The city of Newton, Iowa, is collaborating with UI and Grinnell College to develop community-based programs and projects

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Dillon Constant’s roots run deep in Newton, Iowa. Four generations of his family have called the central Iowa community home. While the first-year graduate student in the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning no longer lives in Newton, a partnership between the UI and the city is giving him a chance to continue to be active in and invest in his hometown.

Newton Community Health Partnership

The University of Iowa and Grinnell College are collaborating with the city of Newton, Iowa, on a project to identify and develop effective community-based programs that support and promote health and obesity prevention.

The effort is supported by former Iowa Governor and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Learn more.

Faculty, staff, and students from the UI and Grinnell College are collaborating with Newton to identify and ultimately implement effective community-based programs and projects to support and promote health and obesity prevention.

“I was interested in this project immediately, before I even knew much about it,” Constant says. “Knowing I could contribute to improving the built environment and the health of residents of my hometown was exciting, and I thought I could be an asset to the group.”

Constant received a Bachelor of Science in geographic information science from the University of Northern Iowa, but soon began researching other careers related to his degree. He stumbled upon urban planning.

“I was riding a train through Germany and began to think about how transportation systems come about and who influences transportation policies,” Constant says. “It’s funny because while transportation got me interested, I’m less interested in that aspect of planning and more interested in land use now.”

He looked at several urban and regional planning programs, but says the UI offered him the best package, and he liked that it is close to family in Newton. Within a few months of being on campus, second-year graduate student Zhi Chen invited him to join a pilot project that focused on his hometown.

Students and faculty involved with the Newton Community Health Partnership come from the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning, UI College of Public Health, and departments of psychology and sociology at Grinnell College. They are working to develop evidence-based projects and programs for the city of Newton that are focused on food and nutrition, exercise and physical activity, and the built environment, which refers to the aspects of our surroundings that are constructed by humans. While the projects and programs will be specific to the town, the effort’s evidenced-based approach will make it applicable to other communities with similar characteristics and conditions.

The partnership is one of two in the nation supported by former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and the Rockefeller Foundation—the other being Colorado State University and Denver.

“We know there are different challenges that go along with urban areas and rural areas when it comes to health,” says Nick Benson, executive director of the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement. “Colorado is working on a project in an urban setting in Denver, while we are working in a more rural setting here in Iowa.”

zhi chen and dylan constand
Zhi Chen and Dillon Constant discussing their efforts while on a stroll through town. Photo courtesy of the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement.

Recent national health reports make this project particularly timely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in September 2018 that revealed the state of Iowa fell from 13th to the fourth highest obesity rate in the United States. In Iowa, 36.4 percent of adults and 17.7 percent of children (ages 10 to 17) are obese and at higher risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other physical and mental health concerns.

Benson says initially there were few parameters around this pilot year, which will end in fall 2019, but participants knew that physical activity and nutrition often are two of the key determinates in overall health and wellness.

“The idea is we will utilize research that tells us what already works—particularly related to nutrition and physical activity—and take that research and apply it to the community of Newton and say, ‘What do we need to do to continue to enhance opportunities for healthy lifestyles in Newton?’” Benton says. “We’ll submit our findings and proposals to Rockefeller at the end of the pilot year with the hope of receiving additional funding to implement or enhance proposed projects and programs.”

The students have split into two groups: one focusing on issues surrounding nutrition and one examining how the built environment influences health, particularly physical activity. Constant, who is working with the built-environment group, says they have been concentrating on how to build physical activity into residents’ daily lives—without them necessarily having to go to the gym.

“A lot of people use trails for recreation or exercise, but not as their method of transportation,” Constant says. “If you want to bike or walk to work or school, what do you need? A lot of that has to do with sidewalk connectivity, making street routes safe for bicycles and getting people comfortable walking and biking.”

Along with looking at what previous research has indicated has the greatest effect on community health and well-being, the group also looked at what Newton has already done to encourage walking, biking, and general active living in the community. Now, group members are working to identify and assess specific areas for prioritized projects and enhancements. These will address network connectivity and support active transportation between key points of interest, including Legacy Plaza, the Des Moines Area Community College campus, downtown, schools, and recreational spaces.

“We’re trying to create a road map for Newton to be able to continue moving forward in terms of their built environment and encourage active living,” Benson says.

It’s this project that has Tanya Michener most excited. The associate director of the Newton Development Corp. says the city has done a lot of work on hiking and biking trails, as well as on green space at Legacy Plaza.

“I think this will amplify all of it,” Michener says. “We’ve been a little fragmented, and I think this project will help it all come together and be more connected.”

Meanwhile, a group of public health faculty and students is focusing on nutrition for children in Newton. Benson says the Newton Community School District has done a fantastic job of integrating programming into the existing school day to encourage healthy eating, but research shows that some of the biggest challenges to combating childhood obesity occur outside the school day, particularly in the summer.

The group is working with the school district and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development to create a pilot program this summer that will provide nutrition education and activities to get kids interested in the food they’re eating. A class taught by Linda Snetselaar, professor in the College of Public Health and associate provost of the Office of Outreach and Engagement, is supplementing this work by helping to define best practices for data collection to determine the success of such programs.

The summer programming illustrates one area where the issues of nutrition and the built environment overlap.

“One of the biggest challenges to getting kids to be physically active and continuing to eat well in the summer involves access,” Benson says. “Kids are at home during the summer and there may not be an adult around to drive them places. So, the challenge is to get them to be able to bike, walk, or take a bus to the summer programming. That will be the focus of another project.”

As the work evolves, the community’s needs and wants are always top of mind.

“We’re taking their lead,” Benson says. “This partnership is based on what Newton has already done and what they are interested in. We want this to be a very community-driven process.”

january meeting
Constant and Chen speak to the the partnership during a January 2019 meeting. Photo courtesy of the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement.

Michener says community members appreciate the students and faculty listening to them, but they also are interested in any and all ideas.

“I don’t think you can put a dollar value on having their perspective and no-ideas-barred approach,” Michener says. “We want them to know what we were thinking, but we also don’t want to thwart fresh ideas. It’s also great to have people their age give perspective on what they want in a community.”

Michener, whose son played sports and graduated with Constant, was surprised and happy to see a Newton native at an early planning meeting. She says she remembers Constant as someone who went out of his way to be involved in his community.

“It’s great that he can come back and see it through fresh eyes but still have that tie,” Michener says.

Benson says Constant’s insight into his hometown has been helpful throughout the process.

“That’s where I can help. It not just, ‘Welcome to Newton, I’ll be your navigator,’” Constant says. “I’m familiar with where stuff is as well as some of the history of the town and attitudes of community members.”

Constant, who is also an intern for Linn County in Iowa, says he appreciates the opportunity to be a part of this partnership as urban and regional planners are increasingly taking the health of a community into account in their work.

“Because of the health focus, it’s a more unique experience than many urban and regional planning graduate students will have,” Constant says. “I’m getting real planning experience—experience presenting to stakeholders, research experience, even becoming acquainted with sources of funding that I might work with in the future.”

Students being able to gain real-world experience is one of the reasons Benson says community partnerships are so valuable to the UI.

“It means that we’re graduating students who understand the complex challenges that our communities face today, and who have taken real steps to solve those challenges even before they graduate,” Benson says.

As for Constant, who would like to find a position as a land-use planner for a city or county in the Midwest after he graduates, he says he looks forward to continuing work in his hometown. However, he does at times have to disappoint his family, who wants to see him every time he’s there.

“I just have to tell them I’m carpooling and not able to visit,” Constant says.