Promoting community walkability through meaningful community engagement in Alberta communities
Guest blogger Graham Matsalla is a health promotion facilitator working in Chronic Disease Prevention with Alberta Health Services. This post is connected to our product series on healthy built environments, introduced here.
When it comes to program planning, having limited resources at your disposal can have a positive impact on your eventual outcomes because it forces you to think creatively. When I first started working for Alberta Health Services in 2011, I was tasked with creating the WalkABle Alberta community engagement process to create community reports that provide recommendations to improve community walkability (Figure 1). Since there were no additional resources I could provide to the community beyond my own consultation, my goal was to ensure that I could help communities without taking a prescriptive approach. I was able to partner and work with provincial and municipal stakeholders to help improve community walkability throughout Alberta. Let me tell you what I did.
Figure 1: The WalkABle Alberta Community Engagement Process
Communicating the benefits
Local health promoters initiated my involvement in their communities by directly requesting help from WalkABle Alberta to improve the walkability of the communities with which they work. Going in, I realized that many communities were already interested in becoming healthier through increased walkability (sometimes knowingly, sometimes not). Creating a healthier community needs to start somewhere, so I began by introducing the community benefits achievable through walkability improvements to local health promoters and municipal administrators. These can include improvements in the health, social, economic, environmental and built environment realms. I encouraged health promoters and municipal administrators to engage community members most in need in the process to help ensure the community changes would be accessible and inclusive.
Linking the issues and the players
Next, I learned about what was already going on in the community. When a region is planning change, there are often municipal development plans, community strategic plans, economic development plans or sustainability plans that already outline the proposals that the community intends to focus on. For the communities I worked with, I linked these plans with the walkability changes recommended in resources such as the International Charter for Walking.  When these ideas supported current community strategies and planning, they could reinforce the importance of addressing community walkability issues.
Getting everyone involved
At the same time, I would encourage the local public health promoter to be involved with the community planning process by linking them to the municipal planner. Planners exert the most influence on healthy community development and have the same (or similar) goals in mind as public health, so the support from public health practitioners added value to their direction. Beyond local planners and public health professionals, having local community contacts ensures the right community stakeholders are engaged in the process.
In my role, I provided a perspective from outside of the community. This involved offering feedback to participants through a community walkabout I facilitated where we walked around a community or neighbourhood and assessed its walkability. An external vantage point can help organizers to see what’s working well and provide inspiration for community change. However, a walkabout can also be done as an individual or as part of a group without a facilitator, using a resource to guide your assessment.
Set common goals
Once we linked the issues and players, we explored how to accomplish common goals with the shared outcome of community improvements. As you identify common goals, you can also work to create an action plan that distributes the workload and the time, financial and human resources required. This shared approach encouraged organizational buy-in and created sustainability from a common sense of ownership of the initiatives being implemented.
Unfortunately, it’s not always this easy. A community might be at various stages of readiness for change.  Moreover, if there are specific barriers that inhibit leadership support, they need to be addressed. Bringing together decision-makers to express their concerns will help you identify obstacles and work out how to overcome them. A great way to engage decision-makers and to give community members the opportunity to voice their opinions is through a community engagement session or workshop.
I facilitate community walkability workshops using the International Charter for Walking.  In these sessions, community members can voice their opinions on what their municipal administration is doing well and what changes they would like to see based on the Charter principles. Based on the workshops, the administration can create an action plan, with recommendations provided by me (the facilitator).
In the sessions I facilitated, participant feedback stressed that it is very important that the right people (decision-makers) are in the room to hear the opinions of community members to ensure there is support for implementing the resulting actions and/or recommendations.
Community walkability champions have reported that the engagement process I facilitated has helped them make improvements in community walkability and has resulted in other benefits such as the formation of broader healthy community committees, the development of stakeholder relationships and the promotion of resource sharing. WalkABle Alberta continues to work with these champions to help them accomplish the goals outlined in community reports resulting from the engagement process. Priorities might change and some actions might be easier to accomplish than others, but with a strategy in place, champions can keep their focus on an equitable, accessible and healthy community.
When engaging communities, flexibility is key if you want to do work that’s based on their needs and support plans that reflect the changes they would like to see. I have done this by:
- working with local community contacts who see the value in improving community walkability;
- determining community and municipal administration priorities;
- linking health promoters, planners, decision-makers and community stakeholders to increase their capacity (e.g., through new or existing community health committees);
- using an approach that takes advantage of my external perspective, which can offer constructive, outsider feedback regarding existing systems — highlighting the positives while looking for opportunities that can inspire community change;
- helping stakeholders determine common goals based on each group’s individual priorities; and
- facilitating the creation of a community report that contains recommendations that result in community actions that are created by the community, for the community.
Graham Matsalla, BSc (Kin), MBA, CRP, CHE
Chronic Disease Prevention & Oral Health
Population, Public, & Indigenous Health
10101 Southport Road SW Calgary, AB. T2W 3N2
 Walk21. (2006, October). International Charter for Walking. Retrieved from http://www.pedestrians-int.org/images/IFP/pdf/key_doc/charter_EN.pdf
 Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C.C. (1986). Toward a comprehensive model of change. In W.R. Miller & N. Heather (Eds). Treating Addictive Behavior. New York: Springer US.
Photo: Denisse Leon