ULI Recommendations Lead to On-the-Ground Results

So, what happens after an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Services panel goes home? That was the question on a recent visit to assess the progress of three Colorado communities that were the subject of ULI Advisory Services panels in 2013.

The panels in the three communities resulted from a partnership between ULI and the Colorado Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization that engages through grantmaking, public policy, investing in evaluation, private sector engagement and communications outreach. In 2012, ULI was approached by the Foundation about participating in its Healthy Places Initiative.

The Foundation sought ULI’s thought leadership on the question of how changes to the built environment, upgrades to infrastructure, and community programming could increase physical activity and walkability while decreasing obesity rates and chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

The Foundation issued a request for proposals to which 26 Colorado communities responded. The applicants were told that if selected, they would be visited by a ULI Advisory Services panel that would recommend how to make the built environment more conducive to active transportation and healthy living. What’s more, the Foundation agreed that each of the communities would be eligible to receive up to $1 million, as well as two years of follow-up technical assistance, to help them implement the ULI recommendations.

Three communities were selected: one rural, Lamar; one suburban, Arvada; and one urban, Westwood, a neighborhood in Denver. It was my responsibility to help organize and chair all three panels.

The panels were made up of real estate and public health experts who volunteered their time and expertise. Each used a tried-and-true process. Before arriving, panelists received a briefing book about the individual community. They then took a comprehensive tour of the study area, which was followed by in-depth interviews with residents, public officials, business leaders—even high school students. The interviews and tours were designed to help the panelists understand the barriers to walkability and active living in each community.

After the interviews, panelists for each community met for two days to analyze what they had learned and to craft their recommendations. The process concluded with a public presentation in each community of panel recommendations. A few weeks later, Lamar, Arvada and Westwood each received a detailed written report.

In most instances, that concludes the ULI Advisory Services panel process. Panelists rarely return to the site of a panel. Sometimes, they serendipitously hear that their recommendations were implemented, but they rarely get to return to assess their work. In this case, however, I had the opportunity to return to each of the three communities for a follow-up tour and visit.

The panel process is always a learning experience. In Colorado, we learned that each community was remarkably different; each had its own set of assets and challenges. It quickly became clear that no “one size fits all” solution would work for every community. We also learned that physical health and economic health are linked and that community leaders wanted to know how investments in walkability and healthy living relate to economic and community development.

What follows is a description of the three Colorado communities, as well as a summary of the ULI panel recommendations, plus a brief account of what we found on our return visit to each community a year and a half later.

Lamar

The first Healthy Places panel took place in Lamar in April 2013. A small town of 7,800 residents, Lamar lies in rural eastern Colorado, 20 miles west of the Kansas border. As the county seat of Prowers County, Lamar is the hub of governmental, institutional, educational and commercial uses for a large geographic area. For about a decade Lamar has been losing both population and jobs. A prolonged drought has caused primary industries such as farming and ranching to shrink, affecting retail businesses, housing and health care as well. Despite its rich history and quaint downtown, Lamar has high rates of both poverty and obesity. It also has little pedestrian infrastructure and limited park and recreation facilities.

ULI Body Image 1

Despite these challenges, which are similar to those in other rural communities, Lamar also has many assets and opportunities. These include a location on both the Santa Fe Trail and the Arkansas River, a history and culture that values sports and outdoor activities, a historic downtown, a well-regarded community college, a hospital and excellent medical facilities, a compact scale and a street grid that could lend itself to walking and biking. It also has good leadership, many highly motivated residents and a strong sense of community.

Through the interviews, panelists sensed a disconnect between the vibrant spirit and aspirations of Lamar’s residents and their surroundings. We also saw that Hispanic and lower-income families were concentrated in a part of Lamar that lacked adequate park and recreational facilities and which was physically separated from the rest of the community.

The panel recommended crafting a new identity for Lamar as a sports and fitness hub by giving priority to walking and cycling as modes of everyday transportation, improving parks and recreational facilities, and fostering economic development focused on existing assets like the city’s baseball complex and Lamar’s rodeo and equestrian heritage. We also recommended improvements to sidewalk and recreational facilities, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.

