be methodical about thinking through the different stages of this, we were off and running within three months of Gail having this initial conversation.

Suzanne Kelley:
Hopefully you can see how this technical assistance was the spark that Meg and Gail needed in order to get their idea off the ground.

Richard Amore:
We’ll return to CORA later on. Another community organizer we worked with is Michelle McCormick. Michelle has lived in Marshfield, Vermont since 2020 and serves on the town’s planning commission. Marshfield utilized our pilot TA program to work on improving the safety and scalability of the village.

Michelle McCormick:
Marshfield is along the US food corridor between Montpelier and St. Johnsbury, and it’s a super small town. When you’re driving through, if you sneeze, you might miss it. Our town population is less than 2,000 people, and our village is less than 300 people. And our town is split right down the middle by US 2, which is a state road. And so when we look at our community, we have serious issues with walkability. Just being able to go from the Marshfield Village Store to the Old Schoolhouse Commons, which has a playground, a basketball, little library, both youth and families and elders are always walking or trying to walk in between just those two things, for example. And it is really difficult and often very dangerous for that to happen, and not just in the winter time.

You have traffic that speeds through here. It’s supposed to be 35. Why it is 35 instead of 30 like in other towns through the village, I don’t have an answer. There’s a slowdown zone between 50 and 35. And 18 wheelers, cars all day long going up and down US 2, come flying through here sometimes doing 60 miles an hour, and it’s really dangerous. The ability to create more of a village community culture is hindered by that.

Suzanne Kelley:
In order to begin addressing pedestrian conditions in Marshfield, the TA team helped Michelle conduct a mobility audit. Typically, these are called walk audits, but as you’ll hear, the folks in Marshfield expanded the term to be inclusive of all users. The TA team led community members through the village to observe mobility challenges and to explore opportunities to improve safety.

Michelle McCormick:
So in terms of the technical assistance that we received, the Vermont Department of Health provided us a team of consultants that helped us to do a… First we were calling it a walkability audit, but really it’s a mobility audit because not every person walks. We have wheelchair users. We conducted a mobility audit and we had a couple dozen volunteers come to meet at the Old Schoolhouse Commons. And then we broke up into teams and tried to have a variety of demographics within each team with the smaller kids and people who need more time because they’re elder or less mobile in general.

In our case, we only had one person that was a wheelchair user that participated, but then we had somebody else who’s pushing a stroller with a diaper bag, those kinds of things. And so we divided people up into teams and then there was a note taker, and then a couple people actually helping to document to really take pictures and then match those up with the notes. So I have two sons. I have a nine-year-old and a 16-year-old. And the 16-year-old being 16, him and his friends had to be arm-wrestled a little bit into doing it, but they did. They showed up and they helped with the walkability or the mobility audit from their perspective. And afterwards, he came back and he was like, “Yo, Mom, I actually didn’t realize how bad it really is until you really look at it and you take the time to document it.” And he’s like, “I really worry about these little kids going in between the Village Store and the Old Schoolhouse Commons. It’s really not safe.”

It was a great opportunity, I think, for us to get together a really nice cross-section of the population here with our neighbors to really look ourselves more closely and to think about what that experience was like for us and then others in our community.

Richard Amore:
The mobility audit in Marshfield was focused on representing a diverse cross-section of the population in that town. Back in Cornwall, the folks behind CORA also decided to make their project accessible to as many people as possible. They chose to expand their vision beyond pickleball. Here’s Gail again.

Gail Isenberg:
The TA is so focused on inclusion and wanting to make sure everyone in our community would benefit from this area. So we were thinking initially pickleball, but they were asking us, “Well, if you wanted other things, what would it be? And by the way, how are you going to find that information out from the community?” So they helped us design a survey and they provided the technical assistance on getting hard copies and electronic components of the survey at a town meeting in February or actually the first week of March. We handed them out to the folks who attended that meeting, and then all of that data was sent back. We wouldn’t have thought about all of the different ramifications of this kind of project, and we got such wonderful information and they tabulated it and then wrote a summary for us. They also gave us a graphic about how the results came out so that we could then publish it in the town newsletter and provide it when we talked to other groups.

Suzanne Kelley:
Through technical assistance, we were able to provide Cornwall with a landscape designer from the TA team. She worked with Gail, Meg and Stan to draw up and refine plans for an expanded Cornwall Outdoor Recreation Area. Here’s Meg.

Meg Harris:
We wanted one tennis court and two pickleball courts. We wanted a walking trail and we envisioned the walking trail around the whole perimeter, and we wanted that walking trail to be ADA compliant. We also talked about wanting gardens and space to enjoy. So we sort of said a tree grove and a pollinator garden. And we also had the pavilion and sort of the open picnic area. And that turned into adding a bocce ball court and also a horseshoe/cornhole pitch. And then we presented that to the planning commission, and it’s all totally accurate, measurements and everything, so it really helped. That was amazing. Once we had that, we felt like we could really show it to people, and people had a visual sense of what might be possible. And we showed this to the planning commission, and their response was also like, “Well, it shares sort of a driveway with the school.”

One of the person on the planning commission was a little worried about the parking because the pickup and drop off for the school would be in that area. And she’s like, “I’m not sure if we have enough parking or what are we going to do?” And so we went back to Bet and we said, “Can we create some parking spaces? And it would be important to have some parking spaces that are ADA compliant and handicap accessible as well.” So she went back and redesigned it and put that in. And we even had plans for a solar array, which she was able to put in. Eventually we hope that we’ll be able to do that. That’s in a different phase of the work, but that if we have lighting that allows us to light the parking lot and the courts and maybe some of the other areas, that would be great too for some of those late summer nights. So that really solidified so much for us in terms of being able to present this as a real idea to people.

Gail Isenberg:
I don’t know about Meg, but I knew nothing about following through with an idea to make it a viable project. So the TA was instrumental in educating and supporting us all through the process and the things that they provided. The architectural design, the survey, we would one, if we even thought about it, I know I have no clue how to progress. And while we’re a pretty smart group of people, the TA really provided the framework and the information and guidance. It’s only been a little over a year and we are hoping to break ground in the summer. That’s pretty amazing. I don’t think we would be here at all. I think we would be off and have separated and gone on with our lives if it weren’t for the TA.

Meg Harris:
Yeah, I agree Gail. I think that we were just so inspired by them too and so motivated. They set up regular meetings, and so we showed up and we talked about what was next, and they provided advice, and so we had our tasks ahead of us. And I think just knowing that these people that weren’t from our community, from around the country were interested in what we were doing and were invested in what we were doing, really helped give us a sense of purpose and a sense that, “Wow, maybe we can make this a reality.” I think that was probably the biggest thing, was like, “Oh my gosh, they think we can do this. Can we really do this?” So I think that was really exciting for us to be able to receive that type of support and encouragement. What we really needed was like, “You guys can do this.”

Gail Isenberg:
Throughout the whole process, we have hit walls where we thought that we were done and we’ve passed through… Obviously we’ve passed through all of them to date. The next major one is getting the permits and then being able to start fundraising. But I guess, like I said, it’s a little redundant, but it is clear. Without TA, we could not have done any of this. We didn’t have the money to do it. We were clueless and assuming that we will be successful. It is that relationship that really made it happen.

Richard Amore:
These two communities are still in the process of turning their ideas into reality. The technical assistance helped them gather information that led to focusing big ideas into doable projects. The TA helped them overcome barriers that seemed daunting or even impossible to overcome at the beginning. Recently, CORA just completed a successful Better Places crowdfunding campaign to kickstart construction this summer. If you don’t remember Better Places, please listen to episode seven of this podcast.

Suzanne Kelley:
Richard, it’s so great that CORA is taking this next step. That’s exactly what we were hoping for when we started this pilot project. For many communities, technical assistance is just the beginning. It’s up to community leaders to fully implement their plans and secure further funding if needed. While the TA pilot has ended, there are still state partners and resources available to assist. Some of these resources can be found on the healthycommunitiesvt.com resources web page.

