Purdue University’s Cooperative Extension has been leveraging its resources to accomplish more through collaboration, and projects it helped advance with wellness coordinators were an important part of that this year.

Because fitness is as basic to wellness as proper nutrition, a presentation on work underway to improve public spaces in Fort Wayne for that purpose was among the updates Allen County Extension professionals presented during its annual meeting Dec. 9 at the 1st Source Bank Building in downtown Fort Wayne.

Less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day, and children now spend more than 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen, said wellness coordinator Nathan Miller. Health and Human Services projects that half of all adults in the United States will be considered obese by 2030.

“I tend to think we have built an environment around ourselves where it’s just not practical to live healthy. We think of going to the gym as exercise, not living life,” he said. “But, there’s always the question of how do you make the change on something that just feels like the ship has left the port and it’s headed out.

“We want to affect the world that people live in so that they can get around without a car. And I don’t care what your economic status is … everybody should be able to get around without a car,” he said.

“I’ve been working with community advocates to create something called the Active Transportation Coalition. We’ve been at it a couple of years. This year we made some really good headway, and I think you’re going to see even bigger things in 2020.”

The first 2019 project he mentioned was an example of tactical urbanism where the extension helped install community sidewalk and right-of-way improvements to make the Mount Vernon Park Neighborhood a more walkable, safe and healthy community.

Tactical urbanism is “where you take a spot that’s not particularly friendly for humans or it doesn’t feel safe for people to be at and you modify it with temporary stuff and you try to make these quick changes and make it a better place and see how people interact with it,” Miller said.

The project was funded with a grant that the Bridge of Grace ministry obtained from the American Association of Retired People.

“There is this weird little road that people use as a cut-through and move really fast on that people didn’t feel comfortable with,” Miller said. “We did a little pop-up shop, and we did some road painting to try and get people to move physically.

“This was during the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference in September. They did this really neat crosswalk and got people from across a couple of streets. There was creative space there. They had a dinner. They had live music there. It just attracted the neighborhood to come in and act like it’s a space for people instead of that quick cut-through for cars.”

The extension also obtained an Indiana Department of Health grant to help slow Crescent Avenue traffic with a bump-out, and it undertook a tactical urbanism project to slow California Avenue traffic at a turn near Lakeside Park.

Its work with the coalition also advanced a walking campaign by assisting Holy Cross Lutheran School and Forest Park Community School with their National Walk to School Day activities.

“I figured we’d have like two dozen kids show up and the parents would bring their kids and we’d walk to school. Well, it turns out Mayor (Tom) Henry came out and we had an interview with him and he talked to the kids and we had hundreds and hundreds of kids at this,” Miller said.

“It being a faith-based school, he spoke and then the principal asked if he could pray for him and all the kids gathered around him and prayed. Afterwards, we walked to school, and we walked in a neighborhood that doesn’t actually have sidewalks, so we had police kind of directing people. We had city engineers who were there kind of watching to see how it worked,” he said.

“And we had quite a few at Forest Park Elementary. It was just one little morning, but it kind of started the conversation about how we make it safer for these kids who do not have the bus option, how do they get to school, especially if the infrastructure’s not in place.”

The city has been putting in more infrastructure for walking. An October 2017 local income tax increase was expected to bring the city an additional $8.36 million annually, with at least a third of that amount to be used for sidewalks and alleys over a 25-year period and the rest allocated to riverfront development.

Last year Miller worked with volunteers who walked the city to watch how pedestrians moved in public spaces and from building to building.

The data they gathered was used this year by the internationally recognized architecture and urban design firm, Gehl, to create a Downtown Fort Wayne Public Realm Action Plan.

The plan announced this spring outlined potential pilot projects designed to help connect public spaces and encourage more people to visit downtown and spend more time during the visits.

The study analyzing the use of downtown public spaces such as alleys, sidewalks, parks, underpasses and public buildings was funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne/Knight Foundation, the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission and the city’s Community Development Division.

With favorable feedback on the projects, the extension will continue its tactical urbanism work next year.

“If you want to be part of the Active Transportation Coalition or you have an area you want to work on, let me know. We want to get people around without a car. It increases physical activity. It creates community. It’s the way we’re designed,” Miller said. “We were built to walk.”

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