This past August, the Washington Post reported on the exploding popularity of D.C.’s three-year-old Capital Bikeshare program, pointing out that bike docking stations throughout the city are having trouble meeting demand from both residents and visitors seeking to bike from one place to another. It’s a sign of the changing times—in terms of how cities are introducing amenities to encourage physical activity, healthy living choices, and social interaction to attract investment and gain a competitive advantage.

The connection between healthy communities and economic prosperity is at the core of ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative, a two-year program we will be highlighting at our upcoming Fall Meeting in Chicago. Through this initiative, ULI will examine the built environment through the lens of health and wellness. We will be showcasing places that thrive because they encourage not just exercise, but also access to a variety of healthy choices in all aspects of how people live.

I view this effort as an extension of ULI’s ongoing pursuit of sustainable, thriving communities worldwide. Much of what goes into creating successful communities also creates healthy communities. The difference is that, with this initiative, wellness will be the intent—the designated outcome—not just an additional benefit of thoughtful design and development. I’m very excited about the potential of this endeavor to open up opportunities to work with new stakeholders, such as those involved in health care and public education. With these partnerships, our focus will be on defining the role land use plays in creating healthy places for all generations.

In this regard, we have already established a relationship with the Colorado Health Foundation, which sponsored three Advisory Services panels last spring to recommend strategies for creating healthy living environments in three very different settings: Arvada, a suburb of Denver; rural Lamar, located in a remote area in the southeast part of the state; and Westwood, which spans 1.5 square miles (3.9 sq km) in southwest Denver. The assignment given the panels marked the first time the Institute’s Advisory Services program has focused specifically on incorporating physical activity and other health-related aspects into design and development.

Despite the vast geographic, social, and economic differences among the three communities, they shared several issues related to healthy living. In each case, the panelists found that the communities have distinct characteristics and features that could be leveraged to position them as attractive places for physical and social interaction that offers options for better mobility and healthy eating. The overriding conclusion: the reinvention of these communities as health-oriented places could serve as a catalyst for economic growth, attracting “knowledge economy” residents who prefer active lifestyles and businesses seeking to locate in areas with a growing pool of skilled workers.

The work of the Arvada, Lamar, and Westwood panels helped inform a new ULI publication we are releasing at the Fall Meeting, Ten Principles for Healthy Communities, funded with a generous contribution from ULI Foundation governor James Todd and his wife, Sharon. This publication is also the result of a workshop ULI convened this summer involving experts from both the land use and health and wellness fields. Participants included immediate past ULI chairman Peter Rummell, who kept the group focused on the business opportunities associated with building healthy communities; and Dr. Richard Jackson, professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, who emphasized the built environment’s considerable influence on shaping human behavior.

Another piece of our initial work through the Building Healthy Places Initiative is the publication Intersections: Health and the Built Environment, also being released at the Fall Meeting, which explores global health trends and data, and the role of the land use community in creating healthy places. We will also be offering at the meeting a track of programming devoted to different aspects of building healthy communities; the insights shared at those sessions will broaden our knowledge on this issue, enriching future programs and content that we will be producing over the next two years. Our first meeting devoted to the issue will be our Building Healthy Places Conference, set for February 19 and 20, 2014, in Los Angeles.

The Institute’s work in this area holds great promise, and results from a recent survey sent to 7,500 ULI members confirms that we are on the right track. Ninety-five percent of those who responded agreed with the statement “human health and the built environment are inextricably linked,” and 86 percent said ULI is a valuable source of information about connections between health and wellness and the built environment. We will continue to seek your input as we move forward with the initiative; its success depends on your ideas, your involvement, and your expertise. I see health-conscious development not as a new design or a trend, but rather as a thread of continuity that strengthens a community’s sustainability. It is an approach that our successors can learn from, and improve on, to build better communities for future generations.