Richard Amore:
Thanks, Suzanne. I agree. The TA pilot was able to fill a real need in rural communities, especially post COVID, when towns did not have the capacity to focus on these community projects. The state continues to provide assistance through programs like Better Places and working with our state and regional partners.

Suzanne Kelley:
Thank you so much for listening to Small Towns, Healthy Places. Next month we’ll be wrapping up the podcast with our final episode. Richard and I have had a blast sharing these conversations and local stories with you. Visit healthycommunitiesvt.com for more episodes, and to learn more about how this initiative helped communities build healthy and inclusive places across Vermont. I’m Suzanne Kelly.

Richard Amore:
And I’m Richard Amore. 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.

Episode 8

Trusted Leaders, Connecting Communities

Today, we dive into one part of the unique Technical Assistance Pilot program that wrapped up last year in Vermont. One of the goals of the program is to provide extra capacity to municipal leaders who might want to, but not have the time, funds, or expertise on staff, to advance health equity through healthy community design and placemaking efforts.

When developing the idea for this project overall, Richard and Suzanne felt it was essential, if they were going to offer external “experts” to help towns advance health equity, that those experts included people from the populations we wanted to be sure were reached. So to make sure that the needs of all community members are being met, they developed the idea of “Health Equity Ambassadors.”

Today you’ll hear from two health equity ambassadors about how working on the Technical Assistance pilot gave them a chance to make Vermont’s rural communities more equitable for everyone.

Listen on

Matthew LeFluer:
Being part of the Department of Health Equity Ambassador Project is all I’ve ever wanted to do. If I can bring in happiness, make it less stressful, make it more enjoyable to live in Vermont, my mission has already been complete.

Suzanne Kelley:
As we’ve talked about before, this show is part of a unique technical assistance pilot program. One of the goals of the program is to provide extra capacity to municipal leaders who might want to, but not have the time, funds, or expertise on staff to advance health equity through healthy community design and placemaking efforts.

Richard Amore:
You’re absolutely right, Suzanne. Towns across Vermont want to build and improve accessible, welcoming gathering places and community spaces. That means safer crosswalks, public spaces, recreational areas, accessible trails, and more. We know Vermont’s small towns are struggling with capacity issues, budget shortfalls, and volunteer burnout. We’re still feeling the impacts of the pandemic and more recently, this past summer’s floods that devastated many communities across the state.

Suzanne Kelley:
When developing the idea for this project overall, Richard and I felt it was essential if we were going to offer external experts to help towns advance health equity, that those experts included people from the populations we wanted to be sure were reached. So to make sure that the needs of all community members were met, we developed the idea of health equity ambassadors.

Richard Amore:
We sought to hire ambassadors from priority populations, people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks, and more. For example, a town might ask us for help installing a crosswalk with a pedestrian signal in a village center. As an abled body 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’s accounted for before being installed.

Suzanne Kelley:
Today, you’ll hear from two health equity ambassadors about how working on the Technical Assistance Pilot gave them a chance to make Vermont’s rural communities more equitable for everyone.
Welcome to Small Towns Healthy, Places. I’m Suzanne Kelley.

Richard Amore:
I’m Richard Amore.

Suzanne Kelley:
We’ll begin with Jacqueline Kelley. No relation to me. Jacqueline works with me at the Vermont Department of Health. When we began to disseminate information about the Health Equity Ambassadors Program, Jacqueline got interested and was able to join us. Jacqueline uses a wheelchair, so her perspective was very important for accessibility projects.

Jacqueline Kelley:
Hi. My name is Jacqueline Kelley. My pronouns are she/her. I live in Burlington, Vermont. I’m a disabled person, and I work for the Vermont Department of Health. Since I work there, I also received the emails about the Health Equity Ambassador opportunity. It was sent out to everyone in the Health Department so we could help distribute the information, but I was also interested in being an ambassador. Our role was to help communities with health equity related projects. Those projects ranged in lots of different areas. I was more specified in the accessibility/walkability kind of projects. That’s just my area of expertise, but there were lots of other projects around signage, transportation, renewable energy, and towns were able to apply for technical assistance from people with lived experience. So we were brought in to help out with those resources and provide that assistance. Some of it involved going in person, and others were held over Teams or Zoom to create resources or to provide technical assistance virtually.

Health equity is important to me as a disabled person. I really feel like I see the barriers that are put in place, and also, I work for the Department of Health, so we focus heavily on health equity. All of our work has some sort of health equity foundation or goal, and so I’ve really been able to dive into it professionally, but also, it’s been something that has been on my mind personally. I am also from Grand Isle, and if any of you are familiar with Grand Isle County, there’s very little sidewalks or the bike path along Route 2 is very, very narrow. Lighting is not great at night, so that poses a lot of risk for people who enjoy getting out and like to walk their dogs, or roll, or they want to bike to school, or whatever it is. It’s just not very safe, and so that has always been something that has been close to my heart is the walkability and accessibility of towns and communities.

Suzanne Kelley:
So tell us about the community you worked with. How were you able to lend your experience to their request for technical assistance?

Jacqueline Kelley:
I worked most closely with Bristol. I worked specifically with the Bristol Trail Network, and we went to three different parks and just wandered around. I’m a wheelchair user, so I rolled around, I guess, and just talked about how it could be more accessible to people who use different types of mobility devices. The goal was for them to create a 3D image of what this could look like and how it can be used by the whole community and not just a very small narrow community. These parks that we went to were also very underutilized, but they were beautiful places within the community. Also, a lot of people didn’t really know about them because of lack of signage. So there was another health equity ambassador in the conversation with Bristol who specialized in signage. So he really helped them with that, and then I helped them to figure out what this could look like. What is the materials? If they needed to make a path, out of what? Gravel? Dirt? Pavement? Sand? What is going to be the material?

So it really did get pretty in depth. We were there for probably half a day, I would say, just in Bristol, checking out these parks. We did that with Porter Knight. She was leading the charge in Bristol with this to bring it to the leaders in the town and try to get it approved and funded. So that was that stage is just trying to figure out what it could look like, and then we also met up with her again over a virtual meeting to talk about how we might be able to get the community involved. So if they wanted to do some kind of survey to try to get community input, what would that look like? So that’s what we did in Bristol.

In Marshfield, they were doing a walkability/accessibility audit, and so they had certain streets that they wanted the group to walk or roll on to figure out what are we seeing here that is good and what needs to be improved, and then to really just make a whole audit so then hopefully, their walkability could be improved. That was involving the community, so there were a couple ambassadors. Some people from Equitable Cities were there as well, but the majority of people were actually from the community who were in that audit, and so that was great. But I was the only wheelchair user, so it was helpful for them to have me there. There was also someone who participated who was riding a bike. So that was great to have him involved as well. Then, I think there was a person with a stroller too. So that was great. We had a pretty diverse group which is awesome. Yeah, and so that’s where that project went, and it was really fun.

Richard Amore:
Jacqueline brought her experience to Bristol as a wheelchair user. Another health equity ambassador, Matthew LeFluer, provided a different perspective.

Matthew LeFluer:
Greetings, everyone. I live in Alburg, Vermont and Grand Isle County of Vermont. I wear many hats in many different spectrums. My current occupation is Vermont Department of Health Equity and Vermont League of Cities and Towns Equity, UVM CDCI, Center for Inclusion and Diversity, and UVM Autism Collaborative. So, like I said, I have very many hats that I wear. I live with family. I’m homeschooled, I am neurodivergent or what most people could say a person on the autism spectrum, or I’m an autistic individual on the spectrum.

