UGA, rural communities are working on safe hiking routes

The aim is to create areas for movement and play for the residents

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

But now a team of University of Georgia faculty and students is working with rural Georgia communities to create more spaces where everyone can safely train and play.

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

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

The program works in partnership with five rural Georgia counties — Calhoun, Clay, Dooly, Stewart and Taliaferro — to find sustainable ways to help residents eat better and exercise more.

Identifying areas where the community should focus its resources is critical and this is where Donnie Longenecker, a senior lecturer at UGA’s College of Environment and Design, and IBD students will offer his service and expertise.

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

“These terms are loaded into a geographic information system software app and overlaid on a map of the city to pinpoint opportunities and restrictions for bicycle and pedestrian travel,” Longenecker said. “Students can use these analysis cards 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 students to find vacant lots that could be developed in a way that promotes healthy eating and physical activity.

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

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

The Healthier Together team was able to use plans created by the IBD class to request additional funds to support their mission. Taliaferro County’s school garden is under construction, and the mayor of Fort Gaines, Georgia, in Stewart County recently submitted a grant to support construction of a downtown public park, Jefferson Street Park. The application has been strengthened by the inclusion of a master plan developed by Joiner and the spring 2022 IBD class, Southall said.

Longencker and Southall plan to work with other county and city leaders to seek more funding to bring those plans to fruition in 2022 and 2023.

The master plan for Jefferson Street Park in Fort Gaines.

“From a very high-level perspective, there hasn’t been a hard-to-quantify scientific link between landscape architecture and public health. Participation in this project helps us to take a step in this direction and opens up new avenues for partnerships. Consolidating this in the scientific community contributes to tremendous advances for landscape architects and allows our students to apply their work in practice,” said Longenecker.

The Healthier Together project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the 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 on everything the Healthier Together project is working on, visit

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