ULI Addresses National Association of Real Estate Editors about Health

L to R: Rachel MacCleery, ULI; Tim Bryant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (moderator); James Vick, SWA Group). Courtesy of Commercial Property Executive.

L to R: Rachel MacCleery, ULI; Tim Bryant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (moderator); James Vick, SWA Group). Courtesy of Commercial Property Executive.

This week I had the opportunity to speak at the National Association of Real Estate Editors conference in Houston, Texas about connections between health and real estate.

I shared the panel, called Healthy 21st Century Communities by Design, with James Vick of SWA Group. The session was moderated by Tim Bryant of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The panel was written up in Commercial Property Executive here, Multi-Housing News here, and Consumer Reports here.

See the Powerpoint slidedeck I used here.

Here’s what I said. Do you agree?


Hi, I’m Rachel MacCleery, Senior Vice President at ULI. I’m here to talk about health.

Why? The U.S. is in the middle of a health crisis.

In 1970, just one in 8 American adults were obese, with a body mass index of 30 or higher. Today, one in three is. This chart shows how rapidly obesity has risen just over the past 30 years.

In 1970, we spent 7 percent of GDP on health care. Today, that percentage is 18, and it’s expected to increase to 19 percent by 2020, even with savings generated by the affordable care act.

For the first time in history, American children may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to increasing rates of obesity and physical inactivity.

These trends are global too. In developing countries like China and Mexico, obesity and inactivity is rising at an alarming rate.

In the pursuit of comfort and wealth, we have managed to design physical activity out of every day life. Rather than make the healthy choice the easy choice, we make it the hard one.

Through ample research, we know that the built environment has a profound influence on health. It’s not the only factor, but it’s an important one.

And lots of what we’ve built in recent years is– shall we say– not good.

Streets discourage walking. Homes trigger asthma. Playgrounds are walled off. Our transportation system is mono-modal and stressful.

But what if the world was different?

What if our investment and real estate priorities better reflected our values, which surely are that children deserve a safe place to play, people deserve a home that doesn’t make them sick, transportation options should be plentiful, and we are all better off when people feel a sense of belonging and satisfaction about the places where they live and work.

What if how we built our cities and suburbs– from the macro level to the minor– was more conducive to health?

What if more of our decisions about the built environment had health at their core?

I am pleased to say that I see evidence that we are turning a corner. Last year ULI launched a major new initiative, Building Healthy Places, which is shining the spotlight on health. Through this work, we are leveraging our global network of real estate leaders to be part of the solution to health challenges.

The good news is that lots of trends are pushing us in the right direction. ULI conducted a survey last year where we asked Americans what they want from their communities.

More than half of Americans preferred compact living– they wanted to be close to shops and stores. They preferred transit and walkable places. This is for Americans overall, not just Gen Y, whose preferences for a more urban form are something that we hear about a lot.

But Gen Y, who will drive the next wave of American development, are looking for something more from the places they call home.

These trends translate into market value. ULI recently released a report called Building for Wellness: the Business Case. In this report, we profile 13 development projects which have health at their core.

Some took a comprehensive approach to fostering clean indoor air, others encourage social engagement, many promote physical activity.

For all of them, the health components were a small fraction of the project budget, but the market response has been strong. All gained a premium on rents, generated positive market buzz and experienced faster sales and leasing.

Let me tell you about Grow community on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. This master planned development of single family homes and apartments did lots of things to promote social engagement, physical activity, and sustainability.

But perhaps the most radical thing that it did was to place cars away from the front door of homes, and bike storage close by. This was a risky move. But the developer had a vision.

And people love this project. The project’s first phase sold out at the height of the recession in 2008 without any marketing. When people visit the project, they tell the developer, “I’ve always wanted to live in a place like this.”

ECOModern Flats in Fayattesville, Arkansas, is another project with health at its core. The developer, who suffered from asthma as a child, rehabbed this project to promote clean air, facilitate social engagement, and meet the demand for walkable, in-town apartments.

The stairs provide opportunities for residents to be active, and vegetable and herb garden on the site provides fresh food for residents.

The developer has reduced energy costs dramatically, and has been able to double the rents charged for these units.

There are lots of other, similar stories in Building for Wellness, from a variety of markets. People want places that are good for them. And that feel good to them. And there is value to be gained in providing that– both for developers and the industry and for the country as a whole.

Leaders across the country and the world are getting the message. ULI and EY recently released Infrastructure 2014: Shaping the Competitive City, which includes findings from a survey of high level real estate and public leaders.

These leaders recognize the importance of infrastructure in shaping real estate development, and they identified public transit and pedestrian infrastructure, including sidewalks, along with roads and bridges, as top investment priorities.

Across the country, cities like Houston are matching these private projects with bold investments in trail infrastructure, like the Buffalo Bayou project that Kinder will talk about.

But more must be done to change practice and policies. One important step is to make our streets healthier and more active. That’s why I am proud to announce today that ULI is endorsing the Urban Street Design Guide developed by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

These guidelines, if implemented by municipalities across the country, will make streets more humane, healthier places for all users.

They offer practical, well-thought recommendations on how to make streets more inviting, and places more prosperous, environmentally conscious and livable.

Health is not merely the absence of disease. According to the World Health Organization, health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.

Once you start looking, you can see health and its influences everywhere, both for the good and for the bad. I encourage you to start looking.

Ask why that corner doesn’t provide a safe place for people to cross on foot. Ask how that development project is promoting health, and how they’re measuring health outcomes.

Ask why the food that’s available in that place, or this, isn’t better for us. And notice how well the choices that public and private leaders make reflect both market forces and a larger commitment to the greater good.

Everyone who shapes the built environment has a chance to foster health. Let’s seize it.


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