Public health is no longer solely the business of health professionals. Planners and engineers also play a vital role in a community’s health.
If we are what we eat, it can also be said we are what we build. Look around Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. What do these cities and suburbs reveal about their planners, real estate investors and residents? A simple observation: cars rule.
They are all prime examples of what resulted from the increase in automobile ownership in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequent zoning laws encouraged low-density, disconnected street networks and the replacement of sidewalks with extra lanes for more cars. More than a half century later, the only way to get from one place to another continues to be by car, not by foot.
The consequences are being felt today with the rise in obesity, diabetes and depression negatively impacting our economy, as well as our health. Good news: there’s a way to fix it. Better news: experts and local officials are already working on it.
Jim Sellen remembers listening to a lecture a few years ago by Richard Jackson, a medical doctor and author of Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability. At the Urban Land Institute gathering, Jackson spoke about doctors being “at the wrong end of the pipe” — too late to prevent patients from getting sick because they’re already ill by the time he sees them.
Jackson explained we can’t change our genes, but we can change the design of our communities. He called on the planners, architects and engineers — the professionals who design their communities — to take the lead in prevention. The reasoning is a twist of the notion “build it and they will come,” by creating a community that encourages its residents to be active — specifically in how they travel — those residents will become healthier.
Jackson’s idea stuck with Sellen, who is the Florida planning practice leader for VHB, a national, integrated planning and design services firm with offices in Orlando, Sarasota and Chipley. Sellen was already aware of what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labels an “alarming” crisis. More than 29 million people in the United States have diabetes and another 86 million have prediabetes.
Jackson’s comments intersected with CDC data.
“What I had pictured as something that would reduce the rate for juvenile diabetes, asthma, heart disease and other problems became a little more holistic. I went ‘Wow, this really resonates,’” Sellen recalls.
At the time, Sellen’s 35-year career was focused on transforming traditional highway corridors and infill locations from underused and auto-centric to sustainable, market-based and transit-supportive. That thinking wasn’t substantially distant from healthy communities, and he pivoted in that new direction.
“Public health is no longer solely the business of health professionals. There is a relationship between our built environment and our health,” says Sellen.
“‘Healthy communities’ is not about the infrastructure, it’s about the people who use it. It’s not about the cars, it’s about the people driving them. That is what’s going to make planning better. It’s about what people really need, as opposed to simply widening a road because it’s over capacity.”
Sellen is not alone among industry brethren. The Urban Land Institute has established a Healthy Corridors National Working Group to reinvent underperforming urban and suburban corridors into healthy places. ULI District Councils in Los Angeles, Denver, Nashville and Boise are serving as demonstration corridor sites.
One core element of their mission is to advance a new, healthier vision for both urban and suburban corridors and surrounding land. They’re also developing and refining replicable typologies for holistically healthy corridors. Notably, Ken Schwartz, VHB’s planning practice leader in Massachusetts, is a member of ULI’s working group.
In Orlando, the Parramore Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan — the first local plan of its type to incorporate healthy community principles in a program to revitalize an inner city community — serves as a blueprint for the healthy community concept. In January, the Orlando City Council accepted the plan created through collaboration with the community, the City of Orlando’s planning staff, and VHB to be the “next great Orlando neighborhood.” Jackson, who worked at the CDC for 15 years and has chaired the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health, contributed to the plan.
It’s built around existing city assets, such as the local shuttle line and SunRail, and upcoming new investments, including a K-8 community school, Orlando Magic entertainment complex, Orlando Lions’ soccer stadium and further development of Orlando’s Creative Village. The plan also recommends major public safety changes, including surveillance cameras and community policing; a community school and higher education hub within Creative Village; new mixed-income infill housing in the K-8 school renaissance zone; the establishment of a Parramore Avenue historic corridor; and creating an Orange Blossom Trail/Church Street Gateway anchored by a grocery store.
“The bottom line for Parramore is the school,” Sellen says. “When you look at healthy community design, a school is really the heart of the neighborhood.”
The Parramore school will be pre-K through eighth grade. “Research shows education at the pre-kindergarten level is critical to a child’s success in not only school, but in life,” Sellen emphasizes.
Sellen, meanwhile, has been working in north Jacksonville on redevelopment in Mayport, where a neighborhood focal point is sought.
“Residents there are totally dependent on their personal automobiles,” says Sellen. “What we’ve tried to do in all of these cases is connect people. “Whether it’s connecting them to jobs, connecting them to health care or simply getting them to a grocery store.”
Similarly, Schwartz of VHB worked in Bridgeport, Conn., on the Barnum Station Feasibility Study. As in Parramore, the surrounding community suffered from depressed economic conditions and low academic achievement.
The Barnum study evaluated a proposed commuter rail station in East Bridgeport on a number of vacant brownfield sites. Ultimately, the project was highlighted on The White House Blog as a best practice in 2013, demonstrating the station can catalyze revitalization and create a healthy, livable community with mixed-income housing and employment at key transit nodes.
Sellen is heartened by such success in moving healthy communities forward. And, he concludes, it’s not an especially difficult sell.
“The thing about healthy communities is that people understand it and can communicate it,” he says. “They get it. It’s about their health and the health of their community.”