Georgia Impact Society & Culture

UGA, rural communities work on safe walking routes

A woman walks on one of the paths in Calhoun County. (Submitted photo)

The goal is to develop areas for residents to exercise and play safely

In many rural Georgia communities, there are few safe routes, away from high-traffic areas, that allow opportunities for physical activity. Without this infrastructure, walking in the community can be unsafe and difficult.

But now, a team of faculty and students from the University of Georgia are working with rural Georgia communities to create more spaces where everyone can exercise and play safely.

Using an innovative mapping tool, the team was able to present recommendations where communities could install sidewalks and bike paths to offer new walking routes to everyday destinations.

Creating areas where it’s safe and easy to be physically active is a primary goal of the Healthier Together program, a CDC-funded interdisciplinary project, which also aims to increase access to healthy food to combat high obesity rates and chronic disease. Making healthy choices that can prevent these diseases can be a challenge in Georgia’s rural communities where easy access to grocery stores and local parks is fairly limited.

The program is working in partnership with five rural Georgia counties – Calhoun, Clay, Dooly, Stewart and Taliaferro – to determine sustainable ways to help residents eat better and move more.

Identifying areas where the community should focus their resources is key, and this is where Donnie Longenecker, a senior lecturer in UGA’s College of Environment and Design, and CED students will offer his service and expertise.

Longenecker and CED graduate student Kayla Joiner developed a tool for identifying optimal routes for biking and walking in the five Healthier Together counties, and a class of third-year landscape architecture students used the tool to prepare an inventory of existing conditions in each of the communities.

“These conditions are loaded into a geographic information system software app and overlaid on a map of the town to locate opportunities and constraints for bike and pedestrian travel,” said Longenecker. “Students are able to use these analysis maps to test and refine their design ideas.”

The GIS tool was first tested in Stewart County in 2021 and then refined for use in Calhoun County in 2022.

The software also allows the students to find undeveloped parcels of land that could be developed in ways that will encourage healthy nutrition and physical activity.

For example, students worked with the local school principal in Taliaferro County to develop plans for a community and educational garden at the school.

“Donnie and Kayla have made this project stronger. Their expertise in landscape architecture helped improve a grant application in Fort Gaines, Georgia, and added ideas that would have not been considered without the College of Environment and Design’s presence on the team. The interdisciplinary nature of the team is vital to the mission of the Healthier Together project,” said Hannah Southall, Healthier Together program coordinator in UGA’s College of Public Health.

The Healthier Together team has been able to use plans created by the CED class to apply for additional funding to support their mission. The Taliaferro County school garden is in the process of being built, and the mayor of Fort Gaines, Georgia, in Stewart County recently submitted a grant to support building a public park in the city’s downtown, Jefferson Street Park. The application was strengthened by including a master plan developed by Joiner and the spring 2022 CED class, said Southall.

Longencker and Southall plan to work with other county and city leadership to apply for more funding to make these plans realities in 2022 and 2023.

The master plan for the Jefferson Street Park in Fort Gaines.

“From a very high-level perspective, there has been no hard quantifiable scientific connection between landscape architecture and public health. Being involved in this project helps us take a step in this direction and opens up new avenues for partnerships. Solidifying this in the scientific community helps make huge progress for landscape architects and gives our students hands-on application of their work,” said Longenecker.

The Healthier Together project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between UGA Extension, the College of Public Health, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the College of Environment and Design and the College of Family and Consumer Science. For more information about everything the Healthier Together project is working on, visit