I collaborate with organizations across the state of Vermont statewide so we can get to best understand our access needs and how can we collaborate more efficiently and more effectively to bring more individuals into the process so they have a chance and can speak their mind freely without discrimination, segregation, and homophobic because equity lives alongside us right here in this moment, in its time. This is how we survive together, to get through the hard times and challenges is we all collaborate together. Nothing about us without us. That’s everyone. Everybody has a part to play, and everybody should be included throughout the process. If you work in Vermont, you live in Vermont, then you are a part of the process. You are the solution.

Being part of this coalition, Health Equity Ambassador Project, makes me feel included. It makes me feel that I have a sense of belonging in here and do the important work for municipals, select board members, and town planning commissions. Not just local, but regional too as well.

Yeah. I think differently. I do things differently. I’m not a machine. I’m a human being like me and you. Yes, I’m autistic, but to me, it’s like we’ve got to get over that and actually treat the individual for who he or she is, not what their background is. To me, it’s like doing this important work was an honor. Everybody liked what I gave them.

Suzanne Kelley:
Matthew provided consultation on how to engage and communicate with Bristol residents in an accessible way. He refers to clear, easy to understand messaging as plain language.

Matthew LeFluer:
Plain language is one of the keys of getting our messages across. Plain language, easy to understand. Curriculum, documentation, live glossary, summaries, transcripts. Make it easy enough for individuals across Vermont to get it the first time. They love it. They love my perspective view of plain language because… and if we go complex over complex-heavy, then our message is missing. Didn’t we lost our message in what we’re trying to say? What I do across the state, including within the Department of Health Equity projects, I want to simplify too enough that we’re not losing the vulnerable members, the marginalized communities, the individuals with disabilities, the veterans, the senior citizens, the baby boomers of Vermont. If we lose them in this whole entire process, then what are we doing together as Vermonters? Vermonters watch out for each other, have our backs for each other, understand each other, and trying to commit to help each other in his or her way of learning the lifestyle not of Vermont, but learning the lifestyle of who she or he is, of what they’re going through in their everyday lives.

Richard Amore:
Health equity ambassadors can make our communities safer, happier, and more welcoming for all. These trusted advisors can bring in voices of those who are typically not heard or left out of the decision-making process. We encourage local leaders to explore meaningful ways to include people of all backgrounds as they build their communities together. We want to thank all the health equity ambassadors for their work with our communities, and special thanks to Jacqueline and Matthew for sharing their experience. You’re truly a vital part of making these projects successful.

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

Richard Amore:
I’m Richard Amore. 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 Derek Clements

Episode 7

Empowering Vermonters to Create Better Places

We’ve talked a lot on this show about community projects that inspire ordinary people to get involved in making the places they call home better.

The Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development supports many of these grassroots projects through the Better Places program. In this episode of the podcast, we’ll explain what the Better Places program is and share how it empowers community leaders to create more vibrant, inclusive, and accessible places in small towns across Vermont.

Listen on

Reva:
What I loved about Better Places is, to me, it’s about community. It’s not about a pavilion. Having their support was incredible. I still pinch myself that such a program is available. For me personally, to feel at home in my community is just, there’s no words that are strong enough. To feel like being a really active part of the community is just a blessing.

Richard:
We’ve talked a lot on this show about community projects that inspire ordinary people to get involved in making the places they call home better. Here in Vermont and at the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, known as DHCD, we are supporting many of these grassroots projects through the Better Places program. In this episode of the podcast, we’ll explain what the program is and share how it empowers community leaders to create more vibrant, inclusive, and accessible places and small towns across Vermont.

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

Richard:
And I’m Richard Amore. The Better Places program was established in 2021 by the Vermont legislature, with support of many partners and funders that offers a different and collaborative approach to grant making.

Suzanne:
The program grew out of a collaboration led by DHCD between several state agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropic partners who were working separately on topics such as healthy community design, community arts, economic development, and placemaking. We could all see how working together would be a great use of resources and better serve Vermont communities.

Richard:
The Better Places Program is a partnership with DHCD, the Vermont Community Foundation, and our crowdfunding partner, Patronicity. You’ll hear more about crowdfunding and Patronicity later in this podcast. Better Places is all about building community and fostering deep collaborations, not just implementing projects. The program incentivizes local action, civic engagement, and community investment to create more welcoming places for people to gather. The Better Places program has an all hands on deck approach to state grantmaking that includes project coaching, technical assistance, and 2:1 matching grants to help make local placemaking projects happen.

Suzanne:
Today, we’ll be speaking to Vermonters who led successful Better Places projects across our brave, little state. First, let’s talk to Reva Seybolt from the town of Vershire. Here’s the story of how she encountered the Better Places program.

Reva:
So Vershire is a community of about 700 people in central-eastern Vermont. The town offices are tiny. There’s no store. There’s no businesses. The schools are all in other towns. And what I realized particularly through COVID was we had nowhere to meet outdoors. So during COVID, we had nowhere to meet without putting up a tent for a town meeting or anything else like that so we wanted to sort of think about, while we had this new possibility of coming back as a community, what the community wanted most. We sort of put out to the community what did they want to see and the thing that came up, above and beyond everything else, was some outside area in which to have meetings. We have a very small pizza oven and we have a recreational field that was done with grants 30 years ago and we have a child’s playground.

But if it was really hot and sunny or if it was raining, or if we wanted to have an outdoor event with music, there was nowhere to have it. We’d have to cancel unless we put up the tent every time. It’s a really nice tent. It’s about 30×40, but it takes about six people to put it up. And the kind of events we had had historically were book sales, plant sales, cabaret, talent show, fall festival, which we had last weekend, pumpkin kind of contest. So it’s pretty much kids’ events with bounce houses and potluck food. I started looking for grants and what I discovered is that a town the size of Vershire, trying to get a grant, it’s not big enough.

We don’t have a grant writer. We don’t have the skill to do all the things that federal and out-of-state grants take. And the private foundations would say, “Well, this is really nice, but we don’t get any bang for our buck,” because the town’s so small. But I called all the wonderful people in Vermont. Being a small state, I called all the people who were involved in grant writing and I sort of said, “A pavilion.” Everybody said, “Great idea! But it’s not something we can cover.” And then somewhere along the way, somebody brought up Better Places.

Suzanne:
Reva’s experience is something we hear quite often in small towns across the state. It’s really difficult for small towns with no town staff or grant writers to go after state or federal grants and lead community initiatives. It’s truly remarkable what Reva accomplished and we’ll learn more about her project and how she did it shortly. But first, we need to explain one of the things that makes Better Places unique. Richard, tell us about crowdgranting.

Richard:
Absolutely, Suzanne. So Better Places uses a method of grantmaking called crowdgranting. Crowdgranting combines crowdfunding, the practice of funding a project with small donations from a large number of people, paired with a 2:1 matching grant from DHCD. What’s been remarkable to see is the way that crowdfunding creates a sense of community ownership and support for these local projects.

Suzanne:
One of the first steps in the Better Places process is to build a community crowdfunding campaign with the help of Patronicity. This is a crowdfunding platform similar to GoFundMe, but designed for community-led projects. It provides more direct technical assistance and support to local leaders. Here’s Camryn Greer from Patronicity, who has worked closely with many of our Better Places projects.

Camryn:
So my name is Camryn Greer, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the Director of Programs and Impact for Patronicity. So Patronicity is a civic crowdfunding platform, so think something like Kickstarter or GoFundMe. But our emphasis is specifically on community development projects, so this can look like playgrounds or gardens or parks or pavilions, or anything like that across the board. That’s what we’re interested in supporting. So essentially, we have two arms of our work. One arm is that we are doing that technical support with our community changemakers is what we call them, and so this looks like the project leaders that I’m supporting in Vermont. And the other wing of our work is supporting the state agencies or the funders and organizations who have money that they want to disseminate into communities using this crowdgranting model. So the crowdgranting just for clarification, is the community is raising a certain amount of funds and then the funding entity is matching, at a certain level, those funds. So in the case of Better Places, tripling the impact of the funds raised by the communities.

