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Wellness Collaborative Works to Create Livable Environments

By Mary Beth Powell on February 10th, 2016

Tired of its reputation as a “bedroom community,” Alamance County leaders want to change the county’s landscape and norms so that it is a healthy and desirable place to live, work and play. The key to their early success has been strong multidisciplinary collaboration and a commitment to an intentional, iterative process.

Alamance County, located in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, is sandwiched between better-resourced counties with amenities like major universities, a larger tax base and more fully developed physical infrastructure like trails, bike lanes and sidewalks. This relative disadvantage encourages Alamance’s residents to drive long distances to neighboring counties for higher paying jobs, recreation opportunities, a wider selection of restaurants and healthier grocery stores. In the process, Alamance County has missed the economic and health benefits that neighboring counties enjoy.

To create the development of healthier communities where residents want to live, work and play, Impact Alamance, a health legacy foundation formed in 2013, and its non-profit partner, Healthy Alamance, are using a community-driven process with broad-based support to foster change. A newly formed multidisciplinary coalition, the Alamance Wellness Collaborative (the Collaborative), supports infrastructure and policy changes to increase physical activity and provide better access to healthy foods. Active Living By Design supports this effort with trainings, technical assistance and thought partnership.

The Collaborative formed in March 2015 and is a 30-member coalition composed of representatives from public health, planning, business, education, parks and recreation, non-profit organizations and others. Many of the members are key decision makers in their respective organizations, and all are working collaboratively to implement active living and healthy eating strategies to improve the built environment throughout the county. This regional approach brings together individuals from different municipalities, agencies and organizations—all with similar goals—who were previously working in isolation. They are now working collectively and, through monthly meetings and new relationships, the Collaborative is helping each partner work more effectively toward shared health and wellness goals.

In 2015, Active Living By Design led the Collaborative through a methodical planning process that culminated in the development of a three-year Strategic Plan. This plan includes practical priority areas designed to improve active living and healthy eating in a way that fits Alamance County’s specific challenges. In 2016, the Collaborative will focus primarily on implementing the plan, and is already in the process of organizing a community forum that will build support with residents and elected officials around the plan’s goals and strategies.

After working together for nearly a year, Collaborative members stay engaged because they recognize the value of working across sectors to accomplish things none of them can do in isolation.

Participating organizations and Collaborative members have committed to a collaborative and iterative process despite busy schedules. They continue to take advantage of opportunities the Collaborative offers for them to meet regularly, stay abreast of each other’s work and learn from each other. Impact Alamance is also providing another avenue for collaboration through its new Building Healthy Environments Partnership Grants program, a special grant program open to Collaborative member organizations that join with at least one other organization to develop and submit a funding proposal. The new grant program will provide a total of $200,000 in 2016 to fund projects that address one or more priority areas outlined in the Strategic Plan.

What happens when a broad-based, multidisciplinary wellness collaborative implements an intentional process for improving a predominantly rural county’s built environment? It establishes a solid foundation for improving population health, supporting the local economy and making Alamance County a more desirable place to live, work and play.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).