Nearly every community in the United States is home to an underperforming commercial corridor. Dismal, dirty, and disconnected, these places may represent the last great smart growth and infill opportunity. How can urban and suburban arterials be reenvisioned as healthy places, with more housing, better transportation options, appealing land use patterns, and reinvigorated retail centers?

“We look at our arterial roads as places we want to get through, not want to be,” said panel moderator Melani Smith, principal of the Los Angeles–based Meléndrez landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm. “We need to look at them as assets for the community and make them healthier” by putting physical, social, and environmental health ahead of other considerations.

Related: Shifting the Focus of Commercial Strips from Moving Cars to Connecting People | Recap and Resources from Healthy Corridors Concurrent Session at Fall Meeting

Smith is on the team for Van Nuys Boulevard in Los Angeles, one of four ULI Healthy Corridors demonstration sites—the others are in Boise, Denver, and Nashville. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation (CHF), the ULI Healthy Corridors are defining best practices to reinvent auto-dominated commercial strips as safe, economically vibrant, and transit-connected corridors. Each demonstration corridor has formed a local leadership group, including local experts in land use, real estate development, design, health, and community engagement, and the panel focused on their progress toward creating healthier corridors.

ULI Los Angeles and partners have focused on a 0.75-mile (1.2 km) stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard in the Pacoima neighborhood, a 30-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. This wide corridor has single-story storefronts, a lack of pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and adjacent single-family homes. The corridor is designated as one of the city’s Great Streets and contains unique cultural elements, including colorful murals and businesses that cater to the surrounding Latino community. It also has some of the city’s poorest health outcomes, and has been studied extensively regarding economics, travel behavior, physical movement, and environmental justice. It received a challenge grant and funding for a green-streets project and may get bus rapid transit or light rail in the future. The team held a local workshop in July, and is considering how to galvanize stakeholder suggestions of a pop-up or tactical urbanism event, an installation to test street improvements, and activities such as health screenings and physical exercise demonstrations.

“You invest in infrastructure, but have you ever thought about how it can save lives?” asked Sharon Roerty, RWJ Foundation senior program officer. ULI’s Healthy Corridors initiative seeks to find solutions for the failures of infrastructure and planning, as well as benign neglect, she said. The ubiquitous four-lane arterial corridor that “serves millions and no one both at same time” can be rebuilt with transportation options, housing, and safe access to healthy food and services, she said. “These four corridors alone will not make a difference. But ULI is 36,000 members strong, and what if you thought about healthy corridors in all your projects? I want you to know you have the power to save lives.”

ULI Colorado’s corridor working group is focusing on 2.5 miles (4 km) of Federal Boulevard, a state highway in northwest metro Denver. The boulevard spans three jurisdictions—Denver, Adams County, and the city of Westminster, all of which had done previous planning and visioning projects. Flanked by a mix of fast-food restaurants and small businesses such as motels, triple-X video stores, and car dealerships, the boulevard spans eight lanes of traffic; only 40 percent of the segment has sidewalks. One in four households in the adjacent single-family and mobile homes live below the poverty level, and a recent health impact assessment indicated that neighbors are concerned about safe street crossings, a lack of places to exercise, and gentrification. Some catalytic development is occurring along the corridor in anticipation of two new rail stations due to open in 2016 that will connect residents to downtown Denver within 15 minutes. One redevelopment is Aria Denver, a 17.5-acre (7.1 ha) mixed-use, mixed-income community that is focusing on healthy living in partnership with the CHF and nearby Regis University.

David Thorpe, vice president of Shaw Construction in Denver, reported that the eight-member Federal Boulevard working group held an all-day meeting and tour in July with 60 stakeholders, including residents, developers, and representatives of the cities and county and the Colorado Department of Transportation. He said their discussion focused on intergovernmental collaboration and place making—how to “better connect the tapestry of places, hold fast to health, and remember existing residents and help them find their way through change” rather than redeveloping only for new residents. The challenge is to encourage cooperation across boundaries that stitches together one corridor-long vision.

“We have to have vision, and people must see and feel it so they can change,” said Ben Quintana, a Boise city council member and cochair of the Vista Neighborhood Project. ULI Idaho and partners are working on a 1.7-mile (2.7 km) segment of Vista Avenue, a four-lane arterial that connects the airport, Interstate 84, Boise State University, and downtown Boise. Vista Avenue is the gateway to the city, but currently exemplifies a typical strip commercial street, with auto-oriented retail, bars, pawnshops, a mix of converted and dilapidated housing, and few pedestrian or bike facilities. It needs to relate better to surrounding neighborhoods and create a safer, more attractive, and welcoming entrée for visitors to the city and residents who rely on the corridor in their daily lives. The Vista neighborhood has some of the lowest livability indicators in the city, and includes a mix of single- and multifamily housing.

Quintana, a program manager at St. Luke’s Health System, Idaho’s largest health care provider and private employer, discussed Boise’s efforts to enhance livability through the built environment. In this “big town–small city” of 215,000, he said, “we’re trying to get out ahead and build smart for the future” so that people “can walk down the street with their kids and feel safe.” The Vista Avenue corridor workshop, held with stakeholders in June, included a tour to observe and photograph road and sidewalk conditions with the intention of recommending potential changes regarding speed limits, bike lanes, landscaping, and gateway signage.

John W. Vick, with the Metro Nashville Public Health Department Division of Epidemiology and Research, discussed a two-mile (3.2 km) segment of Charlotte Avenue, the main throughway from downtown to the western suburbs and the subject of ULI Nashville and partners’ corridor initiative. On the northern side of the corridor are historically African American neighborhoods, which have social inequities and poor health outcomes, as well as universities and cultural arts centers. On the south side is the city’s medical district. Health care is Nashville’s largest business, so health is the focus of lot of people who work in this corridor, noted Vick. Some additional issues: the corridor is a food desert and needs a variety of services that could be accessed without driving, as well as complete streets for a safer and more efficient way of moving people. Public and private investment is occurring along the corridor, but the uncoordinated development patterns require a more strategic approach and links to adjacent neighborhoods to benefit businesses and new denser multifamily development.

A stakeholder meeting in August was “very implementation focused,” said Vick. “We’d been studied to death, had a design charrette a year before, and had a good sense of the issues in the corridor. Our focus was what can we do now to link to surrounding developments and provide connections to new services” for 12 neighborhoods along the corridor.

Though San Francisco is not one of ULI’s demonstration cities, Joaquin Torres, deputy director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, offered insights on efforts to create healthier corridors through the Invest in Neighborhoods initiative in 25 neighborhoods. The initiative focuses in part on revitalizing neighborhood commercial districts to help existing businesses thrive and establish a high quality of life, strong community capacity, and attractive physical conditions with programs and funding for streetscape improvements and other enhancements.

Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications in Boulder, Colorado, writes about design and the environment, focusing on sustainability and healthy and resilient communities.