Healthy Urbanism: A New Foundation for Place-Making

November 5, 2014

What makes for multifamily developments that support and promote healthy lifestyles and community.

Multifamily Developments that Support and Promote Healthy Lifestyles and Community

By W. Brian Keith: AIA, AICP, LeedAP and Jonathan Brown, AIA, MACM, JHP

Greater automobile mobility and government incentives fueled post-World War II population movement to the suburbs. However, many of the benefits of formerly diverse, dense urban community life were lost–including walkable distances between services and easy access to fresh food. Just one current manifestation of this loss is people’s common practice of driving to a “big box” store to buy a month’s worth of frozen and prepared foods. Healthy urbanism uses strategies to leverage urbanism in a way that typical suburbia cannot: putting people first by emphasizing the health aspects of urban planning and design. When healthy urbanism is the foundation of place-making and design, economic value follows from a walkable environment that enlivens both retail and the residential character of streets and neighborhoods.

Over the past 40 years, innovative city planners and municipalities have recognized and fostered the connections between urban design, human health, and social interaction. Today, visionary multifamily developers are taking these concepts a step further: collaborating with creative planning and design partners and progressive municipalities to create multifamily and mixed-use developments that support healthy urban ideals, including physical activity, social interaction and community safety.

In so doing, they create value both for public and private interests–not only an intangible public perception, but also in tangible increase in rents, returns and, sales for the private sector. Energizing shared public, open spaces also has an overall, direct correlation with public health–a vibrant streetscape leads to an increase in street-side activities, especially walking.

These innovations can be achieved by rethinking and repurposing aspects of buildings to encourage and support healthy lifestyles. These are not expensive “extras.” In fact, when they are an integral part of the planning and design process, they can be incorporated with little or no substantial net cost increase.

Here is a look at the strategies and places where these concepts are bringing a new, healthy urban aesthetic to “urban oasis” and ring suburbs in Austin, North Dallas Metroplex, Rowlett, Garland and Frisco, Texas. The fact that these concepts have been successful in “middle America” –rather than in urban centers on the East or West coast–is evidence of their real relevance and adaptability.


Site Planning: The Geometry of Feel-Good Spaces

Good master planning, engineering and design are critical to the success of these places as measured by an increase in healthy activity, as well as economic vitality. One cannot simply put buildings on a site plan to create a healthy urban environment. The site must be thoughtfully considered for optimal geometry–the proportions and mathematics behind spaces in which people feel good and want to spend time. The proportions, scale, quality of light, quality of hardscape and landscape design all contribute to creating this feeling for individuals while allowing natural opportunities for positive social interaction. In turn, a sense of community derives from social interaction and activity.

One of the keys is to create a sense of community and social interaction at a variety of scales. Understanding how people move from building to building, their likely destinations at certain times of the day, the potential crossroads for people who are leaving the office and those who are going to restaurants, and more, can be thoughtfully engineered by the healthy urban environment. Creating spaces for accidental encounters — like the strategic and thoughtful design and placement of the stairways indoors–can be an integral aspect of building a community.

Austin Ranch Phase V (The Billingsley Group; 535 units, 22.3 acres, 23.99 units/acre, 20,600 sf retail) adds more than 500 multifamily units, multiple restaurant and retail venues, and a bank to the existing Austin Ranch mixed-use enclave in the rapidly developing North Dallas community. Residential buildings of an enormous variety of building types and scales–two-story over retail, four-story wrap, three-story tucked under garage flats, two- and three-story townhomes, and three- and four-story over podium parking–engage an economically and socially diverse community of residents. Nestled into stands of native oak and serene creeks, the community also provides opportunities for active living in natural surroundings just one mile from the North Dallas Tollway.

Outdoor Rooms: Balconies, Patios, Yards and Beyond 

Any space can be designed as an “outdoor room,” that is, an extension of the indoor living environment, from a unit’s balcony, patio, or yard to a public space. What characterizes an outdoor room is a space that is optimally situated and sized to accommodate both the scale of outdoor living and level of social interaction desired by the property’s market demographic. This requires redefining what outdoor space is.

This thoughtful design of outdoor rooms requires consideration of scale and use. Is a four-foot balcony, porch or patio really deep enough if it is just a token amount of space for a chair or two? Or is six feet a better scale for allowing a space to be enjoyed as an outdoor room? Sensitivity to scale and human perception is crucial, as it encourages increased social and physical activity.