Something that I really love about the crowdgranting model is the way that it gives just regular community members power over what’s happening in their community. So there is, I think, power in that level of ownership that community members have that looks different whenever the crowdfunding and community outreach process isn’t involved. And not to take away from the value of that as well, but I just think that’s a really important and cool aspect of this particular element of this program. We really encourage that that community engagement piece starts even before the crowdfunding piece and figuring out what the project’s going to be, and really laying the foundation then for a successful crowdfunding campaign because everyone is involved.

Suzanne:
For an example of community engagement, let’s go back to Reva in Vershire. Reva believed in the project and thought she could raise enough money, but she was blown away by the amount of support their small community pitched in and how fast they were able to reach their goal.

Reva:
So we got the Town Grant List, in other words, everybody who owns property in town, and then we got the people who had ever given to Vershire, so that was a total of about 1,000 names and addresses. So we sent out a letter to all of those people asking to donate, and putting the QR code for the online, for Patronicity, and giving an address to send an envelope. I thought the goal was attainable and I figured I’d call everybody I knew that were friends of mine to donate if we got desperate. What happened was extraordinary and it blew everybody’s socks off. We raised it in two weeks.

There’s a private school in a town called the Mountain School and they offered a $5,000 kickoff to us to get us started, so we had $5,000 out of the $20,000 from the get-go. And then people just gave. We were just absolutely blown away. We knew we had a couple of [inaudible 00:09:15] coming in that didn’t actually land until about the third week, but by the end of two weeks, we knew we had it. And what was even more extraordinary was the town, Vershire, the folks that were raising money for the camp that offered to support us first, they needed to raise $10,000 for the camp and they were able to do that too. We’re a town that considers ourselves poor and this blew us all away.

What I loved about Better Places is, to me, it’s about community. It’s not about a pavilion. And I loved the kind of questions they asked in their thinking. As a person who’s organized before, I really liked that it’s about the people and building community, and it’s such an incredible program because it’s so perfect for what we did. It wouldn’t have happened without Better Places because no one could’ve funded it and we couldn’t have raised $60,000.

Richard:
Reva’s and the Vershire story are incredible. I was at the grand opening for the pavilion earlier this fall and it was amazing to see the community coming together and celebrating their accomplishments. For a town of 700 people, there were over 100 folks gathering, sharing a meal, dancing to Bluegrass and, building community together. This is Vermont at its best and what Better Places is all about.

Suzanne:
Better Places projects include community parks and pavilions, but Vermonters have gotten pretty creative with their public spaces as well. From the High Street Mural in Brattleboro, to a playground in Coventry, to the Richard Kemp Center in Burlington’s Old North End.

Richard:
Over in White River Junction, Samantha Davidson-Green used Better Place’s funding to turn an empty, vacant storefront into a community media and arts center. She’s actually partnered with us a few times to create artistic spaces and programs.

Samantha:
My name is Samantha Davidson-Green and I’m Executive Director at Junction Arts and Media, or JAM. We’re located in White River Junction, Vermont. So my first experience with the Better Places program was when I was wearing the hat of the Board Chair of the White River Indie Film Festival. In 2020, we piloted an outdoor cinema experience in the month of December when it was really cold and snowy, and we projected local filmmakers work. It was meant to give people a socially-distant, safe way to come back to Downtown and remember our arts community and our local artists. And then on the basis of that, we actually applied for a Better Places grant that allowed us to continue that project for four months in 2021. So that was the Better Places 1.0 and it was a really great collaboration of about eight different entities Downtown.
We began to question how we could be using media arts to do a better job of connecting our community. Living through the pandemic, we all discovered these new tools where our lives became hypermediated, and that was an incredible act of resilience, I think, on the culture to figure out how to stay connected. But we felt there was kind of a crisis on the other side of isolation and how to bring people back together, and that’s where the Better Places 2.0 really came in. In the spring of 2022, our organization, we took over an abandoned storefront area that had hosted periodic pop-up crafts fairs and fashion shows and such, but most of the time stood empty. And we envisioned a place where people could come in and experience media arts installations or see our young filmmakers doing their workshops, or we have adult workshops where people have been learning podcasting. And we partner with a lot of local organizations who are trying to learn how to use media tools to promote their mission and get their message out.

So we felt that accessibility and visibility was really important, and playfulness. We call it our multimedia playground for all ages. We are now in a storefront with big, glass windows where over the course of the one-year Better Places 2.0 grant, we hosted monthly media artist exhibits from local artists. For example, we had an animation popup for families where parents and children could come and learn animation skills together. We had a month-long exhibit on the history of redlining and segregation of housing and the lasting impact of those policies of our government in the 20th century, and that was an interactive exhibit throughout the month of March.

It was really transformational to do a crowdfunding campaign. It was brilliant, I think, actually because it tasked us with communicating a vision for the grant before we really, fully began to roll out the programming that we imagined or purchased the infrastructure, but it got people invested and excited upfront. And with the resources we had, we were able to host several fundraising events that modeled what we were talking about. So it was an illustration that everybody could experience of how a media arts center, that is nonprofit and inclusive, could foster creativity and community connections. It created a new mold or a new model that we now are able to deepen and strengthen.

Suzanne:
With all these Better Places projects, we’ve seen how the Better Places program kick-starts community involvement. But the opportunities for participation don’t stop there. In White River Junction, townspeople are showing up for events and workshops, and their efforts are making the arts and media center into a cornerstone of the community.

Richard:
And in the town of Roxbury, people of all ages have pitched in time and work to help build their new village park. Dotti Guiffre spearheaded this project in Roxbury. I went to Dotti’s house to talk to her about the park and all the different ways that folks were able to contribute and be connected.

Dotti:
My name is Dorothy Guiffre. People call me Dotti. I live in Roxbury, Vermont and I have retired as a teacher. However, I started working for the town on committees and work on the Planning Board, on the Park Development Committee, and I also am on the Library Trustees Group, and I have tried to bring energy and ideas to the community through those groups. The area for the park happened because a person who had invested in some real estate decided they didn’t want to deal with the property anymore and put it up for sale at that point.

A number of the community members got together and said, “Well, let’s try. Let’s buy it and see if we can turn it into a park,” and I was one of those people who started that conversation and did some sketches and illustrations of what we could do in the park. And people liked it, but the community was a group of families with young kids, a lot of very senior citizens, and it’s hard to bring those two groups together on the same issue. The families with young children wanted to see the town become more economically viable, and the people who were some of the older residents didn’t want it to change at all.

This lot was located close to the school. It was on the only road through Roxbury. And it wasn’t huge, but it was visible. And when I thought about the community’s future, I thought a lot about what the town could be. That site is really in a very good spot for the community because it’s near the only intersection which brings skiers up over the mountain and bicycle trips over the mountain, so we’re in a place where people sort of slow down and change direction. And that, for me, was really good. We only have about 680 people in the town so at least half of them could come to an event in the park. And somehow, when you’re in a natural setting, when you have trees and plants and bushes around you, there’s something very therapeutic about that for people.
Also, the intent was to make it accessible to people with disabilities so I wanted the seniors and people with disabilities to have a place. I wanted the kids from the school to have a place where they could play table tennis if they wanted to, then maybe kids who want to paint, who want to write or sketch, that kind of use of it. Some neighboring kids that came by one day, they were the first ones to notice that we were working in the park and they said, “Do you need any help? We’d like to volunteer.” And the brick circle in the park, which is under a chess table, is what the older boy put together. The younger boy, he took bricks two at a time off the pallet and brought them over to his older brother, who got on his hands and knees and put them together and made the circle. And this is somebody who’s only 15 and he wanted to help.

So that kind of people driving by or walking by and seeing us working, and seeing people who normally sit in a rocking chair out there doing this and planting shrubs. All the large shrubs at the park, another family, who had a farm where they sold things like that, they said, “Well, we can supply some shrubs. Why don’t you come up and pick them out of our farm?” and I said, “Well, I really like this and I really like that.” And the next week, they had dug out enough to go around the entire park, and they came down, dug the holes, and planted them. So it was people seeing something and deciding that there was a way they could help. And I loved that about it, that it brought people together who had never even talked to each other before. So I think it has lots of potential to keep doing that.