Much progress has been made in Lamar since the ULI panel went home. According to Emily Nieschburg, Lamar resident and its Healthy Places coordinator, “The panel validated the work we had been doing before they arrived, but it also gave us a jump start that we needed. The panel’s insistence that health and recreation be tied to the city’s broader economic development goals was a game changer on multiple levels.”

In Nieschburg’s view, making Lamar a healthy place is a recruitment and retention strategy for companies, workers and their families. “We have to differentiate Lamar. You have to give people a reason to visit or move here.”

Since the visit by panel, Lamar has made great strides toward implementing its recommendations. A city Parks, Recreation and Trails Master Plan has been completed. This grew out of an extensive public engagement process and project prioritization exercises that involved the participation of hundreds of community members in dozens of events. The plan endorses several ambitious projects recommended by the ULI panel, including the Lamar Loop, a seven-mile multiuse trail that would encircle the city, and a new skateboard park.

On our return trip to Lamar in October 2014, we saw on-the-ground results of Lamar’s commitment to building a healthier community. These included a new playground at Northside Park completed with a KaBOOM grant, installation of a new half-mile walking trail on the Lamar medical campus, and new lights at the soccer field in the Hispanic neighborhood north of downtown. We also saw new life in downtown, where the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has initiated a streetscape improvement project and where the local arts group created a temporary pop-up park.

Lamar has also hired an outstanding community Healthy Places coordinator and organized a Wellness Week and a Family Fun Day, which together attracted 800 participants, as well as a summer outdoor movie series. All these events were initiated in response to a ULI recommendation to activate parks through programming and activities.

My return visit to Lamar included a meeting with the mayor, city council members, and business leaders. Many of the community leaders had been apprehensive about what a bunch of “out-of-towners” would recommend to their small town, but as Rick Akers, the city parks and recreation director, said, “They really listened to us. They treated us like we were somebody.”

While Lamar is still a work in progress, this small town on the Great Plains has taught us several important lessons. One is that successful community development is about building on your existing assets. If rodeo and baseball are two things that bring people into a small town, then investing in facilities that support outdoor recreation and equestrian activities make basic economic development sense. Another lesson we learned is that health and wellness can build a brand. They differentiate a community. It is not there yet, but one day people may think about Lamar as the healthiest little town on the Great Plains, and wouldn’t that be great for everybody.

Arvada

A large and rapidly growing suburb of Denver, Arvada is a generally prosperous community with a population of 110,000 and a strong financial position. It is also the site of three future rail transit stations providing a link to downtown Denver.

During the ULI panel process, the Healthy Places panelists focused on southeast Arvada, the area of the city with the highest percentage of low-income families, including both Hispanic and Russian immigrants. This area is also the location of Olde Town Arvada and the three future rail stations.

ULI Body Image 2

The ULI panel recommended strengthening connections between the rail transit stations and nearby neighborhoods. It also identified a lack of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the need for wayfinding signage to direct residents to the community trail system, and inadequate connectivity among schools, bike paths, pedestrian routes, and transit stops as major barriers to health and wellness. The panel also emphasized the importance of programming, like “walking school buses” for children, as well as activities to activate the city’s public parks and plazas, such as outdoor exercise classes, health fairs, concerts, and farmers markets.

On our return visit to Arvada, we observed a beehive of activity. Construction had started at all three commuter rail stations. In Olde Town—Arvada’s downtown—the city had negotiated a land swap with the Regional Transit District that would enable construction of a large multistory parking garage adjacent to the rail station that would provide parking not just for commuters, but also for Olde Town shoppers. This was something the ULI panel had strongly recommended.

Our walking tour of Olde Town was led by Rose Chavez, Arvada’s new full-time Healthy Places coordinator. She showed us some of the city’s new bike racks and introduced us to one of her “community connectors”—people hired to reach out to residents to find out what improvements they would like to see as a result of the Healthy Places Initiative. They also lead walking tours that show residents the easiest and safest ways to get from their neighborhoods to the new transit stations, as well as work with residents to identify and prioritize infrastructure improvements, such as where new sidewalks should go.

