The ULI Building Healthy Places Initiative, which will involve all parts of the Urban Land Institute, kicked off this spring with a series of Advisory Services panels convened in three different types of communities in Colorado. These panels were conducted at the request of the Colorado Health Foundation, which has its own Healthy Places initiative, a five-year, $4.5 million effort.
In a recent Urban Land article, ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon, who was chair of the three panels, offers his observations on lessons learned from the panels. From his piece:
- There is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating a healthy community. Each community is different, so each community requires a unique set of solutions tailored to overcoming its liabilities and taking advantage of its key assets.
- In every community studied—urban, suburban, and rural—the design of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods to some degree makes physical activity unnatural, difficult, or dangerous, especially for children, the elderly, or people who are disabled. For example, in every community, sidewalk connections between neighborhoods and major activity centers like schools, parks, and shopping areas were nonexistent or incomplete. Even where sidewalks existed, often they were so narrow that two people could not walk abreast.
- In order for a healthy communities initiative to gain traction, local business leaders and elected officials must think long and hard about the connections between economic development and health. In Lamar, for example, the panel learned that organized sports (primarily baseball and football) and outdoor recreation (particularly rodeo and equestrian activities) are major attractions for visitors. Therefore, one of recommendations for Lamar is to think about sports and recreation facilities not just as nice amenities, but as necessities for economic development.
- People will not walk as part of their daily routine unless at least two ingredients are present: attractive or important destinations to walk to (such as a healthy downtown, a major park, or a school), and a route that is safe and interesting. People simply do not like to walk along busy arterial streets, past empty parking lots, or along ugly commercial strips.
- Creating healthy places is only partially about making changes in the built environment; it is also about programs and activities. It is one thing to provide a park or to build a sidewalk; it is another to get people to use the park or sidewalk. For example, the panel learned in one community that a child had been assaulted while walking to school alone. In a case like this, even the most complete and well-designed sidewalk network will not be enough to overcome parents’ fears about letting their children walk to school alone. The solution: “walking school buses”—a program in which the school system organizes teams of volunteer parents to walk designated routes to and from school each day, picking up and dropping off children much as a school bus would.