New York Times: Construction That Focuses on Health of Residents

March 6, 2013    ·    [ Grantee Coverage ]

By Joe Gose

Doctors, social agencies and community groups that have long been frustrated by the inability to alleviate environmental conditions that contribute to ailments like heart disease and obesity are promoting the idea that a shift in land-use planning and design can stanch some of the harmful influences.

The concept is being put to one of its earliest and biggest tests in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood near downtown Denver. That’s where the city’s housing authority used a relatively new decision-making tool known as a health impact assessment to draft a redevelopment plan that encourages physical activity and environmental sustainability.

To that end, the redevelopment of buildings in the 17-acre project, known as Mariposa, will incorporate ecologically advanced construction materials and practices, and a combination of geothermal and solar power will generate up to 60 percent of the development’s energy.

Residents will also find naturally lighted and centrally located staircases enticing them away from the elevators, as well as neighborhood gardens to encourage a better diet.

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Health impact assessments have been a mainstay in Europe and other countries for several years, but proponents say they did not appear in the United States until 1999. Now some 200 of these assessments have been completed or are under way here, up from 50 four years ago, said Dr. Aaron Wernham, project director for the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts that helps finance health impact assessments.

“People in the public health world and in the business and development world are waking up to the need to get at health care problems and bring down health care costs,” he said. “So we see a fair amount of uptake in certain sectors — the health impact assessment is out there and growing.”

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