ULI Provides Advice for Fostering Health in Three Colorado Communities

ULI Senior Resident Fellow Ed McMahon (left) leads experts through a tour of Arvada, Colorado.

ULI Senior Resident Fellow Ed McMahon (left) leads experts through a tour of Arvada, Colorado.

Guest post by Jessica Hersh-Ballering

During the spring of 2013, on behalf of the Colorado Health Foundation, experts convened by ULI completed weeklong Advisory Services panels in three different Colorado communities: Arvada (a Denver suburb), Lamar (a rural town), and Westwood (an urban neighborhood).

The purpose of the advisory panels was to help each community build a long-term, strategic vision for becoming a more health-conscious place.

The funding for the panel process and potential subsequent funding for implementation activities have been made available by the Colorado Health Foundation as part of its five-year, $4.5 million Healthy Places initiative. This initiative is founded on the idea that the built environment has a powerful impact on residents’ physical activity and, consequently, public health.

Ed McMahon, chair for the advisory panels and ULI senior resident fellow for sustainable development, summarized the powerful impact of the built environment in two articles he wrote for the Colorado Health Foundation’s online magazine Health Relay. In the pieces “Healthy Places: Steps toward a Healthier Arvada” and “Common Ground in Healthy Places,” he notes that moderate physical activity has been designed out of most Americans’ lives.

He writes: “In the past century, desk jobs replaced manual labor, driving to destinations usurped walking and biking, elevators and escalators supplanted stair climbing, and TV and computer games displaced outdoor recreation.”

Communities that design their built environment in a way that supports physical activity—wide sidewalks, safe bike lanes, attractive stairways, accessible recreation areas, etc.—make it easier for residents to make healthy choices and live healthy lives.

McMahon also writes about the lessons he learned from the panel process. McMahon’s six lessons, excerpted and adapted from “Common Ground in Healthy Places”:

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for building a healthy community.
  2. In every community, the design of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods can make physical activity unnatural, difficult, or even dangerous, especially for children, the elderly, or the disabled.
  3. People will not walk as part of their daily routine unless there are attractive or important destinations to walk to (like a healthy downtown, a major park, or a school), and the route is safe and interesting.
  4. Building healthy places is about more than making changes in the built environment. It is also about programs and activities.
  5. Many of the principles of healthy design are the same principles that sustainability and smart-growth advocates have long recommended for reducing the impact of the automobile.
  6. While the design of a community can have a crucial influence on public health, it can also affect the cultural, social, and economic well-being of a community and its citizens.

You can read more about the lessons learned in the advisory panel process in Colorado here.

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