Recently, I was reflecting back to the year 1993. That spring I began my career in healthcare administration at The Ohio State University Hospitals and Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. This position became the springboard for future career stops at hospitals in Central Indiana and Chicago.

Over the course of my health care journey, I found myself intrigued with the role of urban hospitals and medical centers in fostering the economic revitalization of neighborhoods and communities they’re adjoined to. Now, as an journalist examining the dynamics of urban environments, I’ve been on a quest to take a deeper look at  medical districts as anchors of renewal, particularly in low income center-city locales.

Recently, I went on an exploratory expedition to an emerging “Medical City”  east of central Denver that is rapidly becoming a model for medical districts nationally. This massive complex of University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus is located on a portion of a former Army medical base. It houses health science-related schools and colleges under the flagship University of Colorado Hospitals and Anschutz Centers for Advanced Medicine. Co-located on this expanse is the Fitzsimons Life Sciences District, which includes the 184-acre Science and Technology Park, and the new Children’s Hospital. The campus will also serve as the future home of the Veteran Affairs Hospital, and the mixed use residential/retail town center known as 21 Fitzsimons. 

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What’s significant about this signature medical campus is in how it intersects with one of the areas grittiest, low-income neighborhoods in the Denver edge city: Aurora. In fact, with some trepidations, I wandered this adjacent community in order to see first hand some of the dormant, rundown blight that characterize several blocks near the campus. 

Recognizing the importance of community development investments in renewing this neighboring area, a new initiative known as Campus Community Partners recently announced a $1 million dollar cash infusion, funded by the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Chancellors Office. The primary goal of this project is to expand community outreach efforts, which support neighborhood residents in achieving healthier lifestyles. A portion of these monies will also be directed toward expanding workforce development efforts in the community, with an emphasis on job readiness for positions on the nearby medical and research campus.  

A similar medical district project, known as the Bio District, is rapidly blooming in Louisiana. Spanning 1,500 acres in the Downtown and Mid-City areas of economically ravaged New Orleans, this district will feature a world-class bioscience ecosystem providing high paying jobs in research and development and health care delivery. A key component of this project is the University Medical Center, the 1.2 billion LSU teaching and research hospital scheduled to open in mid-2015. This hospital will replace Charity Hospital, the longstanding public site shuttered by Hurricane Katrina. 

Like Anschutz, plans are underway to use the Bio District as a springboard for community revitalization in this unappreciated section of New Orleans. Major efforts are already in play to foster a mixed use community with housing and other lifestyle amenities designed to raise the overall economic climate of the community. 

These efforts in Denver and New Orleans serve as fuel for a movement that I affectionately refer to “Medical District Oriented Development.” Dovetailing off of the burgeoning growth of the health care and life sciences industries, these districts can offer a boost to adjoining neighborhoods and communities that have experienced persistent decline. Through the clustering of complementary uses with a healthy lifestyle theme, these districts can strategically leverage public/private assets to create valuable investments off of vacant land, dilapidated structures and underutilized property. 

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The emergence of medical districts provides a springboard for a larger conversation around healthy lifestyles. The 2014 P.U.M.A. Global Trends Report highlights a global focus on creating healthy places that will inform many real estate development decisions in the days ahead. As this report suggests, anchor institutions like medical centers are place-based and therefore provide a much needed engine for the overall economic vitality of a surrounding community. Moreover the workforce of these institutions can provide a steady flow of retail and real estate consumers; a factor fueling the attention of other complementary businesses and economic development investments to the local area. 

Like many downtowns, medical districts can capitalize on this trend by envisioning a “town center” concept. Here, the medical center and health sciences complex would serve as the anchor for a expansive community replete with housing, active green spaces, walkable arterials, organic grocery stores, fitness centers and other lifestyle conveniences. Nearby vacant land and building rooftops could be repurposed to promote an urban farming and locally grown food ecosystem, as a part of a larger movement around healthy lifestyles for adjoining urban communities. 

It is my prediction that these medical districts will continue their emergence as hubs of employment, innovation, sharing economy activities, medical tourism, and tax revenue generation, serving as an economic boost for areas that have long been abandoned. And by championing healthy lifestyles, look for these districts  to do well by doing good for underserved communities within their reach.