September 19, 2021

Editor's Page

Creating healthier communities

Not so strange bedfellows

Mark R. Howard | 3/25/2015

Public health and real estate development are not endeavors that typically hold hands and gaze longingly into each other's eyes. But they're starting to get better acquainted, as awareness grows that a community's "built environment" — how it constructs streets, houses, buildings and parks — can have a big effect on its residents' health.

The links between health and real estate may not be clear at first blush. But if a community doesn't encourage its residents to walk or bike, for example, they're more likely to remain sedentary. The built environment of most Florida cities — newer, more car-centered and less dense than many other cities — has something to do with health stats showing more than 26% of Floridians are obese, up from 20% in 2004. One index lists Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami among the 15 least healthy cities in the U.S.

The good news is that more in the public and private sectors in Florida are moving to better integrate health and community design.

Polk County, where more than 33% of residents are obese, overlaid its comprehensive plan in 2010 with a "Healthy Community Initiative" that introduced public health considerations into the county's development review process and set "specific and measurable" targets for improving residents' health.

Lakeland followed in 2013 with policies that promote bicycling, walking, community gardens and aging-in-place. The policies require "collaboration with the health department and other agencies" as the city makes land-use decisions. The city also set up procedures and standards for produce stands and farmers markets that will make more fresh, healthy food available in neighborhoods without grocery stores — so-called "food deserts."

In the private sector, Lake Nona in Orlando has made health a cornerstone of its development strategy, in terms of branding the development and establishing an economic base. The community — evolving around the "Medical City" cluster of hospitals and biomedical research facilities — combines physical infrastructure like bike and walking trails, sidewalks and community gardens with a host of programs and partnerships to make health the defining element of the community's culture.

Through collaborations with companies like Cisco and GE, Lake Nona residents will have access to cutting-edge health technologies and opportunities to take part in research projects and wellness programs to promote healthy lifestyles.

Lake Nona's developer, Tavistock Group, founded a non-profit adjunct called the Lake Nona Institute that has set out specific goals for the community, including reducing rates of chronic disease. A Johnson & Johnson subsidiary will design a research project to chart the community's health metrics.

Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, developer Peter Rummell, one of the state's few real estate visionaries, is developing a healththemed residential and commercial project downtown on the St. Johns riverbank.

Rummell, who originated the idea for the town of Celebration while head of Walt Disney's real estate subsidiary, served for the past several years as chairman of the Urban Land Institute, a highly regarded non-profit research and education organization for the real estate industry. The concept of building "healthy places," he says, kept surfacing in his discussions with developers everywhere. "People around the world are working on this idea. Singapore is trying to figure it out. Berlin is trying to figure it out," he says.

Rummell's project, not formally named but dubbed "Healthy Town" in the interim, calls for about 1,000 rental and condo units, all multifamily, across a range of prices, along with retail and commercial space, restaurants and bars. It's important, he says, to end up with families with a range of ages and incomes and not just a cluster of affluent, "active seniors."

The easy part of incorporating the health theme, Rummell says, is building bike paths, sidewalks, pools and gyms. More challenging is the "software" — services to link families with activities and programs that serve their notions of healthy living, whether that means participating in a community garden, finding a specific kind of place to worship or finding services for a child with special needs. "The trick is to create an attitude that is mindful of health but not overpowering," he says.

Rummell is convinced that health, broadly defined, is emerging as this era's defining amenity for residential real estate in the same way that golf courses did 50 years ago. "Health awareness is absolutely here and cuts across all ages," he says.

Success by Rummell could nudge Jacksonville's laggard downtown out of the minor leagues. And that's the lesson that he, Lake Nona and Lakeland have for politicians, planners and government officials elsewhere in Florida — there are economic competitiveness issues at play along with the social value of making people healthier. Some other states understand that: In a report suggesting ways to build health considerations into comprehensive plans, the North Carolina Division of Public Health frames its recommendations as part of an overall effort to remain globally competitive by creating "healthy, thriving communities" where people want to live, work and do business.

The efforts in Lakeland, Orlando and Jacksonville are important to Florida's future. At their core is the notion that our built environment — our homes, our work places, our means of getting around — are intimately connected to our physical health, and ultimately to a feeling of engagement with the places we live.

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