Contreras will study links between health and privately owned third places such as coffee shops and food halls.

Christina Contreras, ULI/Martin Bucksbaum Senior Visiting Fellow.

Christina Contreras, principal and founder of Living Ecology Studio in Denver, has been selected as the ULI/Martin Bucksbaum Senior Visiting Fellow. During her one-year fellowship, which started in August, Contreras will explore how privately owned and managed “third places” can better contribute to individual and community health and well-being, and will develop a “pattern book” for designers and developers to create welcoming and thriving privately owned “third places.”

Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, third place refers to areas where people spend time between home (“first place”) and work (“second place”). Examples of third places include churches, cafés, clubs, libraries, and parks. While best practices for public third places such as parks are well established, private third spaces are less studied.

“What would our world be like if we prioritized healthy environments, healthy lifestyles, and healthy communities?” Contreras asks. “I am grateful for the opportunity to explore this question and to research relationships between health and privately owned and managed third places. This is critically important work to build a healthier world for our time and future generations.”

The fellowship is generously funded with a gift to ULI from the family of pioneering retail developer Martin Bucksbaum, founder of General Growth Companies (now known as GGC Inc.). John Bucksbaum, whose family has endowed the fellowship opportunity, notes, “ULI members are essential owners and operators of privately owned third places across the country. Malls, such as those operated by GGC, play an important role in building community ties, fostering healthy community interactions, and enhancing American democracy. Contreras’s work will help fill in our understanding about how privately owned third places can help communities, and civic life, thrive.”

As a senior visiting fellow, Contreras will study both indoor and outdoor environments, with particular emphasis on intersections between these spaces and mental and social well-being, socioeconomic mixing, and community and social connection and cohesion. ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative, which is focused on the intersections between health and real estate, will guide this work. Contreras will work closely with ULI members on her research, seeking their insights and input, and her work will lead to the development of resources to inform best practices relevant to ULI members and the real estate industry.

Ultimately, based on her research, Contreras will create a toolkit to identify patterns that professionals from all sectors and backgrounds can use to compel health-based design, planning, policies, programming, and decision-making and support innovation to achieve improved health outcomes. Considerations will include physical design, policies, education practices, social interventions, financing tools, and programming.

Contreras possesses 13 years of professional experience in the fields of urban planning, landscape design, construction management, and green building. She holds a bachelor of science in geological and environmental sciences from Stanford University and a master of urban and regional planning from the University of Colorado, Denver.

As principal and founder of Living Ecology Studio, Contreras uses research, design, and community involvement in her work to prioritize equity in urban planning and design processes. She is particularly interested in exploring mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships between humans and the land.

“We are very excited to work with Christina on this effort,” says Rachel MacCleery, senior vice president of the Building Healthy Places Initiative. “The pattern book that Christina will develop over the course of her fellowship will be an essential resource for developers, owners, and managers of privately owned third places like retail, restaurants, lobbies, and others. We look forward to engaging ULI members in Christina’s research process and sharing her findings widely.”

The Building Healthy Places Initiative leverages the power of ULI’s global networks to shape projects and places in ways that improve the health of people and communities. Learn more. Contact us at