Each year, the ULI/Randall Lewis Health Mentorship Program pairs current graduate students with ULI members to learn about the organization and deepen their understanding of opportunities to advance health through careers in land use and real estate. In April, mentees and mentors from Cohort 4 and Cohort 5 were brought together by the ULI Building Healthy Places initiative at the 2022 ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego, California. Alongside their mentors, mentees attended Product Council meetings, participated in health and sustainability-related forums and tours, including ULI’s Building Healthy Places Forum, as well as micro-learning and concurrent sessions through the duration of the meeting.
ULI’s annual spring and fall meetings provide unique opportunities to connect a wide array of real estate and land use professionals at all stages of their careers. Engaging with and learning from one another, these meetings inspire attendees to confront and share ideas on how our field can advance healthier, more resilient, and sustainable communities. Here, health mentees share their reflections and observations on the intertwined relationship between health, equity, and the built environment based on their Spring Meeting experiences.
How did Spring Meeting make you think differently about health and equity in real estate?
Madelaine Britt, Cohort 4: The Spring Meeting reaffirmed for me the cross-disciplinary planning approach needed to further our housing and health equity goals. In particular, the meeting’s emphasis on creative thinking when it relates to zoning, non-traditional housing typologies and use-conversion demonstrates that, with enough courage, municipalities across the country can create opportunities for healthy, affordable housing in areas once thought impossible. From the conversion of suburban retail centers for affordable housing, to lifting zoning restrictions that limit multi-family development, the meeting presented diverse case studies that can be implemented at the local level. As we saw during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with the conversion of hotels to shelters, when the need is urgent, we can prioritize health and housing access quickly. The meeting inspired me to think about how zoning rules, when flexible, can precipitate transformative change for advancing health equity.
Denise Truong, Cohort 5: In the past, I thought of real estate as a game amongst the wealthiest groups or individuals whose end goal is to make the biggest deal for themselves. However, the Spring Meeting opened my eyes to a different side of real estate. I witnessed the community development initial public offering model at the Market Creek Plaza project during the Building Healthy Places Forum and was inspired by the success of community-based asset ownership. I also listened to speaker panelists who represented Black Rock, Prologis, public agencies, infill development companies, and others who were leveraging their skills and capital to produce affordable housing and income-generating business models that meet local community needs.
Lyna, Cohort 5: Attending the meeting allowed me to explore the interconnected relationship between health and equity issues and how they intersect with real estate and land development in inextricable ways. The meeting revealed that health is not just what happens in the doctor’s office and that individual and public health outcomes are the results of many factors related to where people live and work. Furthermore, the influence that their homes, workplaces, and communities exert on their well-being made me think of multiple ways to reshape health and the accumulating factors it includes such as housing, transportation, education, and job opportunities—the social determinants of health.
What was the most impactful aspect of Spring Meeting that you participated in, and why?
Aleiya Als, Cohort 4: While I enjoyed all the tours and forums, I would have to say that the most impactful session was from the BHP Forum with Majora Carter. Carter discussed the tension between gaining a better education but how many of us in these communities that do attend a higher education institution do not go back to those same communities, and the importance of investing back into your community. These concepts ultimately showcased how Majora, from Bronx, New York, was able to take the knowledge that she gained and better apply it to her community. A community that was once plagued by the crack epidemic, and a place where the community was able to regain Hunts Point Riverside, which was once a dumping ground, into a community park that has access to water ways. Another example of her setting an example for others in the community was by creating a coffee shop that allowed itself to enter a competitive industry where not many minorities dominate. These are just a few examples that drive me to give back to my community in a way that allows you to educate and allows minorities access to a “piece of the pie” too.
Amelie Rives, Cohort 4: I found great value in attending sessions on creating middle income housing and increasing mixed use developments to revitalize communities. There is a housing crisis across the United States, where affordable and quality housing options are shrinking. As an affordable housing professional and renter, I can see the shrinking availability of affordable housing as a serious issue for all income levels. These sessions showed me that smart housing policy can legalize more diverse housing options to create more dense housing options in cities that have previously outlawed these options through outdated zoning. Affordable and dense options that are desperately needed across the income spectrum and these policies can make housing available for low income and middle-income households.
Evelyn Mayo, Cohort 4: The visit to the Jacobs Center during the BHP Forum was the most impactful tour that I attended. What struck me was not only the successful model for community education, empowerment, wealth building and collaboration, but the upcoming re-purchase opportunity for the community to continue to own and manage the development. I had never heard of the shareholder model where the community could own and therefore benefit from the sale or development of their shares in the community development. I will continue to monitor this project as that process continues.
Elizabeth Rose, Cohort 5: The most impactful moment was the Building Healthy Places Forum Day 1 session. Majora Carter’s presentation regarding talent-retention economic development resonated with me as this was the first time I had heard of this strategy. We have talked about incentive-based and workforce-attraction strategies, but not talent retention. In my middle-class hometown, I have witnessed a similar whisper of how our families and communities measure success: get as far away as possible. I had never heard this concept spoken out loud in a professional setting before; however, this idea is all too common throughout low-status communities in the United States. Majora verbalized that cities have the talent to be successful within their own communities, but all too often these communities are victims of “brain drain.” Successful, talented people are born and raised in low-status communities; but, the problem is getting talented people to stay and invest back into their neighborhoods. I believe that Majora is on the right track with her talent-retention economic development strategy. This strategy can be applied to small rural towns across the U.S., not just communities in larger urban areas. Since attending Spring Meeting, I have been investigating how cities and towns can improve or transition their economies moving through the 21st century–understanding that climate change concerns are likely to be the focus of major policy decisions. Majora’s presentation has left me curious to dig deeper into economic and regional development theory, and my curiosity is fueling an idea for my master’s thesis.
What was your biggest takeaway from Spring Meeting?
Miluska Franco, Cohort 4: In order to proactively participate in building healthier communities, we must work to restructure systems of inequity. This undertaking must happen at an individual, grassroots level alongside a broader, systematic approach. Individually, in my role as an architect and urban designer, I can look to propose programs that align with community needs and not our idea of them. Systematically, future urban systems must connect and not segregate neighborhoods. The individuals I met in my cohort, and this conference, give me reassurance that the built environment will be designed sustainability and equitably.
Miguel Castro, Jr., Cohort 4: My biggest takeaway from the Spring Meeting is that it is okay to dream big and know there is an expansive network of like-minded professionals that are there to help you turn that dream into a reality. It is all too easy to get lost in the world of academia and lose track of a tangible goal that may actually work towards developing wicked solutions to wicked problems. The ULI Spring Meeting let me know my dream may become reality and my ambition to create positive long-term systemic change in the world is not farfetched; but actually, exactly what the world needs.
Bryan Luu, Cohort 5: The major lesson from Spring Meeting is that communication is crucial to the success of transforming the built environment. Based on conversations that I had with attendees, people are not always seeing eye-to-eye. The world is becoming more complex and gaining consensus on hot-topic issues can be difficult. This stresses the importance of communication for gaining trust and belief from the community. How can large swaths of information and graphics be digestible for people without higher education? How do we build our partnerships and ensure all parties are satisfied? What is the direction that communities want to move toward in the next 5 or 10 years? Through effective communication and engagement, urban planners can realize the answers.