Prescription for a Healthy Place

Prescription for a Healthy Place
The Urban Land Institute and AIA Jacksonville apply a health initiative to the Northbank Riverfront District

What if someone could write a prescription for the health of Jacksonville’s Northbank Riverfront District? A real Rx, listing specific procedures to follow, additional recommendations and resources for assistance, and expected outcomes to incentivize action, just might inspire new approaches to the redevelopment of an area that is indispensible to the (very) longterm efforts for the city’s Downtown revitalization.

Here, we are speaking of the area’s health mainly in terms of its residents and workforce: the prescription is for the community’s health from the built environment standpoint—roads, buildings, public spaces—and its effect on individuals. The way in which people use built environments is important because, unfortunately, we have a pretty sick nation these days, with only tobacco use trumping physical inactivity and unhealthy diet as the main causes for premature death in the U.S. But a growing body of research shows how urban planning has an extraordinary impact on citizens’ health and longevity.

Prescription-ULI-Activating-Shared-Space-bigAs Jacksonville embarks on major projects to activate Downtown and the Northbank Riverwalk, a ‘doctor’ has stepped up to help ensure the area grows in a way that truly encourages vitality: the Urban Land Institute (ULI). ULI’s North Florida District Council and the Jacksonville chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Jacksonville) have partnered to bring the ULI’s Building Healthy Places initiative to Jacksonville; specifically the Northbank Riverfront District being called “the elbow” (more on the name to come).

The Doctor

ULI was established in 1936 “to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.” It represents a host of parties related to the built environment and its use, including developers, builders, property owners, investors, architects, planners, public officials, real estate brokers, appraisers, attorneys, engineers, financiers, academics, and students.

Their Building Healthy Places initiative was launched in July, 2013 as a nationwide effort to promote and aid projects that improve the health of communities. The goal, states ULI, is to make the connection between health and the built environment “a mainstream consideration,” by raising awareness of the value in building and operating spaces in a healthy way.

ULI called upon Dr. Richard Jackson, chair of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA’s School of Public Health and former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, for guidance in the initiative. Dr. Jackson can cite study after study implicating obesity and inactivity in the growing national health care expenditure figures, and he cites elements of the immediate environment that are among the most important determinants of health: “There is a connection between the fact that the urban sprawl we live with daily makes no room for sidewalks or bike paths and the fact that we are an overweight, heart disease-ridden society,” says Jackson.

Thus, states ULI, “Communities designed in a way that supports healthy activity—wide sidewalks, safe bike lanes, attractive stairways, accessible recreation areas—encourage residents to make healthy choices and live healthy lives.”

The impact is fiscally beneficial as well, says ULI, pointing out that healthy places create economic value by attracting a skilled workforce and innovative companies. More and more, people are wanting to live in walkable areas. One way this assertion is measurable is through real estate trends. According to ULI, “Walkable communities are in such high demand that they achieve from forty to one-hundred percent more than traditional, automobile-oriented communities in terms of sales and lease price.” A 2012 New York City Department of Transportation study concurs. After assessing a group of recent street design projects, the study found that those with protected bike lanes, pedestrian safety islands, new pedestrian plazas, and simplified intersections “could reduce the number of vehicle and pedestrian accidents as well as raise commercial rents and retail sales.”

Prescription-ULI-bikeshareThe Prescription

Defining a healthy space was an important part of ULI’s initiative, and their Ten Principles for Building Healthy Places now serve as the aforementioned prescription [see full list on page 53]. ULI describes these principles as a “health lens” through which to view development and operation. ULI North Florida and AIA Jacksonville are using them as the matrix for local implementation of the Building Healthy Places initiative.

The Application to the Northbank elbow

When the Healthy Places initiative was launched last summer, Jacksonville received $25,000 in ULI grant funds and Florida Blue soon matched this amount for ULI’s statewide efforts. A steering committee gathered by ULI North Florida and AIA Jacksonville decided to focus the initiative’s efforts and funds on “the heart of our city,” as Carolyn Clark of ULI North Florida calls it: the ‘elbow’ that is Northbank Riverfront District.

Not to be confused with the entertainment collective in Downtown Jacksonville being called The Elbow, comprised of venues whose ‘joint’ is the intersection of Ocean and Bay Streets, this defined five zone study area earned the elbow moniker for its arcing shape along the St. Johns River. When facing north, standing on the Southbank, for instance, and looking across the river, the District begins its arc from the southwest at Memorial Park, following the northeastern curve along the river past The Cummer Museum, then the in-progress 220 Riverside building and Unity Plaza, under the Acosta Bridge and past The Jacksonville Landing, finally ending just before the Shipyards after Berkman Plaza. The study area extends inland from the river approximately four city blocks and includes the new courthouse.

Stakeholders, as ULI refers to them, in each of the five zones within the Northbank elbow were identified by ULI North Florida and AIA Jacksonville and contacted to participate in the initiative’s implementation. Each received a Building Healthy Places packet that includes information on the initiative, the list of ULI’s design principles and healthy outcomes, and guidelines to sharing, assessing, and envisioning each business or organizations’ health according to ULI. The stakeholders were asked to present their input at an event billed as Convene, Collaborate and Educate–the first official occasion to share with others in the five zones as well as hear from an expert panelist and keynote speaker, Dr. Jackson.

“We are convening to ask ‘What do you do to keep employees healthy?'” Clark says. She cites a project implemented by St. Vincent’s Hospital as an example of a small but impactful healthy option at work: the hospital provides a shuttle to take employees to nearby lunch spots to allow access to healthy meals while reducing traffic congestion at lunch hour.

According to Clark, other questions about the elbow have been raised and addressed by its stakeholders in preliminary meetings. In one answer to “How do we activate the Riverwalk?” she shares that Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (JCCI) is planning to hold their anniversary party on it later this year.

Prescription-Healthy-Places-featuredThe aim is to better the overall health of the district, step-by-step, and garner ideas for future projects and development. The ULI’s prescription for health is a guide to be followed longterm for care that is both diagnostic and preventative. Creative ideas are part of the process, but there is another important element: In the list of ULI’s Ten Principles, the third states that “passionate and respected leaders” are needed to bring the ideas credibility. The assembled panel for the Convene, Collaborate and Educate event includes those very individuals: representatives from the Jacksonville City Council, AIA Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, Downtown Vision, The Haskell Company (Preston Haskell), JCCI, The St. Johns Riverkeeper, Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council, and more. The stakeholders, too, are an esteemed list of Jacksonville leaders and business owners who will help the Healthy Places initiative create just that.

Arbus will report on the Northbank elbow’s progress in an upcoming issue.

For more information on the Healthy Places Initiative, visit To learn about the Urban Land Institute North Florida District Council, visit


Article written by Meredith Tousey Matthews

Author: Arbus

Share This Post On

Subscribe for the Weekly Buzz from Arbus Magazine

Join our email list! It's your spot for cultural to-do's around Northeast Florida.

You have Successfully Subscribed!