Building Healthy Places: An Inside Look with ULI’s Sara Hammerschmidt

The times have changed. Statistics show that people are staying indoors more than ever before. Commute times are rising. Kids aren’t walking to school. It’s become more and more challenging to promote and live a healthy life. But at the same time, Millennials want to be in urban environments. 86 percent of Millennials say it is important that their city offer opportunities to live and work without relying on a car; 54 percent would consider moving to another city if it had more options for getting around. 56 percent say that access to green space in their community is a high priority. While overall statistics signify a divergence from spending time outdoors and utilizing alternative transportation options, perhaps the most powerful demographic cohort – Millennials – are bucking the trends.

Enter the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Building Healthy Places (BHP) initiative, an effort that came from more than two decades of research proving the connection between how our buildings and public spaces are designed and the overall health of residents. Armed with the data that shows that the way developers, architects, and planners design and build places can actually move the needle on diseases like obesity, diabetes, and asthma by providing park space, alternative transportation options (like Millennials want), community gardens, spaces for children, recreation facilities, and more, ULI has called the land use and development community to create with this in mind.

The process has been focused on educating, continued research, and sharing what work for health.

  • Educate: A primary focus is simply to educate. We want people to understand that city design impacts physical health. We do this by sharing publications, articles and relevant news regularly to ground people in the truth of what these connections are. We also offer opportunities for folks to learn through seminars, meetings and sessions. As part of this, we released the Building Healthy Places Toolkit that offers 21 recommendations for designers and developers to implement strategies that work for health.

    Building Healthy Places 21 recommendations.

    Building Healthy Places 21 recommendations.

  • Research: Next is a commitment to research. We continue to hone in on opportunities where we can conduct or compile additional research that speaks to the value of health, on topics including density and the impact of open space.  We want every suggestion we make to be rooted in health evidence showing that our recommendations will have an impact. Our new Building Healthy Places Toolkit, which provides 21 recommendations that can be implemented into development projects, is an example of this research.
  • Share: Ultimately, the success of the Building Healthy Places Initiative is determined by the ability of our members and partners to be stewards of the built environment. We anticipate that the education and research we are undertaking will lead to real change in the design of buildings and places. We’ve seen the value of this change when a community or architect focuses on health. Take Jackson Walk in Jackson, Tennessee. The project day lit a previously covered creek that now runs through the center of the development and has activated walking and jogging paths along it, as well as included a new fitness center and a permanent location for the West Tennessee Farmers Market. It embodies what it means to build a healthy place and encourage healthy living.

Beyond Jackson, we’ve seen other cities that been able to promote aspects of healthy living – places like Portland, Washington D.C. and New York – in part because the urban density that exists can support transit, opening planners and developers up to facilitate life and activity on sidewalks, parks, public plazas, and more. It’s challenging in smaller communities that lack that density, but cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa have made strides to intentionally evolve their downtowns, for reasons related to health.  Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park is a great example of this. The ballpark, which opened in 2011, has connected seamlessly to the city’s existing Old Market. Old warehouses surrounding the ballpark have been transformed into lofts and restaurants. The previously unoccupied and ignored part of the city has extended Omaha’s footprint, created substantial plaza areas and given residents incentives to walk to the district.

TD Ameritrade Park

TD Ameritrade Park

It’s also worth acknowledging that many European cities serve as a great model for Building Healthy Places, in part because their land is limited. They can’t grow beyond their boundaries, which means designers must build up, build closer together, and think creatively. In the US, we often just expand out, annexing land. There can be an aversion to density in the U.S. and part of our efforts are aimed at helping everyone understand that density, if done carefully, can be positive and can be healthy.

I’m often asked what one thing I would tell developers and designers about building healthy places – a question that’s tough to answer because of all we’ve learned since the advent of the initiative. I would answer that ultimately, I want them to know that, as stewards of the built environment – designers, planners, builders, creators – they should understand their responsibility to shape our buildings and cities in ways that give people the opportunity to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Over the next several months, we’ll be looking at the intricacies of landscape design and urban planning, with content from guest bloggers – developers, industry experts and Populous thought leaders. Have suggestions on a topic we should cover? Leave a comment below.

Read more about Populous’ landscape architecture work here.

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