Comprehensive Planning for Physical Activity in Rural Communities: Interview with Lisa Charron

by Christiaan Abildso, PhD

In the sixth episode of Views from the Front Porch, my guest is Lisa Charron, Project Assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Population Health Institute. She’s also a PhD student in an interdisciplinary environment and resources program in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She has a Master of Public Health degree and Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning degree. Lisa joined me on a windy Wisconsin spring day to talk about the great work she and her colleagues are doing to integrate healthy eating and active living into comprehensive plans in rural Wisconsin. She enjoys riding her bike around Madison, riding horses, and throwing some plastic around (ie, disc golfing).

A Passion for Comprehensive Planning

Lisa is an up-and-coming star in the rural active living research world, fully embracing the multidisciplinary nature of the field. And she is passionate about comprehensive planning! She encourages each of you to look up your local comprehensive plan (if you have one). A comprehensive plan is a long-range (10-, 20-, or 30-year) guide for physical, economic, and social development of a community, be it a municipality, county, or region as defined in state statutes. Sometimes called a master plan or general plan, a comp plan impacts multiple sectors of a local economy, including transportation, housing, and parks and recreation. These plans align with local zoning codes and ordinances and may even be the impetus to change local zoning codes to encourage specific types of development, such as transit-oriented development, that evidence suggests is beneficial for active living.

Each state has specific statutes describing which jurisdictions can (or must) develop comprehensive plans, how often they need to be updated, and what types of information they must include. Some states, such as Wisconsin, require the vast majority of planning and development policies to be consistent with a comprehensive plan, no matter how large or small the municipality. Thus, Lisa is in a great position to assess the comprehensive planning process.

Lisa has answered the 2016 JPHMP Rural Active Living Call to Action paper by Dr. Renée Umstattd Meyer in multiple ways. Her work as a “precocious master’s student” highlights the call to “end the practice of treating rural settings as ‘less populated urban areas’ because of the unique social, cultural, and environmental contexts of rural communities.” As part of her dissertation work, Lisa has assessed the extent to which municipal comprehensive plans in Wisconsin integrated suggestions to encourage healthy eating and physical activity. As she dug in, she noticed that the literature was devoid of rural-specific evidence or tools, so she, like many rural active living researchers, decided to create her own by adapting a tool that was created and validated for urban and suburban areas. In her case, it was the Healthy Living and Active Design Comprehensive Plan Scorecard developed by Cedar Creek Sustainable Planning Services and Nemours Children’s Health System (Delaware) with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Partnerships to Improve Community Health program.”

Her work developing the Healthy Rural Community Design Tool is described in an October 2019 Landscape and Urban Planning research note. She started by reviewing the literature and incorporating rural-specific recommendations from multiple fields, including the rural-specific resources from the EPA and Safe Routes to School to create Version 1. Through an iterative process of focus groups and workshops with planning and public health professionals, she identified areas where the scorecard could be refined and is now on Version 3. For example, rather than focusing on “completing” the bike and pedestrian network and making sure all or nearly all streets are walkable or bikeable, she learned that it would be more effective to connect “critical points” in rural areas of activity rather than blanketing the entire rural area.

Lisa’s work corroborates the epidemiological analyses that Dr. Jeff Whitfield and I spoke about in December, 2019, that showed that social destinations or places for leisure-time activity were more strongly associated with transportation walking among rural residents than urban residents. Lisa also suggested that, rather than bike paths or lanes, a paved shoulder may be more appropriate in a rural setting (and may also serve the needs of agricultural equipment or heavy truck traffic). This process also highlights two other Calls to Action: (1) utilize qualitative evidence and (2) develop rural-specific assessment measures.

Listen to the Podcast Here:

The tool that Lisa and her colleagues created is free to download at the Wisconsin Health Atlas website ( and Lisa is always looking for collaborators to further test and refine it. Truth be told, with her blessing I used it to lead an interactive demonstration at the 2018 Mountain State Land Use Academy sponsored by the WV Division of the American Planning Association and WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic. The feedback I received from mayors of multiple small towns centered on the usefulness of the tool as a conversation starter about the goals to achieve in their comprehensive plans rather than solely as a method of “grading” their existing plan as “good” or “bad.”

As I reflect on our conversation, it was the last few minutes that really emphasized the struggle for rural practitioners to create universal rural-specific suggestions while acknowledging the diversity that exists among rural places. Rural communities adjacent to metropolitan areas will likely require a set of guidance different than a tourism-dominated or an agriculturally dominated rural community. Likewise, the influence of urban places is likely much less in rural places farther removed from urban areas. Truly, “rural” is a very broad conceptualization of places that are not urban, and this must be recognized. The Health in All Policies work she and her colleagues have been doing in Wisconsin, she believes, is the work that will drive our understanding of how to evaluate what works along the continuum of “rural.” She truly is an up-and-coming star at the intersection of health and planning in rural places.

Related Articles in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:

Interview with Mike Edwards

Christiaan Abildso, PhD

Dr. Christiaan Abildso is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences in the West Virginia University School of Public Health in Morgantown, WV where he’s lived since 2004 with his wife and two children since. His research interests include health promotion program evaluation and social-ecological determinants of physical activity, including policy and the built environment. Dr. Abildso has multiple peer-reviewed publications about rail-trails, health impact assessment, physical activity planning, and evaluation of state-level health promotion programming. Christiaan is also active in local and state active transportation policy decisions, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and national research on physical activity in rural areas. When not in the office, you’ll usually find him riding his bike (very safely) on the beautiful trails and country roads of West Virginia.