2016 Annual ReportFeaturesHealthy Living & Active Communities

Healthy Living & Active Communities

Improving Health through the Built Environment

The Sunflower Foundation seeks to help all Kansans find opportunities for healthier lives through education, lifestyle choices and environmental factors. Investments in this area include promotion and support of the built environment — human-made structures, systems, and surroundings that enable individuals to make "the healthy choice, the easy choice," especially in regards to nutrition and physical activity.

This includes the Sunflower Trails initiative, which partners with communities and schools across the state to create safe, accessible pathways for outdoor physical activity for all ages and abilities. Among the more than 150 Sunflower Trail projects are segments of the Lawrence Loop...

Among the supporters of completing the Lawrence are (L to R) Charlie Bryan of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, Marilyn Hull of LiveWell Lawrence, and Pat Hennessey and Mark Hecker of the Lawrence Parks & Recreation Department.

Community Collaboration in Action

They call themselves “Loopers.” They are dozens of Lawrencians who, each in their own way, are working to make the “Lawrence Loop” a reality: a 22-mile, fully accessible trail all the way around the city.

“It’s a vision more than 20 years in the making, thanks to Lawrence Parks and Recreation and a diverse coalition working together,” said Marilyn Hull, co-founder of the LiveWell Lawrence coalition. “About 15 of the 22 miles are built, but completing the Loop is going to take a lot of work.”

LiveWell Lawrence coalition is one of many groups helping build sections of the trail, said Mark Hecker, Assistant Director at the Parks & Recreation Department, which is the lead city agency in trail construction and maintenance.

“Each segment of the Loop has had different supporting groups,” Hecker said, rattling off groups formed by neighborhoods, cyclists, joggers, outdoors enthusiasts, organizations focused on fitness, and advocates for seniors, children, and those with limited mobility. He said having so many groups’ support is also key to securing another critical element for building trails: grants and other contributions. 

Map of the Lawrence LoopWith two-thirds of the Loop built now, the momentum to finish the Loop has been building quickly, he said.

“Now groups are drawing maps, getting people excited about it, and talking about it as ‘The Lawrence Loop.’ It takes a lot of different people to make this happen,” Hecker said.


Connecting to Health

The Lawrence Loop provides opportunities for active living and exercise. That’s why the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department strongly supports the Loop, said Charlie Bryan, Community Health Planner.

“We’re a natural advocate of the Lawrence Loop,” said Bryan. “Making the city easier to bike, walk, and wheel to everyday destinations is part of the health department’s community health plan — so we do play the role of mobilizing public support.”

And he said grant support like that from Sunflower Foundation not only helps build support on the city commission, but also helps the public understand the connections among outdoor trails, community health and equity. Recently, the Lawrence Pedestrian Bicycle Issues Task Force – volunteer group and partner to the coalition - developed a comprehensive report regarding the walking, biking and wheeling needs and opportunities in the city. Not only did the report stress the health benefits of “active transportation,” it highlighted the importance of accessibility for all residents. 

Part of the Lawrence Loop near Rock Chalk park that Sunflower helped complete in 2016. This photo was taken before the .7-mile section was finished with concrete.


Promoting Accessibility

LiveWell Lawrence co-founder Marilyn Hull said the coalition brings a variety of perspectives and support for completing the Loop.

“For example, there is a significant number of people who prefer not to bike ride on city streets. They would like to get out and ride, so of course they strongly support the Loop,” Hull said.

Making sure the Loop is accessible to all ages and abilities is a focus area of the coalition, said Hull.

One of the most memorable community members who speaks out in support of the completing segments of the Loop is Lorraine Cannistra, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized scooter. Hull calls her a “major source of inspiration.”

Lawrence resident Lorraine Cannistra, who said if the Lawrence Loop were completed her quality of life would improve dramatically.This year she wrote a letter to the city commission supporting accessible trails, including a portion of the Loop. Cannistra wrote:

“If I had the ability to get downtown on my own for whatever reason, my quality of life would explode.”

Where you live affects health. The work in Lawrence is an example of how communities are improving their built environment to enhance the health, wellbeing, and safety of their residents. Studies also show how greenspaces, trails, and parks promote health equity by making these enhancements easily accessible by all groups. 

“Completing the Loop is not going to be easy,” said Hull. “It's going to take significant time and resources to see it through. But there is good momentum in the community right now — and funding support like Sunflower's has really helped catalyze the vision for completing it and getting the community behind it.”

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Since its inception in 2005, the Sunflower Trails program has supported more than 150 trail projects in 57 Kansas counties. A statewide map of all Sunflower Trails projects and details about them is at SunflowerFoundation.org/TrailFinder.