The Path to Active Living

Physical Activity Through Community Design in Somerville, Massachusetts


      Somerville, Massachusetts, an ethnically diverse, urban community northwest of Boston, presents opportunities and challenges for active living. With a dense street grid, well-maintained sidewalks, neighborhood parks, and existing Community Path, Somerville is very walkable. However, two major surface arteries traverse and bisect neighborhoods, creating pedestrian safety and environmental justice issues.


      Major goals included promoting increased collaboration and communication among existing active-living efforts; managing the Community Path extension project; encouraging Portuguese-speaking adults to incorporate daily physical activity; leveraging existing urban planning work to establish secure, attractive walking/biking corridors; and embedding active-living messages in everyday life.


      The Somerville Active Living by Design Partnership (ALbD) successfully created a robust task force that was integrated with citywide active-living efforts, secured resources to increase infrastructure and support for active living, including city-level coordinator positions, and changed decision-making practices that led to incorporation of pedestrian and bicycle transportation priorities into city planning and that influenced the extension of the Community Path.

      Lessons learned

      Partnerships must employ sustainability planning early on, utilize skilled facilitative leaders to manage leadership transitions, and engage new partners. Identifying, cultivating, and celebrating champions, especially those with political power, are critical. Working closely with research partners leads to rich data sources for planning and evaluation. Changing the built environment is difficult; working toward smaller wins is realistic and achievable.


      The synergy of ALbD and other community interventions created a foundation for short-term successes and accelerated political–cultural changes already underway with respect to active living.
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        • Massachusetts Department of Revenue Municipal Databank/Local Aid Section
        FY07 general fund expenditures per capita for 50,000+ population cities.
        • U.S. Census Bureau
      1. Unpublished city-specific 2002 Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS) data from the Institute for Community Health.
      2. Unpublished Enrollment Report released on October 1, 1999 by Somerville, MA: 4th graders at-risk for overweight and overweight by school compared with demographic statistics by school for 1999–2000.

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