Arvada is a community on the move. The Healthy Places Initiative has activated new partnerships and new programs, especially for lower-income families. It is also reshaping its future around Olde Town and its new rail transit stations. Arvada shows that strong communities can grow even stronger with a fresh perspective, like that provided by the ULI panel. Arvada Mayor Marc Williams put it this way: “It was tremendously valuable to get an outside perspective. You just don’t see things the way outsiders do.”

Westwood

Westwood is a densely populated (15,500 people), working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood in southwestern Denver. It has a strong sense of community and a plethora of hard-working nonprofit organizations. Like all the communities participating in the Healthy Places Initiative, Westwood has made big strides toward becoming a healthier and more successful community.

ULI Body Image 3

However, when the ULI panelists arrived in May 2013, they saw a community that had been ignored and neglected. It was clear that Westwood lacked the facilities and resources of many other Denver neighborhoods. It was underserved by parks and pedestrian infrastructure. It had a number of vacant and blighted buildings. It lacked a focus. It had no grocery store and few public gathering places. It also had major problems with cut-through commuter traffic, trash dumping in alleys and a lack of foot traffic to serve locally owned businesses.

The panel’s leading recommendation was to transform Morrison Road, the street that cuts through the heart of the community, into the cultural and physical focus of the neighborhood. The panel envisioned Morrison Road as a main street rather than a commuter cut-through. It proposed slowing down and calming traffic, creating a mercado and plaza where people could gather and interact, and encouraging public art and cultural activities that would give the neighborhood a distinctive flavor and identity.

It also proposed building new parks and a recreation center, as well as efforts to attract a small grocery store to the neighborhood. Finally, it made a plea for the city to remove a large abandoned Thriftway store on Morrison Road that had long blighted the center of the neighborhood and to relocate a trailer park to make way for new affordable housing.

The return trip to Westwood was a real eye-opener. We saw change everywhere we looked. The abandoned Thriftway building was gone. Bright, new murals now graced the sides of numerous shops and businesses. A variety of alley improvements had been made. The trailer park site had been sold for redevelopment as 188 units of affordable housing. A large vacant lot had been turned into a first-class neighborhood park with everything from playground equipment to basketball courts to the neighborhood’s first outdoor splash pad. Denver had approved plans for new streetscaping, pedestrian medians, bulb-out curb extensions and streetlights to down traffic on Morrison Road.

In addition, Revision International, a nonprofit focused on sustainable food systems, had received a $1.2 million grant to acquire a property for the neighborhood’s first “food hub”—the Westwood Food Cooperative. The food hub will support community food production, have a commercial kitchen and be a place where residents can buy and sell homegrown food.

Many of these changes were long overdue. Neighborhood activists and Paul Lopez, the Denver city councilman who represents the area, had been trying to get the city’s attention for years. The ULI Advisory Services panel gave them a megaphone. We recognized that the neighborhood had been ignored and neglected, and we publicly called on the political, civic and philanthropic leadership of Denver to respond. In large measure, that is exactly what has happened.

Summary

Recommendations can lead to on-the-ground results, especially when those recommendations are made by a nonpartisan group of outside experts like those assembled through the ULI Advisory Services program. There are lots of lessons to be learned from the experience in Colorado.

First, none of this would have been possible without the partnership with the Foundation. Anne Warhover, the Foundation’s former president and a ULI member, sensed an opportunity to leverage ULI’s expertise to further the Foundation’s mission. She initiated the contacts that led to the partnership and the convening of the panels. 

Second, the promise of additional financial assistance and ongoing technical expertise motivated the three Colorado communities to implement the ULI recommendations.

Third, it makes a big difference when someone in a community is given the task to follow through on panel recommendations. This was the role of the Healthy Places coordinator hired by each of the three communities. It also helped enormously to have a technical assistance coordinator to assist the communities after ULI left town. In Colorado, this was the job of Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA), a small firm of world-class community planners who helped the communities with grant applications and other implementation activities.

Participation in an Advisory Services panel is a rare opportunity, not just for the communities involved, but also for the panelists themselves. Tom Eitler, director of the Advisory Services program, likes to say that panelists “gain invaluable experience while working long hours for no pay.” Having now seen the fruits of our labors in three panels focused on Building Healthy Places, I have to say, I agree: the experience was invaluable for both the panelists and the communities.

 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Health Elevations.