Want to Make Things Happen? Go to a Planning Commission Meeting

Laural Ruggles is a 2016 America Walks Walking College Fellow.  She chairs the local Fit and Healthy Coalition and is a member of the St. Johnsbury Walk and Bike Advisory Committee.

Over a decade ago I heard Mark Fenton speak for the first time.  He was here in Vermont. Up on the screen, he put a list of things we could do to promote physical activity.  He asked us if we could do “one thing” on the list what would we do? I can’t remember everything on the list, but “hold a health fair” and “go to a town planning committee meeting” (or something to that effect) were two of the choices.  As Mark went on to explain, to have the biggest impact the planning committee was the correct answer. That was my “aha” moment

Since then, in my job working in community health improvement in a non-profit community hospital in rural Vermont, I’ve looked for opportunities to partner with the select boards and planning commissions in the small towns in our region.  We’ve supplied “Share the Road” signs for a village center popular with mountain bikers; got a grant for informational kiosks for towns along a new rail trail; and this summer partnered with two towns to sponsored pop up fitness classes in parks on Saturdays.

So when, as an American Walks Walking Fellow in 2016, it was time to develop my action plan, it made perfect sense to once again team up with town government. It took about a year, but working with the local Fit and Healthy Coalition, and the statewide organization Local Motion, we successfully partnered with St. Johnsbury and Lyndon, the two largest towns in our region, to form official Walk and Bike Advisory Committees.  These committees are appointed by the town select boards and function in advisory roles to the towns for walking and biking issues.

How did we do it?  It helped to have existing relationships with town officials. Remember Mark Fenton said “go to a town planning commission meeting”.  Learn how your town government works. What is the best way to get things “done”?  What is the process? Who are the key people – the movers and shakers? What transportation or walking projects are already being discussed or in process? Show up, share your concerns and opinions, and most importantly – volunteer your time, energy, and talents.  

Because of the long crosswalks, this intersection in St. Johnsbury has long been identified as unsafe by residents. Temporary bump outs created an opportunity to gather input from people crossing the intersection; consequently, permanent changes to reduce the length of the crosswalks have been added to the construction plans for an upcoming project near this intersection.

The Lyndon Walk Bike Advisory Committee is currently focused on increasing safety for walkers at a high traffic intersection near the high school.  Recently, students crossing the street in the crosswalk were struck by a vehicle at the site. Besides school officials, the town police chief is a key stakeholder on this issue.  The debate continues on how best to continue, but stop signs, better lighting, and changing the location of the crosswalk are all on the table.

The Lyndon committee received a grant to build informational kiosks and trail maps for a scenic, but little used river walk connecting parking areas to town sports fields.  The kiosks are being constructed by local high school students and should be installed this fall.


Lew Apgar, Chair of the Lyndon Walk Bike Advisory Committee, shares plans for a kiosk and map for the river walk with members of the Fit and Healthy Coalition.

In St. Johnsbury, the committee is working with the town manager on a sidewalk assessment to help prioritize repairs and maintenance.  This summer the committee will co-sponsor, with the town chamber of commerce, a place-making event to get community opinions on how best to connect the downtown with the riverfront and the rail trail. This community feedback will inform future municipal projects.

Last year, we orchestrated a temporary (pop-up) safety improvement to an intersection identified in a previous Complete Streets assessment of St. Johnsbury.  The pop-up improvements (shortening the cross walks by creating bump outs) were positively received by residents (people were surveyed at the intersection over a period of several days, and others were directed to an on-line survey via a press release in the local paper and through social media – 165 surveys were received) and consequently the town plans to permanently add the bump outs to a future project at that intersection.  

The resources provided by my participation in the Walking College, and especially the opportunity to speak with Mark Fenton directly, showed me that town officials are important and effective partners for active transportation and physical activity projects.  Walking College tools like walkability assessments and learning modules about leading community change and the town planning process were valuable as we approached the towns about forming Walk and Bike Advisory Committees. I continue to take advantage of the tools on the website and free webinars – and always invite local partners and colleagues to attend the webinars.

Take advantage of the America Walks resources.  And whatever the size of your town or city, take Mark’s – and now my – advice: go to the next local planning commission meeting and make things happen!