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Klaus Philipsen, FAIA is an architect, urban designer and architectural writer specializing in urban architecture, adaptive reuse, preservation and transportation work. He is President ArchPlan Inc. past chairman of the Baltimore Design Center, member of the AIA National Regional and Urban Design Committee and president of NeighborSpace Baltimore County. He is a co-founder of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide smart growth group. Klaus has been a presenter, speaker or moderator at international, national and regional conventions and events about cities, design, smart growth, economic development, livability, sustainability and transportation. He writes an architectural column in a local paper and is a urban design contributor on a statewide radio talk show. For inquiries about presentations, participation in discussion panels or articles write to info@archplan.com

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Healthy Communities - Slogan or New Paradigm?

Health is the new black

To set out from Baltimore, Maryland to show a Colorado  community how to be healthier certainly takes some chutzpah considering that Colorado ranks 11 nationally whereas Maryland sits at #19 in a national comparison of health indicators. But that is precisely what I did in March. Luckily not as an individual but as as a member of a ULI Advisory Services Panel.  To make it even more challenging, Baltimore ranks dead last within Maryland,  while Arvada, our target community, sits with #15 in the upper field of its Colorado peers according to a study just released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released.

The Urban Land Institute has run Advisory Service Programs for 65 years, but it is opening new territory with the healthy communities program. The panel in Arvada, Colorado was the first of three panels in this state to investigate not only what exactly makes a community healthy but also how a city, town or jurisdiction can affect the health of its residents through physical design and through programming.

The ULI press release describes the task of the first health panel as follows:
Three panels of nationally renowned land use and community development experts convened by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) will be recommending strategies for creating healthy living environments in three Colorado communities this spring, starting with an assignment next week in Arvada.
Conducted through ULI’s advisory services program, the panels, all sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation, will focus on the principles of design and its impact on human health and well-being.
The three Colorado assignments signify the first time ULI advisory panels have concentrated specifically the connection between health and land use. The panels, each of which is being chaired by ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development Edward McMahon, will look at three different communities with different typologies: urban, suburban, and rural.
The initial panel, set for March 18-22, will address a suburban typology in Arvada, a community northwest of Denver. Panelists will explore ways to enhance access and connectivity to open space from neighborhoods, with a particular emphasis on improving walkability and bikeability. Panelists will begin the five-day process by conducting a site tour and interviewing up to 50 local stakeholders. After carefully analyzing the area, the panel will then spend a day framing their recommendations and drafting a report that will be presented to the public at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, March 22, in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

 The Colorado Health Foundation wants to make the state #1 in health and is supporting a wide range of initiatives to positively affect the state's residents. As health is new ground for ULI so is land use for the foundation. This created an interesting mix for the Arvada assignment and kept each side on their toes, possibly in itself a healthy exercise, even though one can certainly say that five days largely sequestered in rooms bent over laptops would hardly qualify as healthy.

How striving for convenience resulted in an obesity epidemic

There is little doubt that physical design has an impact on health, even if there are a myriad other factors that bring about the obesity and diabetes epidemics, two of the leading indicators which point in the wrong direction when it comes to public health. As the director of the Health Foundation pointed out, if Colorado would apply today's health results to national results only ten years ago, it would land Colorado not on place 11 but dead-last. This obviously means is that the entire country is on a slide towards worse health, at least for obesity and diabetes. Those two epidemics, in turn cause a host of other ailments.
Indeed, two thirds of US adults  are considered obese today with a projection of 86% for 2030 if the trend continues unabated. The associated health care cost factor is estimated to be some $850-950 billion annually. How bad the trend is becomes obvious if one considers that since 1980, obesity rates have doubled among U.S. adults and tripled among U.S. children.

