By Ed McMahon
What do Arvada, Lamar and Westwood share in common? Like many communities throughout Colorado (and nationwide), they are trying to improve residents' health by making the environment more conducive for physical activity – whether it's playing, walking or riding a bike or any combination of the above.
In late 2012, the Colorado Health Foundation launched Healthy Places, a five-year, $4.5 million initiative grounded in the idea that the design of the built environment can have a crucial and positive influence on improving public health by increasing physical activity. During the first phase of Healthy Places, the Foundation selected Arvada (a suburb in northwest metro Denver), Lamar (a small, rural town in southeastern Colorado) and Westwood (an urban neighborhood in southwest Denver) to participate in an advisory panel process with the Urban Land Institute. ULI is a nonprofit research and education organization which focuses on the use of land in order to enhance the total environment.
In each community, the ULI panel interviewed between 75 and 100 community members, business owners and local officials. We toured each community both on foot and by bus. We were briefed by the project sponsors and we reviewed lengthy briefing books prepared by the local sponsors. We then spent several days in each community evaluating what we had learned and formulating specific recommendations.
After spending a week in each of the three Colorado communities here are some of my lessons learned:
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for building a healthy community. Each community is different, requiring a unique set of solutions tailored to overcoming the community's liabilities and taking advantage of its key assets.
In every community, the design of our buildings, streets and neighborhoods, to a greater or less degree makes physical activity unnatural, difficult or even dangerous, especially for children, the elderly or disabled. To gain traction with local business leaders and elected officials, it is necessary to think about the connection between economic development and health. In Lamar, for example, we learned that organized sports (primarily baseball and football) and outdoor recreation, (particularly rodeo and equestrian activities) were major attractions for visitors. Therefore, one of our recommendations was to think about sports and recreation facilities, not as nice amenities, but as economic development necessities.
In each community our panelists concluded that people will not walk as part of their daily routine, unless there are at least two ingredients; first, there must be attractive or important destinations to walk to (like a healthy downtown, a major park, a school, etc,) and second the walking route must be safe and interesting. People simple don't like to walk along busy arterials, past empty parking lots or along ugly commercial strips.
Building healthy places is about more than making changes in the built environment. It is also about programs and activities. For example, in one community we learned that a young child had been assaulted while walking to school alone. In a case like this, even the most complete and well-designed sidewalk network wouldn't be enough to overcome parent's fears about letting their children walk to school alone. The solution: "walking school busses," a program where volunteer parents walk kids through designated routes to and from school each day.
It was immediately clear to our real estate and land use experts that 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.
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. Today, there is ample evidence to support the idea that communities that are walkable and pedestrian-friendly can also command a premium in the real estate market-place.
As Americans spend more on chronic diseases related to obesity and physical inactivity, It is in the best interest of both the real estate and public health communities to work together to create communities where the "healthy choice is the easy choice".