This Macomb collaborative wants to unite parks and public health work—but it needs resident input

Lauri Eisen has a passion for running. The Richmond resident especially enjoys dashing along local trails — whether by herself or with other members of City Sneakers, the running group she helps organize. 

"I use the Macomb Orchard Trail all the time. I live right by it," she says. "And when we're doing our marathon City Sneakerstraining, a lot of us meet at Metro Parkway Trail or Stony Creek Metropark to do additional training through the week."

Based in Mount Clemens, City Sneakers meets on Tuesdays all-year-round and can draw up to 150 people in the warmer months. The group, which is open to both walkers and runners, maps out 2, 4, and 6 mile routes each week, allowing participants to choose how far they want to travel during a particular meet-up.

Eisen, who works as project manager with Macomb County, is a big believer in the health benefits of running. And during her time with City Sneakers, she's definitely watched members get into better shape after being involved on a regular basis. 

"We've had people start as walkers who started running," she says. "We've had people that 
have lost weight, and by joining City Sneakers it was a way for them to get out and exercise. And some people may have only ran a 5K or 10K, and now they're running marathons."

This sort of interest in parks, trails, and fitness is something that Macomb County is working to encourage. In fact, right now two of the county's agencies — the Department of Health and the Department of Planning and Economic Development-Parks and Natural Resources — are working together to promote healthy lifestyles through an initiative called the Healthy Parks Collaborative.

The collaborative joins together representatives from the county and local communities, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and regional nonprofits to focus on addressing the physical and psychological needs of Macomb residents and visitors who utilize the region's parks, trails, lakes and other natural resources.

"The Healthy Parks collaborative is a conduit between Macomb's Health Department and Parks and Natural Resources for Gerard Santorosustainability and community wellness efforts," says Gerard Santoro, Program Director for Macomb County's Parks and Natural Resources agency. "The county has adjusted our programming areas to better assist local governments in achieving greater standards for health and wellness through our parks and natural resources."

The Healthy Parks Collaborative came together as a result of a discussion between Santoro and Jacob Cutler, Senior Public Health Analyst with Macomb's Health Department. The two began brainstorming ways their two agencies could work together, realizing it made sense to share resources and join forces to get the word out about public health concerns. They ended up formally launching the collaborative earlier this year. 

Beyond its emphasis on health and wellness, the Healthy Parks Collaborative also focuses on developing sustainable opportunities for access to recreational and outdoor programming. And working together should make it easier for partners to leverage state and federal funding for joint projects.

At the moment, the highest priority for the Healthy Parks Collaborative is raising awareness about the Macomb County Community Health Survey, which is part of a wider Community Health Assessment now being conducted by the county.

"The Health Department does this process every few years," says Cutler, "And perhaps the biggest component of that is Jacob Cutlerhearing from people who work, live and play in the county about what they think are the biggest priorities to address in order to find the most important areas we and our partners can improve their overall quality of life."  

The survey contains 21 questions which cover topics like COVID-19, community needs and quality of life issues, pressing health issues, access to local resources, and barriers to receiving health care, as well as geography and demographics. The health department estimates that it takes about 10 minutes to complete. (Macomb residents can fill the survey out here.)

Originally set to begin in April, the survey's launch was pushed back to Oct. 5 due to the onset of COVID-19. Although the previous survey, published in 2016, was primarily circulated on paper, this time around it's been moved completely online. The Health Department aims to elicit 8,000 responses, about one percent of the county's population. Right now, there is no set deadline. Officials hope to have it wrapped up by December, but they'll keep it going until early 2021, if necessary.

Information from the survey, which has been designed to take a more qualitative look at public health, will be combined with data from other sources to create Macomb's second Community Health Assessment. In turn that assessment will be used to develop a new Community Health Improvement Plan for the county.
"I hope that down the road we can think more, not just about promoting resources, but working with county planning folks to identify problems and solutions."
While only a few of the questions in the survey are directly related to the collaborative's joint focus on health and natural resources, Cutler says that's a consequence of it having to meet a variety of different needs. Ultimately the data will be used to identify the most pressing public health concerns facing local communities and cross-reference them to get a better picture of what's going on in the county.  

"I hope that down the road we can think more, not just about promoting resources, but working with county planning folks to identify problems and solutions," says Cutler. 

For example, if the survey found access to parks was an issue in an area of Mount Clemens, that might encourage local leaders to look into developing more park space or  work towards increasing neighborhood walkability.

At the moment, though, the Health Department is focused on simply gathering information through the survey. And for that, Cutler sees the collaborative as an invaluable partner. 

"We're working alongside our Healthy Parks Collaborative, because it's a great way to reach local leaders involved with public health work and to engage with residents in the community," he says. "The more responses we get from each community, the better we can come back to them with confidence and say, 'Here's what's happening in your cities and townships.'"

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.