Suzanne:
The Village Park in Roxbury is a great example of a project that came from community input and was spearheaded by a local leader and funded through Better Places. I love the story of the community really coming together to help build the park, especially the kids.

Richard:
Me too, Suzanne. It’s really what Better Places is all about. The stories we’ve heard from our guests today really capture the goals we’ve had when we started the program. These projects truly create delightful places for people to gather in their communities, get to know their neighbors, and cross paths with people of different backgrounds. They build trust that ripples outward into more civic participation, more community building, and more economic opportunities that empower communities and residents. I highly recommend checking out the dozens of other inspiring projects across Vermont that have come to life through the Better Places program. You can browse them on our Better Places website at patronicity.com/betterplacesvt.

Suzanne:
You can find a lot of inspiration on the Better Places website. But if you’re not from Vermont and you have an idea for your community, here’s one way to get started: Try reaching out to your local town leadership and neighbors. Share your idea and see how they can contribute. Many voices can help move a project forward like Dotti did in Roxbury.

Richard:
In Vermont, Better Places has been one approach to bring these community projects to life, but there are lots of ways to make a project happen with resources that every community has. It’s about broadening the conversation to ensure diverse voices are heard and engaging with one another to co-create public spaces with the people who love the place the most: residents.

Suzanne:
We hope today’s episode has got you thinking about ways you can make your own small town a healthier place. 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 healthycommunitiesvt.com 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:
And I’m Richard Amore. We really appreciate all our guests that have appeared on the podcast and shared their Better Places experiences. It’s remarkable and truly inspiring. 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.

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.

Listen on

Suzanne Kelley:
In the spring of 2022, the 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 socioeconomic barriers can also make people feel isolated in the communities where they live.

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

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

Richard Amore:
And I’m Richard Amore. Each of our guests today bring a different approach to enriching our social fabric and community wellbeing. They are leaders in organizations and programs that directly create public places, community spaces and events to bring folks together and combat social isolation. A sense of belonging can improve people’s lives by almost every measure, from physical health to mental wellbeing.

Arwen Turner:
I’m Arwen Turner. I use she/her pronouns. I’m the executive director of Come Alive Outside and I live in Wallingford, Vermont.

Suzanne Kelley:
I spoke with Arwen on a sunny September afternoon. Here in Vermont, our winters are long and cold, so an early fall day is something to cherish. I asked her to explain what we mean when we say social connectedness.

Arwen Turner:
Social connectedness, or a lot of times I think of it as social inclusion is, in my opinion, the degree of which you feel like you belong in a community, that you’re valued in that community, that you’re seen as who you truly are and that you have the capacity to contribute to that community. And I had a mentor once who explained, trying to teach me to understand what this was, about how you are treated when you go into your local grocery stores, how are you treated? Do you see a lot of people that you know and that talk to you? Are you able to afford the groceries there? Do people make eye contact with you? Are you able to reach things that are up high? If not, will someone help you? And just kind of thinking about how you’re treated in public, I think is a really good metaphor for what your level of social connective is in the community.

Right now, the weather’s great. You’re going to see a lot of people walking around. You’re going to see people just reading outside, being outside. As soon as we get into those more colder months, which is pretty long here, so we’re talking November to April, we see a lot of the population just kind of disappear. And a lot of those folks are folks who have multiple intersections that are already making mental health challenges more prevalent in their lives. And so thinking about older Vermonters, lower income folks, folks with disabilities, folks with chaotic substance use have challenges in their lives. And when it gets colder, we see those people kind of drop off. So I talked about the grocery store metaphor. You feel like in the wintertime you stop seeing those people in the grocery store, and we do have a pretty high rate of suicide ideation here in Rutland County, amongst teens all the way to our older Vermonters, and that has a lot to do, I think, with the rural isolation and the connection to social connectivity.

Richard Amore:
Our next guest is located in an extremely rural northeast kingdom region of the state. Suzanne sat down with a community activist named Sanghi Chung. Sanghi is a big outdoors person. It’s one of the reasons she moved to Vermont.

Sanghi Chung:
Vermont has invested heavily in outdoor infrastructure, and we find joy in engaging five season outdoor activities, five season including mud season like walking, hiking, biking, birding, rowing, swimming, paddling, skiing downhill, back country skiing and cross country skiing.

Richard Amore:
Even though there are tons of things to do in the hills, rivers, and forest of Vermont Sanghi explains that these outdoor recreation options can feel inaccessible for some racial groups.

Sanghi Chung:
Because in acronym BIPOC, black, indigenous, people of color, BIPOC continue to be underrepresented, under-acknowledged, under-resourced in the outdoors due to long history of racism, exclusion, and oppression. People believe that we don’t belong. There’s a perception that we don’t belong in the outdoors. So in order to change that, we develop programs thoughtfully and intentionally for black, indigenous, and people of color to find joy in the outdoors by providing resources without the financial burden.

What that means is we provide access to education, meaning instructions to learn the activity and safety of the activity. We provide equipment, we provide access to the facility, and we provide a space that is dedicated to us to have community gathering, to build our community of outdoor enthusiasts, all for free to our BIPOC community members. Because that financial burden is an unexpected burden. To just go skiing, cross country skiing, which is not as expensive as downhill when you’re talking about four people in a family, that’s almost $400 for one day, and that’s a lot of money. And that’s a lot of money to invest in not knowing that you’re going to like the activity

Suzanne Kelley:
To round out our picture of what social isolation is and how it manifests itself in small towns, let’s hear from our final guest, Kelly Stoddard Poor, who works on behalf of Vermont’s older adults.

Kelly Stoddard Poor:
I’m Kelly Stoddard Poor, and I work for AARP Vermont. I’m the associate state director and I lead our Livable Community work. When I first moved here, I remember Vermont telling me, “I hope you really enjoy spending time with yourself.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, what does that mean?” And winters can be long. They can be isolating, and to have things that keep you active and healthy outside during the winter is really, really important. And that took a number of years for me to grow and love. From my perspective, I think about the risk of isolation and what that means for older adults who are at even greater risk for isolation. So if someone’s widowed and they’re living alone, if they are LGBTQ, if they’re living on a very rural isolated road, that that risk for a loneliness is pretty significant. I think often our built environment can really fail for older adults to be able to move around.

It was just yesterday doing some listening sessions down in White River Junction on transportation and mobility. And one of the participants was talking about… She uses a walker, but she can’t use the walker anywhere on gravel roads, and that’s the majority of the roads in her community. And so the built environment hasn’t changed a lot over the years in Vermont. I think we’re a little resistant to change, and we want to keep the character of our rural state, which is really important. But we also have to think about the accessibility because that is going to greatly impact an individual’s health. So if somebody’s isolated, their risk for deteriorating mental health is huge, their physical health as well, parts of our brains start to shut down because they’re not being stimulated. And if they’re not able to get out and move around, lack of physical activity is just significant for their long-term health. So I think we could do better around our built environment to support older adults.

It’s no surprise that our independence is greatly tied to being able to drive places, and as we age, we’re going to reduce the times of the day that we’re driving. Our years are reduced. So as a female, it’s estimated that I’m going to outlive my driving years by 10. So what do I do, right? When and if I have to hang up the keys to my car? And so I think when we look at our built environment, we need to consider all users and how everybody is going to be able to get around. And frankly, I don’t think our state is prepared to meet the needs of an aging demographic.

Richard Amore:
We’ve touched on these themes in past episodes, but today we want to directly highlight ways that social isolation can be addressed by place-making, changes to the built environment and by intentional inclusive programming, these projects create fun, attractive, inclusive places for people to gather. They can be public spaces like parks, trails, and walkable streets, as well as community events, celebrations and activities.

