Organizations within the Shenandoah Valley collaborated to develop more pedestrian-friendly communities in the area. On Friday, the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition hosted its sixth annual Bike-Walk Summit to unite bicycle enthusiasts, activists and stakeholders in a conversation about pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area.
The City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County public employees and advocacy groups gathered in JMU’s Montpelier Room to brainstorm topics related to bicycle and walking projects, as well as reflect on last year’s achievements.
“These discussions have helped more people that work within the city get ideas for different ways and different tools they might engage with the community,” Thanh Dang, Harrisonburg City planner, said.
The day began with a “Year in Review” talk to highlight accomplishments in bicycle-pedestrian plans and partnerships formed through the summit over the past year.
Rockingham County and Harrisonburg combined received a total of $8,589,000 in grants and funding for projects last year like the “Connect our Schools” shared-use path project and other infrastructure improvements. During the summit, Massanutten Ski Resort gave SVBC a check for $500 for its community partnership in developing and maintaining a trail system for the past decade.
“It’s a way of celebrating that we are slowly creating spaces in the county and in the city that make it safer to bike and walk,” Rob Alexander, a political science professor at JMU, said.
Alexander is the associate director of JMU’s Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue, an organization that works to facilitate productive dialogues at events like the Bike-Walk Summit. Alexander and organizational communications students at JMU facilitated these activities for the summit to encourage discussions among attendees with a range of backgrounds and specialities.
“The role that we play is to help the organizers of [the summit] think about what are interesting and engaging and productive ways to accomplish those goals so it’s not just a lecture,” Alexander said.
These goals for the summit included creating and strengthening partnerships with various stakeholders along with developing ways for the Harrisonburg and Rockingham communities to educate and engage the public on these issues.
This year, the committee invited Fionnuala Quinn, the founder of the Bureau of Good Roads Movement, as the keynote speaker to gauge the audience in discussions and activities about street safety designs at the local and national levels.
“Change is the normal state,” Quinn said. “So I think it’s important to have a very proactive role in what those changes will be because otherwise it’s [going to] change anyway … So how do you plan on change and how do you respect everyone as part of the change and how do you fund change?”
Quinn and ICAD facilitators presented public employees and local advocacy groups with examples of infrastructure issues in Quinn’s community of Fairfax County and asked the groups to work together to identify the problems and come up with feasible solutions.
“It’s to educate the public so they understand the issues better and so that they understand their own interests within the issues,” Quinn said. “Thus they’re better able to advocate for themselves and for their community.”
The intention of Quinn’s exercises was to engage the group in examining the ways they approached the Fairfax examples and applying those practices when looking at local and familiar infrastructure issues within the Rockingham County communities.
In the latter half of the summit, these public actors were asked to pinpoint collaborative opportunities for them to engage with in future infrastructure projects. The hope for the summit was that by having a range of voices weigh in on what they considered to be the most important projects for the next year, the conversations would be representative of the public’s needs within the city and county.
“The level of engagement and awareness with different people in the community has grown,” Dang said. “These are not the typical people around the table but they’re all users of this system.”
Alexander asked the room to narrow down four major projects that groups are willing to commit to and engage with in the next 12 months, one of which was to add possible shared-use paths around the construction of JMU’s new Convocation Center.
“These types of systems-planning challenges require multiple stakeholders to work together and it’s hard sometimes to get that collaboration started if you don’t create a space to start the conversation,” Alexander said. “This [the Summit] has served as that space.”
While the Bike-Walk Summit represents an achievement in collaboration throughout the county, many of the actors agree this is just the start of conversations and partnerships to come.
“I think we can do better,” Dang said. “I think the focus is still on moving vehicles and I would like for more players around the room to talk about how to move people whether that’s by walking, biking or public transit and to start having a holistic conversation.”
Contact Christy Freitag at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.