Building a place with a sense of connection – where people want to live, visit or work – will prove out in retention, frequency, sales and so forth, panelists said at the ULI discussion “Building Healthy Communities and the Bottom Line” last week in Houston.
The discussion, facilitated by ULI Senior Vice President, Washington, DC, Rachel MacCleery, brought together a cross section of projects and experiences in and around Texas focusing on the market case for projects that improve the health of people and communities. ULI Houston, one of four Texas District Councils to receive a regional urban innovation grant, presented a program for almost 300 participants, and convened a workshop for innovators from four of the largest Texas markets—Austin, Houston, North Texas (Dallas–Fort Worth), and San Antonio—seeking best practices, case studies and potential partnerships among public and private sector leaders.
Measuring the impact of healthy places today is intuitive but can also be supported by quantifiable data, said Tom Bacon, founding partner of Lionstone Investments. Bacon also serves as Chair of the Houston Parks Board, a non-profit organization implementing the Bayou Greenways 2020 project connecting 150 miles of trails and creating parkland adjacent to 9 Houston bayous. Bayou Greenways leaders sought the expertise of Texas A&M University to quantify the benefits of this investment. According to the research, the $225 million public-private project will reap $80 million a year in health benefits for the City of Houston—a figure the researchers say is conservative.
Social connectivity was the refrain often repeated among the panelists. Creating a place with a sense of social connectivity with active greenspace, restaurants and retail will generate ROI in traffic, sales and occupancy, said Jonathan Brinsden, CEO of Midway, which has a range of office, industrial, mixed use, business and industrial parks, resort and residential communities underway or complete in 23 states. “All of our developments like CityCentre and Kirby Grove [in Houston] contain a central greenspace or community space…and it is the most valuable [square footage] in the entire development.”
Hillwood Communities, a builder of master planned communities throughout Texas, considered food a significant factor in fostering connectivity and health. Harvest, a 1,200-acre prototype development north of Dallas, is considered the next generation in master planned communities and is built around a 5-acre working farm. The community features a mix of single family and high density residential but also includes five green houses and a community garden where the head farmer teaches residents how to grow fresh, organic farm-to-table product in gardens in their own backyards.
Where LEED ratings focus on assessing sustainability of the building, we are now talking about impacting the health and wellness of the people in the space to encourage their well-being, said David Calkins, regional managing principal of Gensler. Calkins, who heads the education practice for the firm, went on to discuss the environmental magnet school James Berry Elementary in Houston which achieves design sustainability and efficiency, but is in fact “…a machine for creating advocates for the environment,” at the earliest ages of our society. The elementary school children are “growing produce in gardens at the school and taking lessons home on healthy choices in terms of food, recycling and influencing their parent’s behavior.”
These and additional case studies from around the state will be published in Building Healthier Places in Texas set for release in September 2014.