Developers walk the walk in promoting healthy communities

Healthy living is a building block of these housing developments across the U.S.

April 12, 2015
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Margi Girdzius a resident at Medinah on the Lake condo development in Bloomingdale, walks around the path near the development. (Photo courtesy of James C. Svehla, for the Chicago Tribune)

Healthy living was never so easy for Margi Girdzius before she moved to a condo development in Bloomingdale that supports an active lifestyle.

At Medinah on the Lake, Girdzius has access to a walking path and a clubhouse with exercise equipment, a sauna and swimming pool. She also benefits from being able to step out to her balcony and enjoy fresh air and a view of pristine Lake Medinah.

Social interaction provides positive effects, too. Girdzius feels camaraderie with neighbors who wave to her from their balconies when she arrives home from work. Gathering spots include a huge fireplace and big-screen TV in the clubhouse and an outdoor pool and sun deck overlooking the beach.

“You used to find (community spirit) in the neighborhoods,” said Girdzius, who moved to Medinah on the Lake with her sister about two years ago from Buffalo Grove. “That’s what I kind of remembered when I started to get to know some of the neighbors.”

Foxford Communities in Hinsdale, which owns Medinah on the Lake, revegetated the wetlands at the site, and the man-made lake was once a quarry.

Many developers are incorporating healthy amenities in master-planned, multifamily and single-family communities, some building on land that was going to waste. These trends are a result of the housing industry trying to meet growing consumer demand for vibrant, compact communities that promote a healthy lifestyle and enhance the quality of life.

In fact, 76 percent of millennials consider walkability when they decide where to live, according to a survey by Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based non-profit. A little over half of Americans want to live in a community with public transportation, close proximity to stores, restaurants and offices, the survey found.

Access to parks and playgrounds for children, fresh food, water, good air and light quality, social engagement and pet-friendly policies are also important for a healthier lifestyle and to combat Americans’ growing obesity and chronic disease rates, according to the Urban Land Institute. ULI recently released “Building Healthy Places Toolkit: Strategies for Enhancing Health in the Built Environment,” which includes 21 recommendations for building healthy developments.

“Sprawled-out landscapes lead to increasing body mass. Americans are nowhere near meeting the requirements of physical activity and exercise, and the most prevalent disorder in America is depression,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, an advisory board member of ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative, which helped develop the tool kit. “One of the instigators is social isolation . . . car-development environments isolate people even more.”

Jackson, who is also a pediatrician and professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, said developers should build homes and communities that make walking a way of life.

“If we build healthy communities, ones that no longer isolate families, the elderly and children, we reduce chronic diseases and improve health,” Jackson said.

Vivian Loftness, professor and former head of the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., and an expert on environmental design and sustainability, said walkability is essential for housing developments.

“One thing that becomes pretty clear in a lot of the research that’s been going on is that individuals who live in walkable communities and their kids who can essentially walk to the library or school or a playing field, that there is a substantially healthier child,” she said.

“Another issue that sort of parallels that is the importance of social spaces for the emotional health of people. So if you can walk to a library, playing field or church, individuals seem to have much stronger social networks and hence are more optimistic,” Loftness said.

Via Verde in the South Bronx of New York represents a new approach to green and healthy urban living. The mixed-use project, which was developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Cos., has 151 rental apartments for low-income households, 71 co-ops for middle-income households, retail and community space, a fitness center, green roofs, community gardens, an orchard and an outdoor area for exercise classes and social events.

The apartments have large windows, balconies, sun shades and plenty of natural light and cross ventilation. Connected green rooftops are used to harvest rainwater, grow fruits and vegetables and provide open space for residents. Other amenities include a bicycle storage area, open-air courtyards and an outdoor area for exercise classes and social events.

“Affordable housing is an essential, stable base from which low-income families can move forward, but their homes must not only be energy efficient, they also must be healthy,” said Jonathan Rose, president of Jonathan Rose Cos., in an email. “Healthy homes with little of the toxic chemicals that are often part of modern paints, carpets, glues and caulks can significantly improve the health of residents.”

Lakeshore East, a 28-acre master-planned community in downtown Chicago, offers a convenient, walk-to-work location and dining and shopping options on the premises. Residents have access to their own 6-acre park with lighted fountains, a children’s play park and a dog park. The development is surrounded by Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park.

“It’s good for the environment and it’s a trend in the marketplace and achieves the ends we want, to provide healthy environments for our renters or buyers,” said Joshua Taylor, vice president of marketing for Magellan Development Group, the Chicago-based developer of Lakeshore East. “We also make sure we build green buildings, which has a lot to do with how we feel about being sustainable and civically conscious.”

Rancho Sahuarita, a master-planned community south of Tucson, Ariz., incorporates a variety of healthy-living aspects in its amenities, including a clubhouse with fitness rooms, a lap pool and splash park. A major area health-care provider is also designing a health and wellness pavilion for the town center.

Peter Rummell, former Urban Land Institute chairman and an advisory board member for the organization’s Building Healthy Places Initiative, said developments should give people a reason to want to exercise, socialize and lead healthier lives.

“How do you convince 35 year olds with families and parents and grandparents if they start thinking about health now it’s going to be an easier subject than when they’re 65,” Rummell said.

Rummell is in the midst of developing a master-planned community of multifamily residences that he hopes will do just that. The development in Jacksonville, Fla., which will be on the site of a former generating plant, will include fitness amenities, garden space for planting vegetables, retail and restaurants.

“It’s going to be urban, which I think is important, but it’s going to have the same kind of, hopefully, self-contained energy and feel a resort would have,” he said.

Janice Neumann is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, offers 21 recommendations for developers to consider when building healthy homes and communities.

1. Incorporate a mix of land uses
2. Design well-connected street networks at the human scale
3. Provide sidewalks and enticing, pedestrian-oriented streetscapes
4. Provide infrastructure to support biking
5. Design visible, enticing stairs to encourage everyday use
6. Install stair prompts and signage
7. Provide high-quality spaces for multigenerational play and recreation
8. Build play spaces for children
9. Accommodate a grocery store
10. Host a farmers market
11. Promote healthy food retail
12. Support on-site gardening and farming
13. Enhance access to drinking water
14. Ban smoking
15. Use materials and products that support healthy indoor air quality
16. Facilitate proper ventilation and airflow
17. Maximize indoor lighting quality
18. Minimize noise pollution
19. Increase access to nature
20. Facilitate social engagement
21. Adopt pet-friendly policies

By Janice Neumann