The city of Gloucester has recently received a "Mass in Motion" municipal wellness and leadership planning grant to promote well-being by ensuring that the physical landscape is conducive to healthy living.

The $60,000 grant, one of 10 issued in the state, is intended to improve nutrition and increase physical activity by connecting community groups and residents with the bricks and mortar, a somewhat unique pairing.

"It should work together," says Gloucester Community Development Director Sarah Buck. "We're really thrilled about the grant. We want to make it easy and fun to eat well and get around, and this is a nice way to bring in groups to find out if our open space and recreation is available and accessible. It's a rather sophisticated integration of two disciplines, the health and built environment."

The grant, from the Medical Foundation in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, will support an assessment during the first year of the pilot, utilizing the program's own surveillance tool. The city may then apply for funding for a second year, to focus on policies and systems, and implement any planned projects.

A project manager will be hired to supervise the grant and 14 local agencies will convene to form a public/private partnership to assess how well the city is functioning in terms of nutrition and exercise, including the public's attitude toward both. The members of the group, which will include representatives from both the physical and social environment, will be asked to make recommendations to create a community that supports healthy living.

Buck said the city's objective is to determine if Gloucester's "built environment" is easy for walkers, bikers and boaters to use to get where they're going. It often isn't, since most cityscapes have been developed to ease the passage of cars, not pedestrians or others using non-motor transport. The grant group, which will include members from the schools, food pantry, Gloucester Health Department, the Trustees for Reservations and recreational workers, will survey different neighborhoods to find out how easy it is to move around and eat well there. For example, the group may ask if elders can reach the Farmer's Market, or if East Gloucester residents can walk or bike to grocery stores easily.

The work will concentrate on linking individual neighborhoods and creating a system of corridors for walking and biking throughout the region. "Gloucester is an ideal city to do this in, because it is a city of neighborhoods," Buck said, "It's about community connections, and there are certain areas we would like to link. It's all about how we use our environment how we will make our community walk-able, bike-able and active in a fun way," Buck said. "It's about how to promote a healthier lifestyle at your doorstep."

The group will explore any barriers that prevent people from exercising and work on resolving these. For example, walking in certain neighborhoods may be impossible in the winter due to snow pile-up, or there may be no bike trails that lead to certain workplaces around Gloucester. "It's hard to get out of our cars, and most people sit eight hours a day at work," Buck said.

"We will look at the barriers that keep us from getting around more actively." This focus dovetails with the recent establishment of the open space and recreation committee, which will update their plan for the first time in 10 years.

"There are such outstanding natural physical spaces in our community, and we want them to be more accessible in our daily life," Buck said. Buck says the committee will also identify the "user groups," such as children and elders, and determine what each population needs to remain active and access healthy food. To ensure this, the group will create and identify purposeful, safe and complete "routes" around Gloucester, for those who are walking to get somewhere, not just to exercise. The goal is to encourage more people to walk or bike to their destinations, not take their car, Buck said.

"There are a lot of people who would like to be more active," she continued. "This is a fundamental challenge for most of us. Because we are so busy, we need to build good food and activity in what we do everyday. We can't leave it to chance."

For more information, contact Community Development at 978-281-9781 or the Health Department at 978-281-9771.

This article is part of a regular health education series provided by the Gloucester Health Department and Addison Gilbert Hospital.

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