Planning consultant conducts workshop in county

A public health, planning and transportation consultant from Massachusetts recently spent a couple of days visiting Jackson County to discuss possible sidewalk and crosswalk improvements.

Mark Fenton of Scituate was invited here by the Healthy Jackson County coalition to present a workshop. He also made a windshield tour of parts of the county to look for areas that could use improvement.

People from Brownstown, Crothersville and Seymour were invited to attend the workshop and receive feedback from Fenton about road and sidewalk projects.

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The workshop is connected to a $1.15 million obesity prevention grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Purdue University administers for Jackson and Lawrence counties. That two-year grant runs out in October.

Fenton’s visit was an effort to find ways of creating more efficient and safer walkways near schools and downtown areas.

“Mark Fenton’s presentation helped demonstrate how safe places for indoor and outdoor activities and interactions with people, paths, parks, bikes and cars are still an important part of having local healthy and safe communities,” said workshop attendee Dr. Jack Gillespie, Brownstown Township chairman.

“Listening to a motivational speaker and participating in such a workshop helps give one a better understanding of things we have neglected,” Gillespie said. “It also helps start making the changes needed locally to develop and maintain a healthy environment.”

Gillespie said the Healthy Jackson County community objective to reduce obesity has actively increased awareness of some of the local environmental limitation.

As a township board member, Gillespie believes a safe and healthy local environment should be one of the most important responsibilities for local government units.

Kris Darlage Meyer, Purdue Extension Jackson County educator and community health champion, also attended the workshop and walk audit in Brownstown, where the focus was on the safety of school routes and also the areas adjoining the elementary and middle school.

“Mark looked at traffic speed, congestion from cars in the area and the safety, or lack of, where students walk and bike in school areas,” Meyer said. “He also looked at ways to improve the crosswalks that students use on town streets.”

Attention also was drawn to the developing Brownstown trail system and future plans for the extension of it.

“In Crothersville, he toured an area often walked by students to get to school and where they cross (U.S.) 31,” Meyer said. “He made suggestions as to how the safety of crosswalks and the main walk routes used could be improved.”

Meyer said the main topic in Seymour was downtown and the area being developed into the new downtown park.

“He looked at walkability as far as safe walk routes to the park space and how users could reach the park as well as ways of connecting some important downtown locations to one another, such as employees from the hospital having easy walk routes and crossings that lead to the downtown area,” Meyer said.

Fenton’s recommendations can now be used for planning purposes, she said.

“It is our hope that each town will be able to make an application for funding for at least one of the street or safety improvement projects identified by their work group during the workshop,” Meyer said. “Once approved for funding, towns will be able to make some of the changes he recommended to them.”

Becky Schepman, executive director of Seymour Main Street, also attended the workshop.

“He is a great speaker that brought lots of wisdom to our group,” Schepman said. “It was an interesting presentation because after he spoke, we actually did a walk audit of Brownstown and were able to put what we learned into practice.”

The workshop attendees then split into groups by community and talked about the specific ideas they wanted to implement, Schepman said.

“The first idea that I wanted to do was the walk-your-city signs, which I saw in a webinar that was sent by the Healthy Jackson County group,” Schepman said. “I have already implemented that idea downtown with four signs, and we are planning on adding another four.”

The signs encourage physical activity by reminding pedestrians there is only a five-minute walk to most things in downtown Seymour, and if they are able, people could walk instead of drive to places while they are downtown.

“The second idea that we are going to try to implement is the high-visibility crosswalks,” Schepman said. “We want to do these by the farmers market crossing Walnut Street and also on Chestnut Street in front of the chamber.”

Schepman would like to see the crosswalks painted in a music theme because that road will be the one leading to the new park where several musical events are scheduled to take place.

“I would love for the music note crosswalks to be the notes to the John Mellencamp song ‘Small Town,’” Schepman said. “These high-visibility crosswalks will aid in safety and will draw attention to the area and hopefully encourage motorists to slow down and be more alert in these heavily crossed areas.”

Fenton also had ideas for traffic calming that included bumped-out intersections and parklets that would not only aid in safety but also would add to placemaking in the downtown.

Placemaking refers to a way of approaching the planning, design and management of public spaces. It inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of the community.

Fenton speaks regularly on topics ranging from how to create more livable, sustainable and successful cities and towns to delivering innovative personal health and fitness programs for employees and community members.

Walkability and improving pedestrian safety and access were the main goals of Fenton’s March 5 and 6 visit, Meyer said.

“A nice side benefit is that towns, like those in Jackson County, get suggestions and possible low-cost solutions to things, like safety in school zones, traffic flow issues in parking areas and improvements to access for downtown venues,” she said.

Meyer said the workshop was part of a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Healthy Jackson County and Purdue University, and the grant will be a source of project funding for those who apply.

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Mark Fenton is a national public health, planning and transportation consultant, an adjunct associate professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and former host of the “America’s Walking” series on PBS television.

He is an author of numerous books, a developer of the University of North Carolina’s Safe Routes to School clearinghouse and facilitator for the walkable community workshop series of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

Fenton now provides technical training and community planning as an independent consultant. He also is a vocal advocate for non-motorized transportation, a frequent consultant on bicycle and pedestrian community plans and recognized authority on public health issues and the need for community, environmental and public-policy initiatives to encourage more walking, bicycling and transit use.