Suzanne Kelley:
You’re right, Richard. Building community and social connectedness has been a recurring theme in this podcast series. For instance, in the previous episode, we talked about access to food, and in episode three, we highlighted open space and recreation projects. When a community creates places to grow food, eat, play, and be active together, it builds social connectedness.

Richard Amore:
Sanghi was deeply moved by a series of events in 2020. First, the pandemic hit and hate crimes against Asian Americans skyrocketed. Then Christian Cooper, a black man, was targeted for his race while birdwatching in Central Park. In Minnesota, George Floyd was brutally murdered by the police.

Sanghi Chung:
My heart was just shattered, I just didn’t know what to do. And that was no longer possible to ignore. I just couldn’t ignore that. City of Burlington declared racism a public health emergency on July 16th, 2020. A state of Vermont followed on May 20th, 2022. And I am not an exception to this harm. But for me, to heal from my daily wounds, I seek out one of many outdoor activities to help me mentally, physically, and socially. I really can honestly say if it wasn’t for that, I’m not sure where I would be now. As you might know from your own experience engaging in outdoors, that’s what got me started.

I’m a founder of Powered Magazine. Powered magazine amplifies voices and magnified faces of black, indigenous and people of color in the outdoor space and creating opportunities in outdoor recreation. During our pilot year in 2020 to 2021, we offered over 20 events with the support of organizations working on DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. So for example, we partnered with Locomotion and they provided bike safety talk and equipment for power to hold several inclusive bike days. And I’m really happy to share that many of our participants achieve their personal best and distance riding in one day.

It’s a beautiful example of resilience because it’s not something that they were aware of that they’re capable of doing and just enduring that. I know this one woman and she’s like, “I don’t know if I can’t make it.” And I’m like, “Okay, we’ll go as far as you want, and if you don’t want to continue, we can find the ride back for you.” And then she saw the rest of the group and she had this incredible support from the rest of the group, and she’s like, “I’m going to try.” And so she actually rode over 20 miles. I think I’m going to say 25, which she’s never done. And the sense of pride and the resiliency that she has in her inner strength was really, really incredible.

Suzanne Kelley:
Meanwhile, Kelly Stoddard Poor from AARP talks about her vision for built environment projects that would improve social connectedness, especially for older adults.

Kelly Stoddard Poor:
What I would love to see is more change in the built environment and specifically around pedestrian infrastructure. So better sidewalks. Sidewalks that are seamless. If you’re pushing a walker or using a wheelchair or using any type of assisted mobility device, you’re hitting every single bump. You have to lift up that walker to get over to the next chunk of sidewalk, if you can’t get down into the road to cross the sidewalk safely. Often our crosswalks are faded. They get painted once a year by many towns. Why can’t we paint them two or three times a year and provide more visibility for both the individual crossing the street, but also for the motorist so that they can see that this is a place where people can safely cross?

For the most part, older adults want to be able to age in place. They want to be able to stay in their community, they want to stay in their home. It’s where they have deep connections with neighbors, with family, with friends, and it’s not always possible. So there’s the challenges that we have within the built environment. And then there’s also the challenges with our housing stock. And so those present really, I think, unique challenges for older adults. We have an aging infrastructure in Vermont, and it does make it challenging to upgrade our built environment to be more pedestrian bike transit friendly. We also are a very rural state, and so we invest quite well in our public transit system, but it’s still not enough. And being able to really think about how we can be more strategic about those dollars that are invested in public transit and being a little bit more creative around investing in micro transit pilots to test things out, to be able to get people to where they need to go, I think is really important.

Richard Amore:
It’s so important that older Vermonters get to interact with each other and are seen in their community and reinvesting in our built environment is one of the most effective approaches to making that happen and providing places for older Vermonters to gather and connect with one another. When we design places that work for older Vermonters, it benefits the entire community. For example, when a sidewalk is made accessible through curb cuts that are maintained with older Vermonters in mind, it also helps parents pushing strollers, people using wheelchairs, and our visually impaired community members.

Suzanne Kelley:
Arwen Turner, who you heard earlier in this podcast leads an organization called Come Alive Outside. The organization works to encourage and support people of all ages and abilities to get outdoors and be active. They offer many outdoor and community-based events and activities throughout the year, including an annual winter and summer Kids Passport. This is a super fun program where children earn points and win prizes for visiting local parks, farmer’s markets, and for participating in community events.

Arwen Turner:
The mission of Come Alive Outside is to inspire community systems that create the awareness, intention and opportunity for people to live healthier lives outside. And what that means in plain language is that we connect people to nature for health, wellness and joy. And how we do that is through collaboration and connection. We work with all of those different towns in the county to try to find ways to connect people to nature in ways that meet them where they’re at. We’re really just trying to look at all the different ways that we can connect people in the county to the outdoors where they live, work, and play without having it be something where only certain populations can access the benefits.

Around three years ago, we asked ourselves a question. We wanted to know if we were actually really reaching the people that needed our programs the most. And what came back to us was that the people that were in our programs really loved our programs, but a lot of them were already connecting with each other and connecting in the outdoors. And then there was a very, very large population of people who took the survey, who had all kinds of different lived experience, and they shared some similar barriers to the outdoors. And those were feeling safe in the outdoors, feeling like they had the time to do outdoor activity, feeling like they were welcome and invited to engage in the activity, having the money to do the activities, and then just awareness about the activities. And so thinking about that, we realized that we didn’t know enough about individual lived experience to be able to solve those problems for people.

And it really isn’t the greatest approach to try to do that anyway. That’s a very patriarchy approach to solving problems. So we did is we took a big reflection and we started changing the way that we work. So instead of having this top down approach where we brought in partners to say, “Hey, we did this thing. Do you like it? Or What do you want to add?” We said, “You tell us what you want to see and we’ll see if we can make it happen.” And so there were a lot of barriers, especially around costs and things that we had no idea that even existed. And so we started to shift our way of work. We all know that getting outside and getting physical activity is good for you. That is not a mystery to anyone. And I think that there was this kind of thing that we’re like, okay, we just need to throw a net out there and give it to them and they’ll do it, but it’s not that easy.

We needed to find a way that people in our community could really connect and feel comfortable. So like people were saying, they didn’t feel safe, they didn’t feel welcome, they didn’t know what to do. So we started thinking about things that were popular in pop culture and asked people, “What do you think about if instead of having a group walk for a mile, we had baby Yodas hidden in the woods, and you went around and you found the baby Yodas, or we did an urban legend stroll and we told you ghost stories on a walk. Or we had wizards take over a park, or we had Bigfoot come and you can identify Bigfoot’s feces in the park. And what we saw from that is people were really, really excited about it, and all of a sudden our events went from having 30 to 40 people to having 500 at every single event. So there’s definitely been some things that have been really instantaneous wows that have come from that community-driven voice that we never asked before.

Richard Amore:
I love community-driven programming, and I think it’s really brave of Arwen’s organization to change the way they work in response to feedback from the community.

Suzanne Kelley:
I agree, Richard. Sanghi’s organization also listens to participants in their events. She’s gotten some great responses about the programs that Powered Magazine holds.

Sanghi Chung:
It’s been very positive. Some of the feedback I got was, especially with cross country skiing, I winter through outdoor activities such as cross country skiing is not a pastime in our community. It’s like generational wealth and generational knowledge and experience in the outdoors. It’s not passed down in many BIPOC communities. So to experience that for the first time in community with other BIPOC community members was really well received. There was a sense of community, their sense of safe feeling. And to build that confidence, having lessons in a group setting with other BIPOC committee members created a safe space where people can learn better. So it was well received. I think there are still community members who aren’t sure, and that’s understandable. I think as long as there’s consistency in offering, I think there’ll be more community members coming out of the woods, so to speak, to participate and be part of it.

