The Building Healthy Places Initiative member spotlight highlights the work and expertise of a ULI member working at the intersection of health and the built environment.
Susan Powers is President of Urban Ventures, a Denver-based real estate firm that she founded in 1998. Urban Ventures focuses efforts in urban neighborhoods and puts strong emphasis on community building in the context of social, environmental and economic viability. She is well-known for Aria Denver, a 17.5-acre infill community designed with a focus on the health of its residents and the surrounding neighborhood. Prior to forming this company, Susan was the Executive Director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) for 11 years. She serves on the Board of Directors of several community Boards including Denver Health and Hospital, Denver Community Health Services, Downtown Denver, Inc. and Denver Bike Share.
When did you first realize that there is a connection between human health and the built environment? Was there a particular “aha” moment or project?
Several years ago, I was part of the Master Planning team for the Denver Housing Authority’s redevelopment of an old public housing project which became the successful mixed-income Mariposa neighborhood. The lead designer—Mithun Architects, based in Seattle—brought to us an anthropologist from their staff to really learn about the “DNA of the community” and inform the master planning process. She lived in the neighborhood for months and through that experience, we were able to learn what would be most important to the residents in the new neighborhood that would be built.
It was surprising to all of us that at the top of their list of concerns was the health of their families. To them, this was a broad definition of health; safety, good food, the ability to have their kids play in the park, and access to health care. These issues became the guideposts for the design of the neighborhood. We were all learning along the way because this notion of “let’s design and build the healthiest neighborhood possible” wasn’t the normal mandate from a client. It influenced every aspect of design and programming.
We were fortunate to receive the first Healthy Living grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. We focused the 3-year funding on many physical changes related to health, but also on programming. Two full time positions were funded: a Healthy Living Coordinator—to organize programs for the residents, and a Health Navigator—to help people with their actual health issues. Having those positions filled was critical to the success of this development. It was also important to stay open-minded to exploring new approaches to create an environment that encourages a healthy lifestyle for all residents, not just for those who can afford to belong to a health club.
While this was percolating in our minds, I was appointed by the Mayor to the Denver Health and Hospital Authority Board of Directors. This is the safety net hospital for Denver and through my work with Denver Health, it became apparent that the health issues in this one neighborhood existed at epidemic levels throughout the City. I had an even stronger imperative to become part of the solution through my professional life. This commitment became the guiding principle for the development of the Aria Denver campus, and has since stayed with me in all of my work.
How do the onsite food growing spaces at Aria Denver promote resident health and opportunities for community social interaction? Can you share any specific stories or reactions from residents about how their lives have improved due to their increased access to fresh food and/or food-related events at Aria?
Over the last three years, the gardens at Aria have grown significantly. Initially, we had put in raised beds, which brought curiosity from the neighborhood about what was going on. Now, the full acre production farm and greenhouse produce large quantities of fresh vegetables that are sold to neighborhood restaurants and offered to neighbors twice a week, for whatever they can afford. Regular clientele truly depend on this fresh food for their families. We are most proud that we are seeing new people come to the food stand each week, in addition to the regulars.
Within the Aria site, we have many residents who volunteer with the garden and this has created strong social cohesion within the community. The presence of the garden has also attracted new partners who share the same interest in providing healthy food to residents.
Most recently, a group called Denver Food Rescue asked to have a table on the site every Wednesday where they bring excess groceries from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts. This is free food for the residents and neighbors in addition to what our gardens provide. We’ve had neighborhood preschool children come to the gardens to learn how vegetables grow. They are shocked when they pull a carrot from the earth, rather than from the freezer or a can. These are important moments that will stay with them and hopefully will lead them to a healthier diet as they grow up.
What is one piece of advice you would share with someone just starting out in this field that has helped you in your effort to create thriving communities?
We are all still pioneers in this new focus on health within our real estate practice and there is still much to learn. My advice is to maintain the broadest view of health when looking at its relationship to real estate.
When I first started exploring how to measure success, I thought it would be as simple as measuring the BMI of residents before they moved into the health-focused development and then again in 3 to 5 years. I was quickly told by folks in the Public Health arena that it was not that simple, and I now agree wholeheartedly. Engaging in conversations with less traditional industries is the first step. Consider reaching out to entities such as public health professionals, parks and recreation departments, food banks, urban garden groups, and nearby universities and hospitals, who hold a special interest in the research components to these issues, and always have students to volunteer. The Trust for Public Land also has an interest in providing adult exercise equipment in urban parks.
The bigger problem is when to stop bringing in new partners. Because this is such a new area of interest, there is never a lack of people who want to get involved.
Also, remember that the primary group to engage in this discussion is the residents of the community that is being created. They see the gardens as an amenity that doesn’t exist in other developments. They have also been our biggest champions of the Aria Denver project as a result, which helps our sales.
What do you think the biggest challenges are when trying to incorporate a health lens into a new project? Given that, where do you see the fields of real estate and land use needing to focus efforts in order to ensure that health is at the forefront when making project decisions?
The biggest challenge is that it is difficult to measure success, in terms of the rate of return for an overall project, as well as the health outcomes to the residents. Unlike the LEED tool for reducing energy usage, there isn’t a universally accepted measurement tool for “health.”
As Aria has developed over the years, we have been certified through a variety of metrics including: Green Communities (Enterprise Community Partners) and Partnership for a Healthier America (a partnership of the Center for Active Design and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign). On a local level we passed Certified Healthy, a sophisticated metric system created by a local architect, Chris Dunn. Each of them provide some guidance about what it takes to create a healthy community. I expect that within a few years, there will be a universal standard.
In the meantime, we need to continue to provide case studies to show how the focus on health makes economic sense for a development. We need to be bringing in non-traditional partners to the conversation including healthcare systems, universities, public health departments, and nonprofits who are doing so much work in the “access to healthy food” space.
We need to acknowledge that the real estate industry contributed to the creation of many unhealthy buildings and neighborhoods in our country and now we need to step up and be part of the solution to offer healthier choices. This is not just about incorporating healthy food into developments, but to look more broadly at ways to create environments that encourage economic, social and physical health in our communities.