Real estate and land use professionals are increasingly being called upon to address the rise in obesity, chronic diseases, and health care costs by designing homes, workplaces, and communities with human health in mind.
ULI’s own Building Healthy Places Initiative, which kicked off in 2013, aims to leverage member networks and identify best practices within the built environment that empower people to make healthier choices through an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits. In September, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General launched its Step It Up campaign, a call to action for people to walk more and for land use professionals to design and build walkable communities. Other organizations such as the American Institute of Architects and the American Public Health Association have launched their own initiatives to spotlight the connection between health and community design.
Added to these efforts is Active Design Verified, a joint effort between the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a group inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign that aims to end childhood obesity, and the Center for Active Design, a New York-based nonprofit organization that aims to prioritize health in the design of buildings and neighborhoods.
PHA’s mission is make the healthy choice the easy choice for busy, working families, according to Lisa Creighton, PHA director of partnerships. The group is attempting to make progress on the issue by enlisting a broad coalition of companies and institutions—from chains like Subway and Walgreens and athletics company Nike, to hospitals and universities—to promote routine and recreational physical activity and healthy eating among consumers of all ages and incomes.
PHA is also keen to recruit to its network developers of affordable and mixed-income housing, which serve poor individuals and families who often have worse health outcomes than the population at large, including higher rates of obesity and chronic disease and shorter life expectancy.
“Incorporating active design into affordable housing ensures that kids and families that need it the most have access to healthier food and places for physical activity,” Creighton says.
Among PHA’s list of partners are two active ULI members who see their inclusion in Active Design Verified as a way to elevate an issue they care deeply about—using housing as a tool to improve the health among residents and the quality of life in their communities.
Stephen Whyte, managing director and founder of Seattle-based Vitus Group, and Susan Powers, president of Denver-based Urban Ventures, see the benefit of joining a broad group of industries tackling the problem of lifestyle-related diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease from vastly different angles. Vitus Group develops affordable housing exclusively and has produced more than 9,000 units of rehab or new construction in 17 states. Powers is the developer of Aria Denver, a 17.5-acre (7 ha) master-planned community near downtown Denver that will offer 450 units of housing in a mix of affordable apartments, market-rate townhouses, and intergenerational housing.
“As developers, it’s easy for us to toil in isolation,” Whyte says. “We’re interested in doing things that are outside the box and connecting with other people and companies who care about the same things that we do.”
For Powers, joining PHA was a natural fit. Through Aria, Urban Ventures has been exploring how to build a community around the themes of health and wellness. The firm counts a multitude of local partners in its Cultivate Health initiative, which takes a “whole person” approach to real estate development. “There are lot of nontraditional partners that we can bring into our business and enrich what we do,” Powers says.
As a Developer, Why Join PHA?
How does joining PHA further the social and business goals of mission-oriented developers and lead to healthier residents?
Both Whyte and Powers have agreed to incorporate in their developments design and land use features identified by the Center for Active Design as part of New York City’s “active design guidelines.” The center provides training, technical assistance, and research support to land use professionals and policy makers who want to facilitate healthy choices and active mobility when designing streets, neighborhoods, and communities, and has partnered with ULI as well: it served as the content adviser for ULI’s Building Healthy Places Toolkit, released earlier this year.
By committing their projects to be Active Design Verified, Whyte and Powers have agreed to implement a set of active design guidelines over the next three years and have the center sign off on the results.
Both expressed enthusiasm about working with the center and PHA and praised their collaborative and nonpunitive approach. For instance, rehabbing an existing property to meet the guidelines is a very different task than incorporating them into new construction, Whyte says, and requires flexibility on the center’s part.
“We know intuitively what the right components of what a healthy community is, but to have a real framework and real criteria is incredibly helpful,” says Cassie Wright, project manager with Urban Ventures. Having to be accountable to third parties like PHA and the center tells a prospective buyer, ‘These guys are legit.’ It gives us more credibility.”
Active Design Features
Among the features and amenities the companies have agreed to include are attractive and appealing stairways made with high-quality materials; long-term bicycle storage; healthy food retailers in ground-floor spaces or opportunities for urban agriculture and culinary education; and sites that are well connected to sidewalks, bike paths, and transit.
Programming and resident services will play a key role in ensuring residents actually use the amenities to make healthier choices, Whyte says. Attempting to create new habits within a family structure is no easy task; it will take time. “The way I can effect incremental change is through active design,” he says.
Just as certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program was once on the fringe but is now mainstream, both Whyte and Powers sense a similar movement for active design guidelines over the next ten to 15 years. While both see projects being “active design verified” as giving them a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace, they predict active design and infrastructure will soon be the norm.
Powers and Whyte also say they joined PHA to set an example for other developers. Obesity, diet-related diseases, and escalating health care costs “are one of the biggest challenges we have in this country,” Powers says. “If we can do our small part in creating environments that lead to healthier choices, we can say we’ve been part of the solution.”