The link between health and commercial development is inescapable and a growing trend that more developers, architects, planners and engineers are paying attention to, according to a global nonprofit group.
Communities throughout the Lehigh Valley and around the world continue to face pressing health challenges of air pollution, a growing population, depleting resources, fewer healthy-eating options and high obesity levels. Yet strategies exist for building healthier communities.
A panel discussion at Lehigh University's Mountaintop Campus in Bethlehem on Wednesday explored ways that some cities and towns are addressing these goals.
Hosted by Urban Land Institute Philadelphia's Lehigh Valley Regional Satellite Council, the program included a range of speakers who delved into economic health issues that included building more pedestrian-friendly green space near commercial development, promoting greater access to organic food and incorporating environmentally-friendly designs. ULI is a nonprofit education, research and philanthropic organization focused on supporting sustainable communities.
"If we keep going on the way we are … health costs will be about 35 percent to 40 percent of the GDP by 2040," said Maureen L. McAvey, senior resident fellow and Bucksbaum Family Chairwoman for Retail at ULI. "We've got big population swings absorbing lots of health costs."
Developers can be more effective in building their projects because they help set the pace of how we live our daily lives in workplaces and communities, McAvey added.
ULI can lead the charge in companies and encourage design differently, she said, noting that many companies already incorporate Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards into everything they do.
"So we can change and quietly help how people live," McAvey said.
Consumers want more walkable, vibrant communities, and projects that promote health will be worth more, lease faster and at higher rates, she said.
In both residential and commercial development, people will pay more for living and working in more accessible communities, she said.
Strategies for companies include building more user-friendly stairways that promote heavier usage of the stairs as opposed to the elevator. One example would be to create a space with lots of windows and natural light that exposes a view of the outside that can only be seen by those using the stairs.
The speakers discussed ways to extend these initiatives to outside environments near workplaces, including adding bike racks, increasing the amount of outdoor public gathering spaces, creating broad sidewalks, developing community gardens and adding more street trees.
NEED TO BE CREATIVE
In Allentown, if the ArtsWalk is going to be successful, it has to be programmed and creative so people will use it, McAvey said. The ArtsWalk is part of City Center Lehigh Valley's initiative to extend an outdoor path in Downtown Allentown to the Allentown Art Museum and connect it with future mixed use developments and the ice hockey/events arena now under construction.
"We believe we are building a wonderful environment for people to live, work and play in the City of Allentown," said Sara Hailstone, director of the city's department of community and economic development. "We are being very sensitive in the design of our structures."
As an example, she said, the city has spent a lot of time and energy in keeping the original design of the Dime Bank Building intact, and this older structure will be incorporated into the new design for the entrance to PPL Center, which includes the arena under construction.
However, Allentown has faced difficulties in providing more space for outdoor physical activity for office and retail workers in the downtown.
"That's one of the challenges we have in the downtown, to get some physical activity [for workers] during the day," Hailstone said.
To meet this demand, Lehigh Valley Health Network is partnering with City Center Lehigh Valley to build a fitness center at the arena block, she added.
Allentown has invested in its city parks and needs to connect its downtown community with its park systems, Hailstone said.
SOUTH BETHLEHEM GREENWAY
Darlene Heller, director of planning and zoning for Bethlehem, spoke about the importance of the South Bethlehem Greenway serving as a transportation corridor that links businesses, residents and visitors with outdoor recreation opportunities.
The path once was an industrial line that cut into the city's downtown district in South Side Bethlehem. The city bought it in 2008 and has been working to extend and build upon it since that time. The open space network now includes the Bethlehem Skate Plaza, and restaurant/café owners have used it as a way for customers to access their businesses, Heller said.
"It was a great opportunity for us to take a blighted property and turn it into a significant amenity," Heller said. "It's right at the center of everything that's happening in South Bethlehem. It's very easy to access."
ACCESS TO OUTDOOR RESOURCES
Developers, planners, bankers and engineers also can also play a role in helping people have greater access to outdoor resources such as parks and trails and how they connect to cities and towns, according to Lauren Imgrund, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
"We've made lots of investments in the Lehigh Valley," Imgrund said. "We need to continue to improve these resources for our communities."
The agency is working on an initiative to map 5,600 local parks and help make it easier for people in the Lehigh Valley to find them.