The role land use plays in creating communities that encourage healthy living choices is explored in two new ULI publications, Intersections: Health and the Built Environment and Ten Principles for Building Healthy Places.

The reports mark the start of a two-year body of work ULI is devoting to its Building Healthy Places Initiative, which will examine how urban design and development can contribute to living environments that are conducive to active lifestyles, social interaction, and prosperity. Through the initiative, ULI is leveraging the power of its global networks to shape projects and places that improve the health of people and communities. Both reports were released at the Fall Meeting in Chicago.

“We are looking at city building through the lens of health and wellness as a way to measure sustainability and long-term prosperity,” says ULI Chairman Lynn Thurber, chairman of LaSalle Investment Management in Chicago. “The Building Healthy Places Initiative is an extension of ULI’s ongoing pursuit of sustainable, thriving communities worldwide. The difference is that with this effort, wellness is the intent—the designated outcome—not just an additional benefit of thoughtful design and development. Our focus will be on defining the role land use plays in creating healthy places for all generations.”

Intersections: Health and the Built Environment makes the case that people can build their way to better health. It provides an indication of the scale of the challenges facing communities worldwide and outlines the opportunities for and benefits of improving global health through intelligent urban design. Among the statistics cited in Intersections:

  • A total of 13 million school days are missed each year in the United States due to asthma-related illnesses.
  • The number of children with type 2 diabetes has tripled since 1980.
  • By 2030, it is anticipated that one out of 11 people in the United States will be at least 100 pounds overweight.
  • Health care costs—the cost to treat illness, not keep people well—currently consume 19 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States, 9 percent of the GDP in Europe, and 5 percent of the GDP in China.

Increasingly, the ability of developers and communities to deliver on health is translating into market value for projects, the report notes. Indications of growing demand for walkable, mixed-use places with access to green space and transit include the following:

  • When members of generation Y consider where they want to live, 68 percent say proximity to a park is important; 76 percent say walkability is important.
  • Homes located in neighborhoods with good walkability are worth $34,000 more on average than similar homes in neighborhoods with average walkability.
  • More than half of Americans (51 percent) want to live in a community that has transit; 53 percent want to be close to shops, restaurants, and offices.
  • Among older Americans, 84 percent want to age in their current home.

Communities and projects that are able to meet the market demand for health will see their value endure over time, according to Intersections.

The report cites examples of best practices worldwide that encourage healthier living.

  • Googleplex in Mountain View, California. The mantra of healthy buildings has guided Google’s interior redesign and renovations of scores of buildings at its Googleplex corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company approached healthy workplaces as imperative for attracting and retaining the best and brightest staff, and for improving collaboration and productivity.
  • Bike sharing in Hangzhou, China. The Hangzhou bike-share system is one of the largest in the world, providing nearly 70,000 bicycles. The system was introduced in 2008 to increase transit use by providing a link between transport hubs and users’ final destinations. The scheme has increased bike use to the point that it accounts for 38 percent of trips, and daily use now averages 240,000 rides. Hangzhou officials are optimistic that the system will expand to 175,000 bikes by 2020.
  • Low-carbon regeneration in Cornwall, England. In the village of Pool in Cornwall, England, the local council, an integrated team led by Buro Happold engineers, and Stride Treglown architects have restored former granite mine buildings to serve as a mixed-use residential arts community complete with studios, a community hall, conference facilities, a restaurant/bar, and shops. The low-carbon community includes active public spaces, children’s play areas, and events arenas, and has acted as a catalyst for local economic development.

“Increasingly, cities are actively seeking to encourage healthy living choices to attract new investments and gain a competitive advantage,” says ULI Chief Executive Officer Patrick L. Phillips. “This is not just about building a walking trail or upgrading a fitness center. Building healthy places is about improving all aspects of the environment in which people live, from the air we breathe to the places where we work. This involves rethinking what, where, and how we build.”

Ten Principles for Building Healthy Places provides practical steps that communities can adopt to have a positive impact on the health of their people. It is based on recommendations from a workshop of multidisciplinary experts convened last summer, which distilled findings from three ULI Advisory Services panels conducted last spring in Colorado to recommend strategies for fostering active living. The Colorado Health Foundation funded those panels and is a partner of the Building Healthy Places Initiative. The ten principles are:

1. Put people first. One of the strongest health/land use correlations is between obesity and the use of automobiles. For decades planners and developers have designed places for cars rather than people. The report recommends designing in a way that minimizes automobile dependence by mixing land uses and offering safe, convenient options for getting from one place to another. The report recommends making healthy living a priority and integrating it into the planning process.

2. Recognize the economic value. Compact, walkable, mixed-use communities provide economic benefit to developers through higher property values, enhanced marketability, and quicker sales and leasing. The report points to the likelihood that these communities will hold their value during economic downturns, noting that the economic viability of these communities is underpinned by their popularity with two of the largest demographic groups—baby boomers and millennials.

3. Empower champions for health. Community engagement is a powerful vehicle in highlighting the link between health and local land use, and in bringing about change. The report encourages local champions to communicate the benefits of healthy places, promote grassroots action, broaden the base of support, and forge collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders who share an interest in healthy communities, such as medical professionals.

4. Energize shared spaces. Places with high levels of social isolation often suffer from declines in well-being and increases in health costs. The report advocates incorporating public gathering places into the built environment and, where appropriate, using the “living street” concept, which gives priority to pedestrians and cyclists over cars and provides recreational space.

5. Make healthy choices easy. Make the healthy choice the one that is SAFE—safe, accessible, fun, and easy. Communities need to plan their environment to remove barriers that lead people to default to an unhealthy practice.

6. Ensure equitable access. Make healthy choices accessible to all income and demographic groups. Neighborhoods should have housing options for all ages, enabling people to age in place, and communities should make facilities accessible through a holistic transit plan that reduces reliance on the automobile.

7. Mix it up. Integrate a range of residential, commercial, cultural, and institutional uses. Mixed-use development is more likely to create walkable or transit-oriented communities and mixed-income, cross-generational communities.

8. Embrace unique character. Places that are different, unusual, or unique can be helpful in promoting physical activity and emotional well-being. The report cites a Knight Foundation study concludes that the most important factor creating bonds between people and their communities is not jobs, but the community’s “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing, and a city’s openness to all people.” Communities should rediscover existing assets such as waterfronts or historic neighborhoods and embrace the unique character of their area to boost physical and mental health among the population.

9. Promote access to healthy food. Because diet is a major contributor to human health, access to healthy food should be considered as part of any development proposal. The report notes that when considering what constitutes a healthy community, planners and developers seldom assign food the same prominence as transit, open space, and housing mix. The report advocates rethinking the modern grocery store to make it more accessible for cyclists and pedestrians, considering use of mobile food markets, and employing historic markets to create a destination to encourage economic development and health eating.

10. Make it active. Urban design should be used to create an active community, boosting physical activity and reducing reliance on the car. Amenities for adults and children should be located together to serve both groups; for instance, adult exercise equipment should be provided near children’s playgrounds, enabling parents to exercise while supervising their children. Walking should be encouraged by looking at the provision of sidewalks and crosswalks, while cycling can be encouraged through bike-share schemes.

For more information on ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative and to download copies of Intersections: Health and the Built Environment and Ten Principles for Building Healthy Places, visit