Just as New York Mayor Bloomberg obviously thinks that the epidemic requires public policy, so does the Colorado Health Foundation. The grant that Arvada, population 105 000, received requires answers to these questions:

  • What opportunities are created by the new commuter rail stations to employ infrastructure and policy improvements for promoting healthy lifestyles?
  • How can benchmarks be defined in order to measure the behavioral, economic and policy impacts of improvements?
  • What strategies can be used for prioritizing and activating development plans, programs and initiatives?
  • How can Arvada’s citizens and policy makers be motivated to achieve greater levels of walkability and biking in similar communities?
  • What are the best communication strategies for both peer-to-peer and community education?
 The two obvious ways to combat obesity with physical form are walking and biking, although it should not end there. In the never ending quest for convenience, most designers of buildings and cities have spent the last 70 years or so on making life more convenient and have removed pretty much all physical activity from our daily life in the process. From parking right in front of buildings to elevators and from snow and leaf-blowers to riding mowers, from electric screwdrivers to electric pencil sharpeners, even the smallest effort has been motorized. The result is not only obesity but also energy consumption and air pollution. While the latter can be combated with technological innovation, the human body still needs exertion to stay healthy. Now we know that active students are better learners and that active adults not only live longer, but are also less likely to have a heart attack and they are sharper thinkers to boot.

The case of Arvada, Colorado

How to apply such a cultural critique to a city, such Arvada? A review of plans and programs quickly shows that this town, located just 30 minutes from downtown Denver at the Front Range of the Rockies with downtown's skyscrapers and the peaks of the mountains both in view, is not a sedentary place. 50 miles of bike lanes are marked, three new transit rail stations are slated to open within the next two years, there are recreation centers that offer "Silver Sneaker" programs, schools that train kids in healthy food and bicycle repair, community gardens and a farmers market. The town has a sustainability and a bike pedestrian coordinator, both working from adopted plans and with the support of citizen advisory committees. Nothing seems to be missing. 

Only a tour of the town showed that not everything that looked good on paper was also convincing in reality. This wouldn't be too surprising considering that the town lacks the density that makes good walkable places if you consider that Arvada's 105,000 residents live on a land area that is roughly the size of Paris, France, a metropolis of over 2 million residents.  Car oriented design details abound: The town has curiously skinny two and a half foot wide sidewalks throughout most of its older neighborhoods which hardly deserve the name sidewalk, they rather look like gutter extensions. As in most communities in the US, sidewalks and bike lanes often end unexpectedly, are sub-par in their upkeep or are placed on busy roads where walking or biking is really unpleasant. Outer developments may not have any sidewalks. Also, as in most communities, the capital budget for those items is dwarfed by those for roads. Besides these physical manifestations of the motorized convenience society,  a look behind the scenes reveals that the Sustainability Plan is only a six page paper, whittled down from once 200 pages which included carbon reduction targets and the like but were not acceptable to the city council. Or that the bike/ped coordinator is only part-time and that the annual capital budget for bike/ped improvements is only a measly $250,000. 

Less obvious are some other mechanisms that are at work under the cover of good intentions but may have detrimental results for the desired outcome: Those include planned widening of several streets to include bike-lanes, investing precious municipal dollars for conversion of surface parking into structured parking downtown or creating park and ride parking lots at urban rail stations. Arvada was a good example for actions that appear progressive on first blush but where analysis indicates that the medicine may be worse than the disease. (continued below images).

This freight track will have a second spur for the new commuter Gold Line coming in from Denver's Union Station. The Gold Line is part of Regional Transit District's (RTD) massive rail transit investment program called FasTrack. The photo shows the planned downtown station area called Olde Town with a "beer train" rolling through from Golden, CO, the home of the Coors brewery.
The station area plan prepared for the Arvada Olde Town commuter rail station (T) shows the historic Olde Town north of the station and a large new development area which replaces existing big scale retail and surface parking. In the northeast corner of the redevelopment area the town plans to pay for a 400 space commuter parking garage (P). The large development parcels show edge development apparently showing town-homes or walk-up apartments grouped around courtyards. The scale of those parcels far exceeds the scale of the Olde Town street pattern. It is hard to see how blocks like this could be a fitting complement and extension to Olde Town. The ULI panel suggested smaller mixed use blocks that bring new residents and modern urban retail at the same time while remaining compatible with the historic core. The Panel also suggested to reconsider the commuter parking garage in favor of mixed use and commuter parking at the nearby Sheridan station which is located in an industrial area with good roadway access.