The fifth phase of Austin Ranch is bounded to the south and west by a Nature Conservation area and to the north by the original phases of the Austin Ranch development. JHP worked closely with the developer on a vision of simple yet elegant buildings and outdoor spaces that are well articulated using courtyards, pedestrian linkages, and paved plazas, as well as stoops, front doors and porches at every ground floor unit. Residents have inhabited these spaces with furniture, grills and other outdoor living amenities, and are actively using them.

Similarly, a yard should be neither too large nor too small: Too large, and it becomes a suburban backyard; too small, and it becomes, well, just a place to let the dog out. At The Domain in North Austin (Columbus Realty Partners; five phases totaling 755 units, 11.64 acres, 64.56 average units/acre, 29,800 sf retail to date), a typical unit is 24-36 feet wide with a 10- to 12-foot deep side yard, facing apart. Oriented toward a public park, these yards extend one’s sense of outdoor living space even farther. Residents have furnished these xeriscaped, fenced yards and are actively using them as outdoor rooms. Marking the fifth phase of the master plan for this commercial redevelopment of the former IBM campus into a walkable urban center, this community offers urban living and shopping that achieves an environmentally sensitive Two Star Austin Green rating.

Parks Where ‘Dog-People’ Meet

Most households in the United States today have at least one pet, according to the CDC, which recognizes that living with pets has many health benefits (, including: decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels; decreased feelings of loneliness; and increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, as well as socialization.

Today, a dog park must be more than a four-foot-wide strip of turf where people can walk their dogs two or three times a day. Ideally, it is a place where dogs and people go for active play together, and dog-people go to meet and socialize with other dog-people. The space can be designed to make it that kind of social event, which builds on these findings about the social and health aspects of pet companionship. With these objectives in mind, an open space with sunny and shaded areas often can be repurposed to provide these opportunities provided that its size is appropriate for the scale and height of the surrounding buildings.

In fact, dog parks have evolved from an occasional offering into a standard feature of many urban multifamily, mixed-use communities. Given the popularity of dogs among Texans, nowhere more evident than in Austin, it is not surprising that dog parks are a programmatic element of each phase of The Domain — offering dogs and their people low-fenced parks with artificial-turf play areas, seating and fresh running water. Residents, visitors and their dogs can easily walk from one park to another to socialize with their friends.


Disc Golf Beats the Treadmill

According to a recent “Well” blog post in The New York Times (, research is identifying greater health benefits of exercising outdoors versus a gym, including: longer, more frequent exercising; greater expenditure of energy; and lower blood levels of stress-related hormones.

Ideally, the community should make opportunities for exercise easy and accessible to all residents. Take disc golf, which is played much like traditional golf, except that players use a flying disc instead of clubs and a ball. These disks are nothing like your grandma’s old Frisbee®. They are highly technical equipment for a challenging sport, with a culture that rivals that of surfers, snow-boarders and skate-boarders. Disc golf is growing in popularity from coast to coast. There’s got to be a reason: could it be that it’s better exercise than a treadmill, and more social, too?

At Harmony Hill, a suburban new-urbanist community in Rowlett, JHP integrated open-space requirements with large setbacks/clearance requirements along a utility right-of-way, turning these swaths of green space into the perfect Disc golf course. It also works as a buffer between residential buildings and President George Bush Turnpike (Highway 190).


‘Thanks for Not Smoking’ Anywhere

The health benefits of being a nonsmoker and being free from exposure to secondhand smoke are common knowledge. Increasingly, one finds that homes, work places, restaurants, health clubs and more are being defined as smoke-free zones.

But entire multifamily communities, both inside and out? Welcome to Oaks Properties City Center: 149 units, 3.4 acres, 43.82 units/acre, 3,500 sf retail. Working closely with the developer and the City of Garland, JHP planned and designed the second phase of a mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) to address the unique challenges of this high-profile site in downtown Garland. While there is no smoking in this community, smoking is optional in the adjacent first phase — Oaks Properties 5th Street Crossing, where at-grade retail faces toward the Performing Arts Center to the east, while residential units front the adjacent DART line, and live-work units line the south side of the development.


Creating a New Healthy Urbanism

Terre Haute, a new healthy urban mixed-use community planned for Frisco, Texas, combines all of the aforementioned healthy urbanism strategies into a visionary holistic community: 300,000 square feet of multifamily housing (300 units) and 60,000 square feet of retail are integrated with active living, sustainable design and the Stewart Creek environs to create a healthy enclave that sets a new standard of place-making.

