Panelists at the ULI Building Healthy Places conference in Los Angeles. From left: Anne Warhover, president and chief executive officer, Colorado Health Foundation; Paul D. Scialla, founder, Delos Living; Richard J. Jackson, professor and chair, environmental health sciences, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; and Lynn Thurber, chairman, LaSalle Investment Management, and chairman, Urban Land Institute

Development that is oriented toward health and wellness—including living space and workspace—is emerging as a real estate trend that will redefine community building for decades to come, according to land use and health experts at ULI’s recent Building Healthy Places conference in Los Angeles.

The event, which marked the first time many attendees representing the real estate and health care professions had convened in one place, focused on how the industries can collaborate to create communities that make healthy choices part of people’s daily routines. An emphasis was placed on the benefits of addressing disease prevention through design and development that help improve mental and physical health. The conference was part of a series of activities being conducted through ULI’s Building Healthy Places initiative, which is focusing on the role of land use in creating healthy communities.

Related: Building Healthy Places Conference Resources

Several panelists pointed to the importance of developers seeing themselves as being in the business of improving human health through the built environment. “The purpose of public health services is to create conditions where people can be healthy,” said Richard Jackson, professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. “Land developers can do more to provide health care than doctors, who cannot change people’s lives. Developers can change people’s lives [with what they build].”

The mounting evidence of declining human health—including rising obesity rates for children and adults, an increase in respiratory diseases resulting from “sick” buildings, and an overall decline in regular physical activity—“can be linked, directly or indirectly, to past land use decisions,” said ULI Chairman Lynn Thurber. “These are decisions that ULI can help change. Building healthy places is about improving all aspects of the environment in which people live. And this involves rethinking what, where, and how we build. We have reached the point at which wellness will be part of a quality piece of real estate.”

“This is not a fad that is going to fade away,” noted past ULI chairman and conference co-chair Peter Rummell. “The idea of living well is very tangible; it is something that people understand.” Amenities related to health hold great potential for community building in that they have broad, cross-generational appeal, he said.

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the need for equity—ensuring that healthy living environments are available to people of all incomes. “Your zip code is more important than your DNA code in determining your chances for good health. There is no value [in health-oriented amenities] if you don’t have access to them,” said conference cochair Anne Warhover, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Health Foundation.

The gap in access to healthy amenities is related to the safety and aesthetics of areas for physical activity and social interaction as well as the availability of healthy food, said James Sallis, professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California at San Diego and director of Active Living Research, a program created through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The issue of equity is how to create healthy communities for everyone—how to reverse these inequalities,” he said. “We in the health field want to work with you [real estate professionals] to address these disparity problems.”

“The next big thing in healthy communities is tackling how to create a society in which we can all participate in healthier, more prosperous communities,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink, a national research institute that advances economic and social equity. With the United States quickly becoming a nation in which the majority of the population is composed of people of color and people who tend to be less affluent than whites, the issue of health disparity must be addressed, she said. “Getting equity right means getting health right, so the healthy choice should be the easy choice for all,” she said.

Randall Lewis, executive vice president and director of marketing for the Lewis Operating Company, a developer of master-planned communities, pointed to the need for health-oriented development to provide benefits to the greater community and be part of an overall effort to create healthier cities. “This is about looking through the lens of health and education to create change at the community level, not just at the project level,” he said.

The most successful healthy developments are those that are tailored to evolve according to desires of residents, rather than those with rigid programming not flexible enough to satisfy a range of user preferences, said Paul Johnson, senior vice president of community development for Rancho Mission Viejo, a major master-planned community in southern California. “We provide the framework—the space—and we respond to what resonates,” he said. “We want this [building for health] to grow organically. We promote a healthy lifestyle, but the residents carry it out.” In general, building for health does not necessarily mean higher costs, Johnson noted. “It’s how you allocate your resources.”

Paul Scialla, founder of Delos Living, described the evolution of the company’s focus from sustainability to wellness real estate, including the creation of the WELL Building Standard, which Delos developed in partnership with architects, scientists, and health industry thought leaders. It focuses on improving human wellness within the built environment by identifying specific conditions that, when holistically integrated into building interiors, enhance the health and well-being of the occupants. The certification process, which includes the submission of project documentation and an on-site audit, is administered independently by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).

Wellness real estate “makes intuitive, economic, and social sense,” Johnson said. “In most cases, building for health is not a more expensive decision, but a more intelligent, informed decision.”

Trish Riggs is vice president of communications at ULI.