Arvada's Olde Town is a historic district, very walkable and refurbished with money from the big box stores that are plenty in nearby districts also within the city limits. Arvada politicians are convinced that without the income from the big boxes downtown would have failed, a somewhat counter-intuitive assertion that can only be understood in the context of the fact that Colorado communities draw most of their income from sales tax revenue.

Bike lanes and sidewalks like these placed hard along heavily traveled roadways provide good statistics in terms of numbers but less in terms of a safe or pleasant experience for users. The desired health outcome is in question if the facilities don't function properly and don't provide a quality exprience.

Roadways like Route 121, the Wadsworth Bypass, are an example of good intentions gone awry: Initially designed to relieve traffic in central areas of the town, they have become almost insurmountable barriers for walking and biking.

The Arvada special sidewalk where gutter and walk have about the same size. One cannot walk here with a kid or a stroller or use a wheelchair, nor would one want to send a child to school on such a path. But even for a skinny, able and single walker, it is no fun to walk here.

As in many communities around the country, large sixties style shopping centers where inserted into the fabric of residential neighborhoods and present as "superblocks" sizable gaps in the connectivity from neighborhood to neighborhood. These centers were never designed to be reached on foot. Even between stores one would drive. Today they are failing, surpassed initially by indoor malls and then by "big box centers". The developer and frequent speaker on urban development, Chris Leinberger, considers it the biggest task of suburban America to convert these derelict centers into walkable urban mixed use centers.

Arvada has a sidewalk program and adds every year refurbished walks like this one along Ralston Road. The new standard is 8' wide and often set back from the street. However, if those additional feet are taken away from front yards or open space, streets may become overly wide and lose their proper proportions, an unintended consequence that can be avoided if, instead, the travel lanes for cars are reduced by elimination of turn lanes or excessive lane width.

The two large open shopping centers Arvada Plaza north and south of Ralston Road represent enormous gaps in the connectivity fabric of the adjacent communities and, in this case to the newly refurbished park along Ralston Creek. Unfortunately more ambitious redevelopment aspirations did not come to pass and a new 130,000 Walmart is proposed for much of the lower shopping plaza.
The necessary re-set of priorities

The town probably would get much further with the bike and pedestrian budget if they replaced planned costly street widening with redistribution of existing space. For example, less frequented residential streets could be designated as part of a network of bike/ped corridors. As Vancouver and many other cities show, this can be achieved pretty much without any investments beyond some signs and traffic calming measures in those streets.

The $12 million slated for structured commuter parking as part of the redevelopment area south of the planned "Olde Town" downtown rail station would pay a full build out of the trail and bike-ped plan almost three times over. Parking and transportation panelist Ross Tilghman suggested to scrap the garage and instead just move the contractually committed commuter parking to future development areas as the new development goes up phase by phase. At the end it would be almost entirely replaced by mixed use development. Park & Ride commuters would be re-directed to a nearby industrial area where another rail station is planned. Transit would benefit as well since mixed use produces about five times as many riders as parking.

Most of Arvada's health oriented programs are measured in an open ended manner ("the more bike lanes the better") without targets or benchmarks (what is a desirable and realistic mode share for walking or biking?). More importantly, most measures are strictly quantitative while the whole point of a healthy community is really a qualitative one. Really, livable, sustainable and healthy communities may program investments under various fashionable titles over the years, but they will always work towards the quintessential qualitative goal: Better quality of life.

What has urban design to do with health?