At Terre Haute, JHP has envisioned the office space as a place where tenants and visitors can get themselves “tuned up” with medical office services, including homeopathic medicines, chiropractic, nutritional counseling and acupuncture. The hotel is not just a place to stay, but a boutique resort that caters to clients engaging in these services. Proposing regional retailers, such as Whole Earth Provision Co., Seasons 52 and Run On! supports the mission of healthy urban living. A central “commons” is designed to engage the community in various events like runs, food truck days, pop-up markets, etc. A grocery store at Terre Haute isn’t just a place to buy food, but is a way to engage in a healthy lifestyle that combines nutritional classes, a fitness center, etc., with daily availability of fresh food.

In these ways, Terre Haute employs the strategies that have been expressed in pioneering healthy urban communities with unique ones like the Stewart Creek Walkabout, a one-mile-long walking trail that traverses the periphery of the site, and a 175-ft ascent to the upper levels of the mid-rise/high-rise component, “The Aiguilles,” for a truly rewarding view. With the latter innovation, this project takes advantage of something that only healthy urbanism can offer: a building where people are encouraged to run up and down the stairs, which is a favorite pastime of urban dwellers, and something that cannot typically be found in the suburbs.

The key to the success of the Terre Haute community is in believing in the concept. As ethnographer Simon Sinek of the RAND Corp. says in his TED talk, “Start With Why”, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.” Sinek cites Apple as an example of a company that first communicates its belief in challenging the status quo in everything they think and do, and second, makes “great computers.” Sinek argues that people buy Apple computers because they believe what Apple believes.

Inspired by this idea, JHP believes Terre Haute is a place that can change one’s life by challenging what an urban development can be and the impact it can have on one’s well-being. It is a belief in personal wellness and community health that transcends the buildings which contain it. To make this belief a reality, the retail environment must be an interdependent network of like-minded retailers who personify and reinforce this belief. As there is an enormous amount of retail development coming to this region, and to Frisco in particular, Terre Haute’s retail community will need to stand apart from the conventional retail experience in order to be successful.


The Added Value of Healthy Urbanism

Healthy urbanism represents an enormous opportunity for redefining and distinguishing a development to correspond with the evolving social and demographic values of healthy living. Compact walkable communities, smaller living units and a more pedestrian-oriented street edges can lead to better returns for developers by increasing densities and yields; they also increase marketability. Consider that the two largest and most sought-after market segments of “millennials” and “baby boomers” are, once again, choosing to live in vibrant, walkable communities. Since 2000, the number of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds living in fast-growing neighborhoods close to a city has doubled. Why? Because they value social activities, a sense of peace and healthy living.

Certainly, a feeling of well-being and a positive sense of place are abstract, subjective qualities–yet the development community and urban planners increasingly believe that the really successful places are defined by these qualities. They recognize that there is an enormous untapped value that can be created when healthy urbanism is a foundation for place-making. In other words, perhaps this is the “epochal moment” for a new kind of multifamily community.


W. Brian Keith is the director of Urban Design and Planning for JHP. He brings to this position a passion for place-making and the visioning of community redevelopments that are rich in diversity and sustainable over time. Keith is an advocate for “good urbanism” as defined by the Congress of New Urbanism and endeavors to infuse these planning principles into all that he does. Keith has 25-years of extensive mixed-use, urban redevelopment and master planning experience. His professional experience, having been centered on urban design and planning, led to a desire to create livable communities and great urban spaces. Brian has been an integral part of the firm’s success in transitioning the focus of JHP from traditional multifamily markets to more intensive planning and urban design approach centered around creating community and place with an emphasis on mixed-use, higher density, and urban infill projects.  Brian can be reached at

Jonathan R. Brown has been integral on a myriad of projects in the hospitality, multi-family and mixed-use urban infill sectors both locally and internationally. As a senior associate at JHP with over 15 years of experience, Jonathan is a lead designer and project manager for many of the firm’s projects including grayfield/brownfield conversion, mixed- use, urban infill, transit oriented development (TOD), urban housing, live-work, flex retail and sustainable community building with an emphasis on public/private partnerships. Jonathan focuses on developing the firm’s innovative design and manages the integration of digital design techniques and technologies into JHP’s workflow.  Jonathan can be reached at