Fitchburg, Massachusetts


Excerpt from Lessons for Leaders:

Fun ’n FITchburg capitalized on Fitchburg’s diversity by creating the 50-member Community Mobilization Network. It trained and involved eight youth peer leaders from three low-income priority neighborhoods and trained and paid bilingual, bicultural adult resident mobilizers to increase participation in public housing and low-income neighborhoods. Their work on the city’s Adopt-A-Park program resulted in formal adoption of 16 Fitchburg parks, among other successes.

For more information, read the full story.

July 2014

Fitchburg sits only 50 miles from bustling Boston, but it does not benefit from the state’s largest economy. This north-central Massachusetts city of 40,000 has been struggling since its paper industry collapsed and then disappeared in the 1970s. Unemployment is high and single-parent families now account for 40 percent of the population. In addition, 21 percent of Fitchburg’s children live in poverty.

Residents’ health also has suffered during the city’s economic woes, with more than 60 percent of Fitchburg’s residents overweight or obese. Nearly a dozen fast-food restaurants line the main road into town, adding to the difficult situation.

Despite these challenges, Fitchburg has been a model for other similar cities. Mayor Lisa Wong has made healthy living a community priority, local lawmakers are focused on improving the region’s quality of life and a strong collaborative initiative – known as Fun ‘n FITchburg – is tackling the obesity challenge.

The City of Fitchburg was one of 11 communities chosen to receive a “Healthy by Design” Community Leadership Award in 2013. The Massachusetts Public Health Association nominated Fitchburg for work related to the brownfields redevelopment of parks and gardens and for Fun ‘n FITchburg’s thorough public health analysis of land use bylaws and regulations.

The regional community action agency, Montachusett Opportunity Council, Inc., is the lead for Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) and Fun ’n FITchburg, which has become a high-profile city effort. Active partners span many community sectors and include professionals, high ranking city leadership, youth and residents.

Mary Giannetti, project director for HKHC and Fun ‘n Fitchburg, shared an observation about the culture change they have witnessed. “We have worked diligently to engage city officials. Fitchburg’s public works director has been supportive but remained in the background [early on]. However, at a recent state transportation hearing, he stood up, unprompted, to declare that Fitchburg has been working to institute walkability/bikeability infrastructure and supports more funding to implement Complete Streets policies.” Giannetti added, “We then knew how far the partnership has come in just a few years.”

Key accomplishments:

  • An Adopt-a-Parks program was implemented in 16 city parks by residents, community groups and other agencies. Each park is deemed a “Safe Zone” with signage.
  • Thirty-seven community garden plots were installed, with special emphasis at public housing complexes. The Fitchburg Housing Authority adopted a formal community garden agreement and guidelines for accessible gardens at Green Acres Village.
  • Fun ‘n FITchburg helped the city create a new policy to ensure that WIC, senior farmers’ market coupons and SNAP are accepted at Fitchburg’s farmers’ markets. The Board of Health now requires all vendors in public spaces to offer at least one healthy food and beverage option. Similarly, district school policy now covers community events at school facilities, events during non-school hours and fundraising activities.
  • The Department of Public Works implemented a Pedestrian Generator Checklist and Complete Streets administrative policy to support safer walking and bicycling, with an emphasis around parks and schools.
  • A recent report revealed Fitchburg youth’s BMI had decreased from 46.2 to 40.9 from 2009-2011. Fun ‘n Fitchburg partners acknowledge that declines are due to the multiple efforts in the community, schools and other organizations that promote health in children.

Fun ‘n FITchburg’s Youth Peer Leaders conduct surveys, parks assessments and streets audits as well as effectively advocate for park and street improvments through presentations, digital stories and social media.

Fitchburg, Massachusetts