Building Healthy Places: ULI Reaches Out and Builds Awareness

Ed McMahon speaking at the HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign Summit in Westminster, Colorado.

Ed McMahon speaking at the HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign Summit in Westminster, Colorado.

By: Ed McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow

Raising awareness of the connections between health and the built environment is a major focus of ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative. In recent weeks, I had the opportunity to reach out to several important groups on behalf of this initiative.

Grantmakers in Health

On November 13th I was one of the keynote speakers at a national meeting and strategy session convened by Grantmakers in Health in Denver, Colorado. Grantmakers in Health (GIH) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to helping foundations and corporate giving programs improve the health of all people. Its mission is to foster communication and collaboration among grantmakers and to help strengthen the grantmaking community’s knowledge, skills, and effectiveness. The November 13th meeting, which was co-sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, focused on “Engaging Communities to Create Healthy Places”. Following a round of introductions, I kicked off the meeting with a report on “lessons learned” from ULI’s three Colorado Healthy Places Advisory Service Panels in Lamar, Westwood and Arvada.  After a question & answer session and a group discussion, the thirty or so foundation executives traveled by bus to Westwood, a poor, predominately Hispanic neighborhood in west Denver.

Once in Westwood, we were met by Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez and numerous community representatives who told the foundation executives about the impact of the ULI Advisory Service Panel that had been held in Westwood in May 2013. The recommendations of the ULI panel, which focused on creating a more walkable and economically vibrant community, are already being implemented. A walking tour of the neighborhood showcased new urban gardening, public art, and traffic calming measures as well as other bricks and mortar improvements, but it also illustrated the challenges facing a low-income community with few public resources.

HEAL Cities and Towns Campaign

The next event where I had an opportunity to showcase ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative was at the HEAL Cities and Towns Campaign Summit in Westminster, Colorado on November 19th and 20th. The summit was co-sponsored by Live Well Colorado and Leadership for Healthy Communities

Live Well Colorado is a non-profit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Leadership for Healthy Communities is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation designed to support local and state government leaders nationwide in their efforts to reduce childhood obesity through public policies that promote active living, healthy eating, and access to healthy foods.

The Summit convened more than 100 elected officials, city planners, and health officials from across Colorado to discuss the role of municipalities and the private sector in enabling active lifestyles and encouraging workplace wellness. My presentation focused on “Built Environments that Promote Active Lifestyles.” It described some of the built environment barriers to walking and physical activity, but it also made several other key points: first, that “we can build our way to better health” and second that “good design can positively effect both health and profitability.”

In stressing these points my presentation focused on several keys to active living including: improved access to parks and green space, mixing uses, providing more transportation options and choices, and improving access to healthy foods.

Seventeen cities and towns across Colorado are currently participating in the HEAL Cities and Towns Campaign.  Another 150 California communities have participated in the program as well. Guest speakers from California and elsewhere shared their experiences in promoting healthy community policies in their own cities and towns. Chip Johnson, Mayor of Hernando, Mississippi, ran for election based on a parks and recreation platform in a city that had no parks department and only two small public parks. He shared his experience and the lessons learned in focusing on building a healthy community. The city of Hernando is now recognized as the “Healthiest Hometown” by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, and has seen significant economic growth as a result of its emphasis on health and outdoor recreation.

Conference for People with Disabilities

My next opportunity to talk about building healthy places was the 2013 Conference for People with Disabilities held Indianapolis in early December 2013.

The Governors Council for People with Disabilities is an independent state agency whose mission is to promote public policy that leads to independence, productivity and inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. The theme of their 2013 Conference was “Dream to Dare: Game Changing Communities.” At this large conference I had the opportunity to address more than 500 advocates for people with disabilities on how purposeful design can facilitate healthy, safe, and prosperous communities by embracing the concepts of walkability, complete streets, mixed use of land, enhanced public realm, and the importance of having a shared vision for the future.

Building Healthy Places Speaker Series

In the coming months, ULI will be conducting a Building Healthy Places speaker series for District Councils and other key groups. For more information about the speaker series, readers should contact Basil Hallberg at

Ed McMahon is a Senior Resident Fellow and Charles Fraser Chair for Sustainability and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.   

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