I’ve been a disciple of place-making and the Project for Public Spaces doctrine for 20 years, ever since we first brought Fred Kent to Stamford, CT to figure out a poorly planned, dangerous intersection.  I got it immediately!  You need to create places that people feel comfortable in and that they want to spend time in if you want to economically revitalize your downtown.  I spent most of my career creating people-friendly spaces, working to encourage outdoor dining on sidewalks, landscaped medians, parklets, traffic calming and better pedestrian and bike access in and around downtowns.  All of this was in the name of creating a better place that would revitalize downtown. Now I see that there’s another very important reason to fix our parks, green spaces, encourage traffic calming and bike lanes and make our sidewalks more enticing – It will encourage people to get out and exercise! It will help combat the ever growing health epidemic in our country.

On August 21, 2014, I was a guest of the Westwood Village BID at their annual meeting where they had Dr. Richard Jackson from UCLA speak about building healthy communities.  Dr. Jackson said,

“We must create environments that are irresistible, that you want to get out and walk.  Build the exercise into their lives”. 

Dr. Jackson told us what we’ve all been hearing for some time now.  The diabetes rate in our country has doubled in the last 20 years.  When surveyed in the 1970s, 17% of middle-aged people said they had no physical activity. Today, 52% say they have no physical activity.  And, people of low income are exercising even less (see article in The Atlantic).   People are at risk of losing their eyesight, kidneys, and feet to diabetes. Heart disease is the number one killer in America.  The latest numbers on yearly health care spending are that the U.S. will spend $2.8 trillion on health care and treating people with drugs that either don’t work or have many negative side effects.  In study after study, it is proven that just 30 minutes of low intensity walking five times a week reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity by 58%.  Yet, we are exercising less and less. 

So, we need to make it easy and enticing for people to get outside and make it part of their daily lives. What does that mean? Better sidewalks, more green space, dedicated bike lanes, more trains and light rail options.  For years, as downtown professionals, we’ve known that these improvements to the built environment drive economic development, but it doesn’t just help the economics of place. We know that walkable real estate can command value premiums of 50-100% (See Global Trends article).  Consider what creating more walkable (and bikeable) neighborhoods could do in our fight against obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  These improvements would improve the health and quality of life in our society.

As downtown professionals and planners, we need to do more to connect the built environment with the health of our populations and in doing so we might be able to encourage governments for more funds to do just that.  There is an argument to be made at the local, state and federal government that investing in infrastructure is not just good for the environment or the economy but that it will make a nice dent in our growing health epidemic.

P.U.M.A. is currently working with the Colorado Health Foundation and the Urban Land Institute on creating Healthy Places in Colorado by promoting active living and improving community health through changes to the built environment.  To learn more about the program and how P.U.M.A. is helping to implement these programs, see this blog entry.