The connection between development and health may appear tenuous, be it transit oriented development or urban infill on defunct shopping areas. What has this to do with a healthy community a question probably on the minds of those listening to the report presentation in the packed council chambers. The answer once again resides with quality of life: Studies across the nation make it clear that more and more people seek the active lifestyle and qualities where you don't just live in your home but "out of your home". Communities where quality destinations for food, eating, shopping and entertainment can be found near your doorstops, easy to reach on foot or by bike, where doing a walk around the block is done just for fun. Where public spaces are not empty and windswept but full of activity where you meet neighbors and communicate. Just as generational popularity shifted from the sterile drive through fast food joint to the interactive local foods restaurant, urban design needs to encourage quality, lingering, interaction and activity rather than simply speed and efficiency.

Thus, urban settings gleaned from Mediterranean or South American piazzas not only foster a more active living, they raise the bar in design and increase the demand for healthier living choices. If Arvada's three large redevelopments, the Olde Town extension, the Ridge transit village and the Triangle shopping center are done as walkable mixed use centers with the right feel, Arvada will have changed the paradigm of what the city stands for. Thousands of new residents will have come to the city which will have captured a significant portion of the expected metropolitan growth. It will bring into the city limits the "millenials" and in their wake "empty nester" parents, who may be priced out of Denver but who are clearly not satisfied anymore with the traditional suburb. Such growth would represent a shift away from simply growing outward, closer and closer to the mountains, gobbling up more and more of the remaining open space, a shift from quantity to quality.  

Inequities and social justice

Maybe one of the most important findings of the ULI panel was the fact that services and recreational opportunities where not well distributed over the 36 square mile area of the city, this, too, hardly unique. The ULI study area in the southeast quadrant of town was selected because it shows the biggest health needs Except for the historic Olde Town, this quadrant  had largely been overlooked when it came to infrastructure and investment. Not surprisingly, several of the older neighborhoods in this area include concentrations of lower income residents with higher proportions of obesity and health related problems. Key recommendations of the ULI panel related to improved services in this quadrant's neighborhoods including open spaces and recreational programs. But the possibly most important recommendation was the one to improve communication, build social capital and begin community based planning through a "bottom up" competitive process. It was suggested that communities can apply for grant money initially coming out of the Colorado Health Foundation's grant program of which this ULI panel was one part. 

Colorado differences:

Although much of what the ULI panel found is quite typical for towns and cities across the US, several issues affecting the built environment and how it gets planned stuck out as quite different from Maryland, my own base (panelists came from Washington State, Idaho, Utah, Indiana, North Carolina, New York, Washington DC and Maryland): Foremost, of course, the great outdoors and the great climate that foster active living year round. But policies are different as well: Colorado communities get most of their tax revenue from sales taxes and not from property taxes resulting in a never ending quest for more retail. Also: Jefferson County runs the school system for Arvada and even  owns some protected open spaces inside the city. The entire state operates under the TABOR tax revenue limits which essentially caps how much any jurisdiction can increase taxes to the rate of inflation on the base of past revenues. This is especially tough when coming out of a recession since the revenues may not rise more than TABOR allows, no matter how deep the valley was. Voters are tax adverse and routinely vote bond bills down, something that rarely happens in Maryland. 

Was the panel a success?

The ULI panelists where in Arvada's high tech council chambers twice, once to listen, once to present its findings. Sitting on the dais in the council's and mayor's chairs, each panelist presented findings accompanied by a total of 85 slides. After an hour and ten minutes, when all was said, the reception by the Mayor, city administrator's and the public seemed to be very positive. Except maybe for AURA, the Urban Renewal Agency, who feared that forcing developers such as Walmart to fit into a walkable community pattern would simply not work. "They will walk away". The Mayor proclaimed that the recommendations will not sit on a shelve to collect dust, even if they require considerable reset of existing priorities.  Together with the two upcoming additional Advisory Service Panel efforts ULI will have gathered a sound base to expand on this important topic. What could be more important than a healthy community?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA  

(Note: This blog does not represent ULI's or the Panel's opinion and is solely an expression of the author. Many of the less urban design related recommendations are not mentioned here and will be available on the ULI website when the official report will be published in the next month or so).

Photos: ArchPlan Inc.

Comprehensively updated 4/3/13 17:44h

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