• Dependency on driving is not the sole cause of U.S. health problems, but a major contributor.
  • Cities can create healthy places by building and renovating parks.
  • Affordable housing helps create healthy places, and the need for it is enormous.

Making healthy places happen requires vision and commitment, according to a panel of ULI J.C. Nichols Prize laureates, who offered insight into the challenges of implementing a healthy living culture. Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean and Paley professor of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, asked panelists:  Why do we blame the car for healthcare problems when life expectancy in the U.S. has increased in the past 50 years?

Peter Calthorpe, founder and president of Calthorpe Associates, based in Berkeley, California, said the U.S. spends a lot more money per capita than other countries on healthcare with poorer results. A generation ago, he said, Americans were much healthier when families had one car and drove 10,000 miles per year, compared to the current average 24,000 miles per year. “The car isn’t the sole cause,” he said, “but the correlations between high car use and diseases like diabetes and heart disease are indisputable.”

F. Barton Harvey, former chairman of Enterprise Community Partners, praised cities like New York, whose creation of Battery Park, the High Line, and other places to walk have encouraged healthy lifestyles. He said changing behaviors is only part of what makes people healthy, however. In low-income neighborhoods, peoples’ life expectancy and health is reduced due to lack of access to healthy food and safe places to walk. “Safety is absolutely key,” he said. “The realities of safety and access really go together, and life expectancy for minorities in the U.S. is very different.”

Panelists praised Chicago for its new bike lanes and parks, such as Millennium Park’s inclusive spaces for people, art, activities, and culture. Harvey said parks in many cities are not used because they are not safe or well-maintained. He applauded Atlanta’s leadership in renovating parks and providing access to healthy places through the new BeltLine greenway that circles downtown, connecting low-income neighborhoods to transit, new parks, and multi-use trails.

Calthorpe suggested that schools that are small enough and convenient to walk to would be healthier for children and communities than large schools on the outskirts. “There’s a marriage between a vision of physical form and public policies that will support that structure,” said Calthorpe. “How much will the U.S. people be willing to pay for? There’s a deeper challenge, and we see it on many levels.”

Adequate affordable housing, along with decent schools, transit, and connections, “has a lot to do with healthy communities,” said J. Ronald Terwilliger, chairman emeritus of Trammell Crow Residential and a former ULI chairman, as well as current board chairman of Enterprise Community Partners. He said 20 million U.S. families spend more than half their income on housing.

Terwilliger and other panelists discussed the importance of maintaining federal low-income housing tax credits, using inclusionary zoning, and building more multifamily housing, accessory dwelling units, and smaller, more accessible units in walkable communities as solutions to the challenges of providing affordable housing.

For more on ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative, go to uli.org/health.

Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications, LLC in Boulder, Colorado, is the principal author of ULI’s new publication, Intersections: Health and the Built Environment.