Paved, vehicle-free paths wind along rivers, past desert vegetation, with majestic mountains looming in the distance. The Chuck Huckelberry Loop provides all that and more to cyclists, pedestrians, parents pushing strollers and countless others. It’s a great community asset, but not if you can’t get to it.
Enter the Pima County Health Department’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health Program (REACH). REACH is an initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to reduce chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity, particularly in the most at-risk populations, which include Native American and Hispanic children and their families.
To reduce chronic disease in Pima County, the REACH Program formed a community-based coalition comprising 47 parents, business owners, community leaders and others from the south and southwest areas of Tucson. Together, the “Reach The Loop” coalition developed a plan for promoting physical activity and improving access to The Chuck Huckelberry Loop in their communities.
The plan included hosting six community and school focus group meetings to collect feedback on reasons residents in the area weren’t using The Loop. Safety, lack of awareness of The Loop, too few benches and lack of access to The Loop from south and southwest Tucson neighborhoods were among the top reasons cited by neighborhood residents for not using the path, said Ada Wilkinson-Lee, a Reach The Loop committee member and associate professor at the University of Arizona Department of Mexican American Studies.
With the collected community feedback from the focus groups, the Reach The Loop coalition went to work in creating a series of community events, virtual challenges, and recommendations for physical improvements aimed at connecting communities of color with the 131-mile system of paved, shared-use paths.
Paired with grant funding and the need to improve access, Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, who oversees maintenance of The Loop, stepped in to support the coalition’s recommendations by installing 44 benches and 12 bike racks spanning 14 miles across the Santa Cruz and Julian Wash areas of The Loop. They also built five new paved paths connecting four south and southwest neighborhoods directly on to The Loop.
The neighborhoods with new, paved paths providing connectivity include: Barrio Santa Cruz, Santa Rita Park, Santa Cruz Southwest and Midvale Park. The Reach the Loop coalition selected those areas based on community feedback and census data showing a high population of Mexican American and Native American families.
“Ron Odell and his team at NRPR have worked diligently with county contractors to create the new connection paths,” said Mary Kinkade who oversees several public health programs, including REACH, under the Health Department. “These projects would not have been possible without them.”
In addition, a new path at Los Niños Elementary School, 5445 S. Alvernon Way, will provide easier access to The Loop for schoolchildren. And another new path is connecting the city of Tucson’s Ormsby Park, 897 W. 24th St., to The Loop.
The grant also has funded lithium-powered, bollard-style counters that gather data on pedestrian and cycle use. One’s been installed on the Julian Wash at Kino Sports Complex and the other is on the west bank of the Santa Cruz between Ajo and Irvington. Counter data from the end of August to mid-September showed a 62 percent increase in usage at Kino and a 24 percent increase in usage in Santa Cruz.
Over the next year, the committee plans to continue work with both city and county departments to have 100+ safety signs installed on The Loop and to add a new paved path connecting the Barrio Santa Cruz Neighborhood to The Loop, Kinkade said. The benches will serve those who may need frequent breaks when exercising, with the goal of encouraging families to spend more time outdoors.
Diego Martinez Barrera can testify to the importance of having easy access to The Loop. The community outreach coordinator for Beyond-Tucson was born in South Tucson, but raised near Campbell and Prince, not far from the Rillito section of The Loop.
“My fondest memories were hanging out by Limberlost Neighborhood Family Park or the Rillito River Park by the horse race track and I would walk … along the Rillito River Wash to get to most places like the Tucson Mall,” said Martinez Barrera. He got involved with Reach the Loop since its mission ties so closely with that of Beyond-Tucson, which motivates individuals to be physical active, spend time outdoors exploring nature, and make healthier nutritional choices for themselves.
Now, he’s happy to see others getting the chance to connect to a public amenity that’s allowing community members to lead healthier lives.
“If people know The Loop is right in their backyards, they’ll be more inclined to utilize it,” Martinez Barrera said. “I also do believe that it is really making a difference for families and neighbors that need or would like that direct access to The Loop.”
The Reach the Loop improvements were a joint effort. Among those involved:
- Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation;
- Pima County Department of Environmental Quality;
- Pima County Health Department;
- Pima County Regional Flood Control District;
- Pima County Project Management Office;
- City of Tucson Department of Transportation;
- City of Tucson Parks & Recreation;
- City of Tucson Water;
- City of Tucson Regional Flood Control District;
- City of Tucson Real Estate;
- City Manager’s Office;
- City of South Tucson;
- City of Tucson Ward 1 Office;
- TUSD Mexican American Student Services;
- TUSD Native American Student Services;
- Latino Outdoors;
- Sierra Club;
- Chicanos Por La Causa;
- Corazón Latino;
- Toltecalli High School;
- Utterback Middle School;
- S. 12th Ave Street Improvement Project;
- The Garden Kitchen;
- Ironwood Tree Experience;
- National Park Services;
- Familias Unidas Ganando Accesibilidad (F.U.G.A.);
- Tucson Indian Center;
- Barrio Santa Cruz Neighborhood Association;
- Los Niños Elementary;
- Barrio Nopal Neighborhood Association;
- Sunnyside Neighborhood Association;
- Holistic Wellness Counseling & Consultant Services;
- Indigenous Strategies;
- UA Native American Research and Training Center (NARTC);
- Menlo Park Neighborhood Association;
- Santa Clara Elementary;
- Pascua Yaqui Health Department;
- San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation;
- MSA Annex – Mercado District;
- Pueblo High School;
- UA College of Public Health;
- Tucson Native Youth Council