Richard Amore:
Building opportunities for social connections and reducing isolation and small towns can be done in many ways from changing the built environment to making it more welcoming and inviting to offer and create a programming that is inclusive of all community members. We hope you’ve drawn inspiration from today’s gifts and come away with ideas for how you can get involved in your community and help others feel connected.

Suzanne Kelley:
We wanted to leave you with a few words of wisdom from Sanghi and Arwen.

Sanghi Chung:
Intentional action is necessary. Intentional action is necessary to move from performative space to actual anti-racism intervention. And that needs to occur at all levels, including within government and policy.

Arwen Turner:
We talked a little bit about non-transactional relationships, and I think that that’s really important with social connections. So what that means is just saying hi to people on the street that you don’t know. Buy someone a cup of coffee, ask someone how their day’s going. At our events, I just walk around and ask people, “Hey, what ideas do you have for next time? What could we be doing better? What do you like about this?” And then maybe the next time I see that person, they might say hi to me again. And then just really kind of easing into it. I think that that’s the simplest thing is just be a human to other humans.

Richard Amore:
We’d like to take Arwen’s advice and apply it right now. What ideas do you have for next time? What could we be doing better? We got four episodes left in this season of the podcast, and we’d love to hear from you.

Suzanne Kelley:
And if you want to tell us about yourself, we’d love to hear that too. Visit healthycommunitiesvt.com and click on podcast.

Richard Amore:
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 Podcast, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Richard Amore.

Suzanne Kelley:
And I’m Suzanne Kelley. We really appreciate all of our guests that have appeared on the podcast so far. You’re all amazing. 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 Pierce Mintzberg, Jonah Gale Neufeld, and Derek Clements.

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.

Listen on

Cindy Delano:
We grow garlic, we grow beans, we grow squash. We grow tomatoes for sure. We grow lettuce. We’ve put in some rhubarb, some blueberries, broccoli and cabbage we struggle with. We do various sunflowers. Lots of herbs are down there. Oregano, basil, parsley, chives.

Nour El-Naboulsi:
It’s known as amaranth, like the grain, so it’s linga linga in different East African languages. In Nepali, it’s [Nepali 00:00:41]. In the Caribbean, it’s callaloo, all these different names.

Richard Amore:
Those are just some of the types of produce that are grown in community gardens across the state of Vermont. You may be thinking, why are we talking about gardening and what does this have to do with building healthy communities?

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

Richard Amore:
And I’m Richard Amore. Having access to nutritious food is a key ingredient and health equity, but it can also be a key ingredient in building healthy communities where Vermonters feel connected to one another and their neighborhood.

Suzanne Kelley:
Food can be a great connector. It can bring people together to share their culture, their heritage, and give them a sense of belonging.

Richard Amore:
We also know that sometimes getting nutritious food can be a challenge for people in rural areas, and the nearest grocery store could be miles away and people may not know how to garden or have space or time to grow their own vegetables.

Suzanne Kelley:
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.

Richard Amore:
First, we’ll speak to Michelle Gates from the Vermont Garden Network.

Michelle Gates:
Good morning. My name is Michelle Gates. I am the executive director for the Vermont Garden Network. So we are a statewide organization that connects people to gardening resources and helps maintain shared garden spaces. The primary role of our organization is to help people learn how to grow food. So for us, that means working with different groups wherever they are to learn how to garden, and increasingly to learn how to use the foods that they’re growing. So that could mean helping a small group at a library plan a garden. That could mean some of the work that we do with Farm to school in developing and helping implement curriculum for kids that are using their school gardens as outdoor classrooms. That could mean working with residents and communities and teaching them how to trellis tomatoes. So there’s a whole kind of wide spectrum, but all of our work is centered around helping people grow food.

It’s important for rural communities to have access to community gardens because it’s a real practical way for people to have access to fresh produce among other myriad benefits of gardening, that is the one that stands out the most. And small communities in Vermont often have less access to more traditional food sources, such as a grocery. A lot of people in smaller communities or rural communities in Vermont do end up shopping for food, even in convenience stores where fresh produce is really not available to them. And we all know that living a healthy life includes fresh vegetables and fruit, and I just think that learning a little bit, even if you don’t grow all of your own food, even if you just grow a small amount of food, it does introduce that fresh produce into your family’s diets, and children become a little bit more aware of what they’re supposed to be eating and maybe even enjoy eating fresh vegetables.

Just growing a pot of tomatoes or even a small pot of basil on your window sill, the food that you can taste that you’ve grown yourself is a lot different than a lot of people have ever experienced before because they’re not used to not only fresh produce, because you can certainly buy canned vegetables and you can certainly buy bagged produce in the grocery. But there’s a huge difference from the way that a carrot tastes when you pull it out of the ground to those little carrots that you buy in a bag that are little baby carrots.

Suzanne Kelley:
One of the things that Michelle’s organization does is teach people how to grow their own food, but they don’t usually just teach gardening to individuals. Instead, the Vermont Garden Network focuses on creating more collective gardens across the state. More on that later.

Richard Amore:
Our next guest organization also helps people access fresh produce even when they don’t or can’t garden themselves.

Nour El-Naboulsi:
My name is Nour El-Naboulsi. I live in the old north end of Burlington, and I use he/him pronouns. So 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. The general theme is it’s up on the table. We trust in you. To whatever your household will use, whatever won’t go to waste feel free to take as much as you want. We are a weekly pop-up farm stand in Pomeroy Park in the old North End and South Meadows, which is a Champlain Housing Trusts neighborhood in the South end, totally free of charge. We grow some of our own produce and we work with farmers to collect perfectly fine high grade, but just surplus produce.

There’s nowhere else like Vermont where there is such, in some ways an abundance of produce during the growing season and of local food products and people behind those products. And we are so grateful to have farmers and farm crew members that maybe not necessarily are undervalued, but still are underpaid, and that is just the way our society is set up. I say all that to lead into there is a lot of produce, there is a lot of products, and through no fault of the producers or the farmers, they have to charge a high price point, and that’s just to eke out a livable existence for themselves. That’s just the kind of capitalist society we’ve structured that we live in.

So there’s a lot of physical produce out there, but there’s still a lot of people who have to go to larger big name brand stores and get preserved or frozen or not local pieces of produce. And when they do want to engage kind of in the local food space, they often have to decide between that and utilities, that and other household expenses. So the produce is there, the farmers are amazing and doing their best, but there is still a gap in access and okay, well, why does a bunch of kale have to be like a luxury item? Why are we in a society where there has to be haves and have nots for vegetables, which is pretty essential.

Richard Amore:
Nour’s commitment to distributing free produce strengthens health equity in his community. Meanwhile, Michelle Gates and the Vermont Garden Network also contribute to equity by focusing their efforts on building gardens and affordable housing communities.

Michelle Gates:
We work with a lot of affordable housing communities in Vermont. Currently we’re partnering with 23 different housing communities across four counties, and that’s one of the programs that we find most impactful. The companies that own the housing units and the property managers are all committed to giving residents space to grow food, but space is often not enough. If folks haven’t gardened before, sometimes it can be a little intimidating to start growing something and they don’t have any experience or skills to do so. So we go in and help the residents learn how to grow some of the vegetables that they want to grow. We provide seeds and plants. We provide season long technical assistance and education, pop-up workshops so that we’re helping them troubleshoot when perhaps some of their plants aren’t going well because maybe there’s a disease or a pest that has infected them. We can even help replace those plants. And then towards the harvesting season, we show them how to harvest those vegetables and how to actually prepare them or preserve them for their families.

The reason that we are doing it is because we found in talking with some of the property managers of affordable housing units that there were gardens being neglected, and we felt that with a little instruction and support, they could be put to better use and utilized. So that’s how the program started. And then we also found that the other benefits, some of the strongest benefits from this work was helping residents in these housing units learn to get along with each other. There was a lot of community building that went along with that.

