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Planning Walkable Communities: Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

As a follow-up to a panel discussion Design Workshop participated in recently, our Denver office is hosting Dr. Sandra Stenmark, the Physician Lead of Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Initiative and Pediatric Wellness Program, at a firm-wide Lunch and Learn today to further develop our knowledge and metrics about the influence of land use, transportation and community design decisions on public health.

The panel discussion, hosted by the Regional Air Quality Council of Colorado (RAQC), focused on healthy communities and community design’s relationship to public health and air quality. Panelists included Sandra Stenmark, M.D., of Kaiser Permanente, Jessica Osborne of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Ted Heyd of LiveWell Colorado/Wheatridge and Becky Zimmermann, Design Workshop's President.

Becky's presentation underscored the relationship of good planning to walkability, transit connections and access to open space. As we have seen proven on many Design Workshop projects, these key planning decisions become assets that contribute to a community's economic and environmental health as well as the physical health of its occupants. Many sources point to the viable economics of good development and walkable environments:

• One point of Walkscore is worth up to $3,000 of increased property value (Walkscore.com)
• For every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10% (Walkscore.com)
• Smart growth can make money. The returns on investment are at least comparable to, or better than, that of conventional development (The Center for Clean Air Policy)
• Mixed-use development can achieve economies of scale in operation, including savings on parking operations, common area maintenance and central HVAC systems (Urban Land Institute)


A Planning Example: Riverfront Park, Denver

Riverfront Park, a brownfield redevelopment in Denver's Central Platte Valley, is a vibrant urban residential village with a strong pedestrian-oriented character connected to a mix of uses, a regional transportation hub and other downtown neighborhoods. It also has been astoundingly successful financially for East West Partners, its developer.

The sustained commitment to this new community’s vision  and the recognition that quality built environments require leadership from public and private sectors were crucial to Riverfront Park’s success. DW helped to make key transportation and land-use decisions that set the stage for a transit-oriented, walkable community. Strong connections to neighboring LoDo, LoHi and Downtown were forged with the extension of the 16th Street Mall, the construction of pedestrian bridges (including the iconic Millennium Bridge - pictured to right) and the creation of comfortable walkable environments through enhanced streetscapes and engaging architectural frontages. The variety of community spaces and programmed events in Riverfront Park reinforces its attractiveness as a place to visit and to live. Additional amenities that draw people on foot, by bike and by light rail include: Denver Skate Park, Railyards Dog Park, Commons Park and immediate access to over 10 miles of walking and biking trails along the South Platte River.

Parking spaces were limited to just over one space per unit—not one space per bedroom as had been the formula prior to this development. Restaurants in the community don’t have dedicated parking spaces since so many diners arrive by non-vehicular modes. Despite these adjustments, or, rather, because of them, Riverfront Park is immensely successful with home sales consistently tracking above those of adjacent neighborhoods. The results have been recognized by national planning and design awards, including Congress for New Urbanism, Urban Land Institute and the Driehaus Charitable Trust Form-Based Code. Walkability was the key to Riverfront Park’s economic and social success.    

Public Health Examples
Dr. Sandra Stenmark connected walkability and the quality of the built environment to public health. While biology, health care and the environment factor into the health status equation, lifestyle is the main influence. Dr. Stenmark’s presentation underscored the connection between health impacts (such as asthma, obesity, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression) with land use and transportation. It made clear our mandate as planners to solve for these issues as we shape new communities. Walkable environments support a more healthful lifestyle and transit riders are, on the whole, more physically active. We read in the media that obesity and asthma are on the rise. We know about these topics anecdotally and intuitively. But the numbers are staggering and Dr. Stenmark’s presentation was convincing.

Air Quality
• Almost one-third of the U.S. population lives in areas where air pollution levels exceed U.S. EPA’s health-based standards
• Children are particularly susceptible to asthma, in particular those in minority or lower income categories
• Fine particulate air pollution levels are associated with early asthma worsening
• Fine particulate air pollution levels in the atmosphere tend to be higher during the periods when children are traveling to school in the morning.
• Total asthma costs to the U.S. economy in 2007 equal $19.7 billion
• Colorado asthma hospital costs equal $59.4 million

• The increase in obesity risk per hour spent in a car is 6%
• Walking and biking reduces obesity
• Public transit riders are more physically active
• Over the last 40 years, the percent increase of overweight children in the U.S. has risen from an average of 5% to 15-20%.
• The percent of children walking or biking to school declined from 66% in 1974 to 13% in 2000
• The economics of obesity: U.S. annual medical costs: $72 billion for overweight; $198 billion for obese
• Transit users are more active: 29% of transit users achieve the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity while walking to and from transit
Traffic Safety
• Smart growth promotes safety: There are few annual traffic deaths in denser transit-oriented communities than in areas of sprawl.
• Motor vehicles are responsible for one of every five deaths in children 1-14
• Economic impact of motor vehicle crashes: $230.6 billion in 2000 for medical costs, property damages, lost productivity and other expenses

Dr. Stenmark concluded with the following public health prescription: Enhancement of walking and biking infrastructure, locating schools central to residential areas, improving access to public transit, augmenting traffic safety, providing access to outdoor recreational facilities and zoning for mixed-use development.

Reader Comments (1)

Nice Article!

A recent and growing advocacy movement here in Denver as "WalkDenver"


August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelan

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