Improving Health and Access for Disadvantaged Communities to Champaign County Forest Preserves


Champaign County Forest Preserve District logoAcademic mentor: Prof. Warren Lavey

Community partner: Champaign County Forest Preserve District (or the nonprofit Forest Preserve Friends Foundation)

Community-Academic Scholar: Hannah Caraway

Project description:
With 4,000 acres of forest preserves, a museum and an interpretive center, and various programs, the CCFPD contributes greatly to the county’s health and wellbeing. Users of these resources exercise, breath fresh air, relax, and connect with nature, family and other residents. The green spaces are especially important for physical and mental health during the COVID isolation and activity restrictions. Additionally, people who access these resources learn about the forest’s contributions to cleaning the air, managing water, supporting biodiversity, reducing heat, and mitigating climate change by capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

However, many residents, particularly in disadvantaged communities, face barriers to gaining these health benefits because of the parks’ distance from the population center of Champaign-Urbana and the residents’ transportation limitations. This goal of this project is to develop recommendations for improving the health of disadvantaged people in the county through greater access to CCFPD’s natural and other resources. The Community-Academic Scholar will investigate how improved transportation, greater/more targeted marketing of services, greater outreach, or other options might help the CCFPD serve the physical and mental health needs of this population.

This project builds on a 2013 report that the University of Illinois Sociology Department developed for CCFPD. Guided by that report, CCFPD became more involved in community groups (including Community Coalition, CU Walk as One, New American Welcome Center, and DREAAM), offsite programs, and social media. CCFPD worked with groups to target programming for African American, Latinx, and Congolese populations. Public program participation in its offsite programs quadrupled in the past five years; lending CCFPD materials (education collection items, teacher’s trunks, etc.) increased more than ten times; and its social media presence grew by 20% each year since that report. The Community-Academic Scholar will evaluate the effectiveness of and update the strategies.

Role of the Community-Academic Scholar: 
The Community-Academic scholar will analyze information on the health needs of disadvantaged people in the county (using Champaign County’s 2018-2020 Community Health Improvement Plan and other resources), connect their physical and mental health needs with potential benefits from using CCFPD resources, and consider quantitative and qualitative information on the target groups’ actual uses of CCFPD resources. The scholar will also evaluate the effectiveness of existing CCFPD strategies for helping disadvantaged populations to overcome barriers to accessing the health benefits of CCFPD resources. The scholar will collect studies on how access to parks have had positive health benefits for disadvantaged communities and compile best practices from other forest preserve districts. Next, the scholar will develop recommendations for strengthening current CCFPD strategies to improve the health of the target communities. Finally, the scholar will draft a report and present it to senior staff at the CCFPD.