There were benefits in expense reduction, so people reported grocery bills being less expensive and therefore they had money to put towards other expenses such as rent. So property managers have become real proponents of the program because they recognize the value in people eating healthy and growing food and have food access, which gardens definitely do. But some of the reasons that our property managers are real enthusiastic about the program is that they’re seeing less conflict among residents and they’re seeing people being happier and healthier, which definitely contributes to community building among the residents, and that’s an important goal of many of these housing units.

Suzanne Kelley:
Those are some pretty amazing outcomes at the health department. We are trying to be intentional about including all community members in our work. For example, we have found that people who have relocated to Vermont from different countries would like to see produce that is familiar to them at farmer’s markets and in local stores. This can greatly increase their sense of acceptance and belonging in a community. I talked with Nour about this and he gave some great examples.

Nour El-Naboulsi:
In Burlington it’s so cool that we have tons of Asian and Nepali markets. We have East African markets, halal markets, that kind of thing, and those types of markets, while not necessarily getting local pieces of produce, they still have a wide variety of selection that can make those communities feel at a home. And I also think that as we think of Vermont increasingly being a potential home or haven for climate refugees, for just as one of maybe the increasingly few safe and welcoming spaces in the United States, I think that we have the land for it. We have the people that can back that. But if you’re going to send a recently arrived Somali family into the heart of the Northeast Kingdom, rural where they might not have that East African halal market, that’s where those gaps start to increase a little bit. And also a lot of the owners shop capes of those multicultural markets, again, are immigrants themselves trying to make out their own livable wage.

I do believe they have a space, but I do think that farmers and us in the agricultural food access space can work, and maybe the government complain to this also to work to not just have the only option of those kind multicultural vegetables, let’s say, to be not disparaging any one particular market, but kind of not the best quality. It’s gone six hours from New York City sitting in a truck, who knows where it’s gotten to from New York City, what level of pesticides, whatever were used on that. So again, there will always be a space for that I do think. But also, where can we play in a space that it’s like we’re providing fresh harvested day of organic Vermont X, Y, and Z multicultural pieces of produce.
We will always take the staples of tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots. So it’s like there’s the mutual love of those, but we’ve learned so much in trying to incorporate those more culturally representative crops, and we would’ve had no idea if it wasn’t for taking a tour at New Farms for New Americans, working with the families to basically through language barriers, through translators, through Googling pictures and seeing like, would you want to see this at the farm stand next year? Oh, what is the difference between this variety and that? Now there’s over, I would say, 15 to 20 different varieties of produce from the Middle East, from East Africa, North Africa, Nepal, East Asia, and we’re learning the different names in Nepali, in Somali, in Arabic, in English.

Kind of really cool one that we grow is called in njama njama. And for Americans, it’s called garden huckleberry, and it’s cultivated for the berries you make like a huckleberry jam. We harvest three big bunches because we know there’s only three families that are going to take it. Some things we’ve had East African and Nepali crossovers where they’re calling things in different languages that they didn’t know of before, and they’re sharing recipes.

Richard Amore:
In many cultures, food has the power to bring people together, whether it be around the family dining table or in a public space in their neighborhood or village. Speaking of public space, we spoke with Cindy Delano, a co-founder of a community garden in Barton, a small town in the Northeast Kingdom. Cindy’s garden doubles as a gathering place for the people of Barton.

Cindy Delano:
So my name is Cindy Delano. My pronouns are she/her. I hail from Brownton, Vermont and I’m retired. Me and my group wanted to get together and collectively garden to help teach people the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables, how to prepare them sometimes too, and really how to grow your own. So we see our garden not only as a collective garden to produce fresh produce and give it away, which everything produced there, we give away and then we glean from our own gardens and give it away too, but also how to grow your own. We have specific distribution we roll out on Mondays and Wednesdays, but sometimes we just have extra and we put it out on the picnic table near the library. And that works as a good distribution too. Our mission statement is the Barton Community Giving Garden is a place where all can gather to grow food and community.

We do think that the garden is a place where you can nurture yourself with great fresh vegetables and fruits now. We’ve got blueberry bushes thanks to a grant, but also a place to come together and just meet people and talk to people. We’re trying to focus more and more on this community aspect because we know that the community of Barton has a high senior population, and when we’ve talked to people about our garden, they’ll say things like, “Oh, I can’t garden anymore. I can’t get down on my knees.” And we’re like, “That’s okay. Come on over to the garden and tell us a story or sing us a song, or what do you do? Play the guitar, do something. Just come over and gather and watch us pull weeds and harvest or whatever.” So we’re trying to create that community as much as a garden and a gathering place.

I see that becoming even more important than the food we provide. The food is certainly important, right? Food, clothing, shelter. But food, food is the number one thing. And so it draws together people of various walks of life and interests. The community that’s created, I look forward to going to the garden and playing in the garden and seeing my friends and building my own social network and community has been extremely rewarding. I listened to a TED Talk that talked about what makes us happy, what really makes us happy. It’s not things, it’s not money, it’s not fame, it’s interaction with other people. And I would say the happiest people are those that have the most friends and have the most interactions, and I think that’s what the Barton Community Giving Garden aspires to is to be that place where you can just go to the garden and have a positive social interaction.

Suzanne Kelley:
There’s another community garden in Nearby Glover that we wanted to highlight that is just getting started. Our guest, Jethro talked about how the garden can be a welcome community space to talk about social issues.

Jethro Hayman:
My name’s Jethro Hayman and I live in Glover, Vermont. I was born here and raised here and came back to raise my kids here after working at University of Vermont, California State University and Cornell University. And I use he/him pronouns. And I am the chair of the Glover Equity Committee. Glover is a very small rural community in the center of the Northeast Kingdom. We’re working on a community garden project. The purpose of this is to create a community space where we can plan together, grow together, harvest together food, as well as just sort of be a public place where people can come together. And a big part of this project is to use this garden as a nexus for food equity discussions and projects. So for example, we have a number of chefs that would like to talk about how to use food in tasty and healthy ways and use the garden as sort of a meeting place around that. Have other naturalists come in and do presentations and have sort of like community functions there, have a community harvest dinner.

There also have educational components about food security. And in particular, one of the things that we wanted to do is to draw attention to the fact that many of our farms are employing migrant workers, and that there needs to be a lot done. And this is something our equity committee is actively engaging in to support migrant justice because they’re absolutely necessary for farms to function, and yet they’re not treated as fully human and do not have the protections they need. So we’re trying to use this as a hub where we can have all sorts of conversations about food and food security, food equity, and just the whole process of food production and obviously the role of climate change. There’s the physical garden space, but there’s also this creating a centerpiece to discuss a lot of issues that revolve around growing food. So I would say poverty is the most significant barrier to food equity and security here.

One of the things that some of our equity team have been doing is just sort of like, I think there almost needs to be a delivery, and I think directly to my father, he gets food as a veteran, and it’s sort of like that mutual aid model is really something that we’re going to try to tie into our community garden is if we grow things, and obviously we’re going to invite people in, but even if we make it ADA compliant, some folks just getting out of their house is going to be hard enough. So we’re going to try to help solve that a little bit by bringing food to those who are wanting to make their own dishes. But yeah, it’s that connection of getting food to those that are most in need. But again, the community here is determined to make it happen and determined to not let people fall between the cracks.

Richard Amore:
As you’ve heard, there are some inspiring and creative ways that Vermonters are helping other Vermonters get food on their tables.

Suzanne Kelley:
Sometimes it’s teaching each other how to garden. Other times, it’s growing vegetables that are grown in the cuisine of our many cultures.

Richard Amore:
Sounds simple, but the effects on our communities are profound, and they can help individuals lead happier, healthier, and more connected lives. These stories show that food not only feeds our bellies, but also our souls.

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 healthycommunitiesvt.com for more episodes and to learn 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 this 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 Derek Clements.

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 healthycommunitiesvt.com 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 HealthyCommunitiesVT.com 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 healthycommunitiesvt.com 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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