Ten principles for building healthy places


Aspects of healthy communities. Source: ULI

Green spaces are key—especially if they are walkable to neighborhoods. Source: ULI.


The following is an excerpt from an Urban Land Institute report on how to create healthy places. In a suburb or an urban center, it all comes down to following a set of principles.

1) Put people first
Individuals are more likely to be active in a community designed around their needs. For decades, planners and developers inadvertently designed places for cars, not people. The results—separation of uses, acres of parking, and long commutes. These have all contributed to the decline in our country’s health. One of the strongest health/land use correlations is between obesity and the automobile: One California study showed each additional hour spent in a car per day is associated with a 6 percent increase in body weight, whereas every kilometer (0.6 miles) walked each day is associated with a 5 percent decrease, according to a study in British Columbia.

2) Recognize the economic value
Healthy places can create enhanced economic value for both the private and public sectors. Recent demographic and lifestyle shifts show that consumers of all ages increasingly want to live in walkable, mixed-use, transit-rich communities. The economic downturn confirmed this trend: the places that best held their value were compact areas that offered mobility choices, local parks, and nearby retail and transit. Banks and insurers, once hesitant to underwrite unproven development models, are now increasingly aware of the value premium of these neighborhoods.

3) Empower champions for health
Community engagement is a powerful vehicle for bringing about changes that improve the health of a community and its residents. But for many towns and cities, the connection between the built environment and personal health may not yet be apparent. A shared vision of a healthy community must take root before it can be cultivated and brought to bear on land development.

4) Energize shared spaces
Public gathering places have a direct, positive impact on human health. Places with high levels of social isolation, which can be exacerbated by the lack of public spaces and transit options, are correlated with declines in well-being and higher health costs. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety can stem from social isolation.

5) Make healthy choices easy
Prevailing land use practices often present real and perceived barriers to
change. Planning and design can create the hardware—cleaner, safer, more
beautiful streets with a variety of transportation options—to overcome the physical barriers to an active lifestyle. And programming—easy, fun, and inclusive opportunities available to all—can serve as the software to surmount the perceptions that keep people from changing their behavior.

6) Ensure equitable access
Many segments of the population would benefit from better access to services, amenities, and opportunities. For school-age children, seniors on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, and those with social and economic disadvantages, the healthy choice is not always the easiest choice. Racial and ethnic minorities and low-income individuals tend to face greater disease burdens and have shorter lifespans than their nonminority and wealthier counterparts. Designing for a variety of abilities and ages, especially in light of America’s aging population, can generate value from both a real estate and a community health perspective. Improving the location and design of both public schools and affordable housing can also have very real benefits in terms of health costs and public expenditure.

7) Mix it up
A variety of land uses, building types, and public spaces can be used to improve physical and social activity. Mixed-use development is any development or building that physically or functionally integrates a combination of residential, office, commercial, cultural, or institutional uses.

8) Embrace unique character
Places that are different, unusual, or unique can be helpful in promoting physical activity. In 2010, the Knight Foundation partnered with the Gallup organization to survey 43,000 residents of 26 U.S. cities to determine what attracts people to a place and keeps them there. The study found that the most important factors that create emotional bonds between people and their communities were not jobs, but rather “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing, and a city’s openness to all people.”

9) Promote access to healthy food
Because diet affects human health, access to healthy food should be a considered as part of any development proposal. When considering what constitutes a healthy community, planners and developers have often failed to assign food the same prominence as transit, open space, or housing mix. When food does enter the conversation, it is often in a fragmented way—where a restaurant should be located or how to attract a grocery store tenant, for example. The role of healthy food in our communities, however, is much more comprehensive: it is a real estate amenity, community builder, and project differentiator.

10) Make it active.
Urban design can be employed to create an active community. In the time since its widespread adoption in the 1950s, the automobile has completely reorganized the land use patterns of the United States. Physical activity was designed almost completely out of everyday life. Social commentator Walter Lippmann once said: “We have changed the environment more quickly than we know how to change ourselves.”