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Increasing Social Connectedness in Rural Settings

By Tim Schwantes on March 29th, 2022

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Mention rural settings and many people picture rolling farmlands or meadows, winding roads or rivers, and a slower pace to life. While rural communities vary in topography and structure, rural residents often live farther apart and at a distance from public spaces, recreation opportunities, services, and other resources. Longer commutes to work can create limitations on time and personal resources. Broadband access is a challenge for nearly one in four rural residents and nearly one in three living in tribal areas. This digital divide exacerbates disparities related to education, jobs, and health care1. Many move to rural locations for privacy and take pride in their self-reliance. Yet, social isolation and loneliness are as real in rural communities as in any other place. How then, can local leaders create conditions that honor people’s values and needs, while also enhancing their social wellbeing?

As part of an ongoing virtual learning network series, Healthy Places by Design recently hosted a conversation with local leaders to discuss rural strategies for social connections. We created this learning network as a space for local government, community, and philanthropic leaders to explore community-level strategies that reduce social isolation and strengthen social ties, especially for those most marginalized. On this particular call, people working in rural areas across many different communities discussed how they address rural isolation and shared ideas to create more connectedness.

For example, Kate Schroeder, the director of communications for Thrive Allen County (KS), shared their multipronged approach for reaching people by connecting programmatic opportunities and placemaking to their existing (built) environment. Kate also talked about an innovative online platform, Televeda, that hosts virtual events—like book clubs, games, and even exercise classes—for those who might not be able to travel to in-person opportunities. When Kate talked about a pocket park near the town square in Iola, the county seat, she said, “The town square is not just a physical anchor, it’s what people think of when they think about Allen County. It’s the sense of place for people.” This insight about what people might see as a natural meeting place has informed programs and projects – like a farmers’ market and local artist talks downtown.

Rob Sadowsky, a transportation safety outreach coordinator in Clackamas County, OR, shared stories about working in the local schools to disseminate information about safe driving and substance use/abuse in their rural settings. He shared examples where tragic vehicle crashes led to more coordination between agencies and departments. As he put it, “Each crash is a story for us. It gives us an opportunity to think through who we are, what we’re doing, and how we can save lives in the future.” Such health data is shared in the Blueprint for a Healthy Clackamas County, which generates more opportunities for resident involvement and dialogue.

Other topics of conversation included the importance of coordinating care services, engaging youth as leaders, developing intergenerational strategies, and hosting community conversations or creative events like Take a Seat, Meet a Friend. Participants were encouraged to exchange contact information to keep the ideas flowing after the call.

Unfortunately, social isolation and loneliness are common terms we’re hearing more about and not just in rural settings. It is pervasive and manifests itself in different ways. Just last week, the New York Times attributed the rise in gun-related crime across the country in part to social isolation during the pandemic2. Also in March, Utah’s Governor Cox and Indiana’s Governor Holcomb (both Republicans) rightly vetoed bills that would have excluded transgender athletes from competing in sports – which is discriminatory and further perpetuates isolation for an already vulnerable population3. While these are vastly different issues, they persist in part due to the lack of social connectedness many of us feel in our communities, negatively impacting our health and well-being. The Socially Connected Communities report includes recommendations to inspire collective action that results in more socially connected and equitable communities.

If you’d like to strengthen social connectedness in your community, we invite you to join this growing learning network. The topics, and most importantly the people, that are being lifted up in these monthly calls are vital to creating healthier and more inclusive communities.

For more information on upcoming topics and schedules, or to join the next Local Leaders call, please email Gabriella Peterson at gabriellap@healthyplacesbydesign.org.

Resources for this session are now available, including slides and a recording of the main session.

 

Photo credit: Sveta Fedarava, unsplash.com

 

 

References

1 https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/forefront.20200505.591306/full/
2 https://messaging-custom-newsletters.nytimes.com/template/oakv2?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20220323&instance_id=56454&nl=the-morning&productCode=NN&regi_id=123196486&segment_id=86269&te=1&uri=nyt%3A%2F%2Fnewsletter%2Fe2f0cef9-29ea-5571-8f07-55a160d64516 
3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/03/23/utah-cox-transgender-athlete-veto/

Author
Tim Schwantes

Senior Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.