Smart Growth is Smart for Health and the Economy

Feb 6, 2012, 6:00 PM, Posted by

A major theme at last week's New Partners for Smart Growth Conference was "co-benefits." Many sectors and interests were represented at the conference and each took a different tack on the benefits of smart growth, or building communities so that they are walkable, affordable, generate jobs and help people get to where they need to go, including to fresh food markets, to work and play and to green spaces. The co-benefits of this kind of growth include better health, a cleaner and more sustainable environment, and a stronger economy.

The benefits to the economy were the focus of a Friday session at the Smart Growth conference, led by Lee Sobel, Real Estate Development and Finance Analyst at the Office of Sustainable Communities for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mitchell Silver, AICP, Planning Director of the City of Raleigh, NC and President of the American Planning Association quoted Chattanooga Mayor Littlefield with an important maxim for smart growth: "If you aren't a city where people want to live, you aren't a city where people want to invest."

Younger generations will demand a different lifestyle, said Silver, and separate office parks will play no part in it. More integrated, mixed land-use areas where people can walk or take public transit to work are becoming more and more attractive to employees—and, importantly, to employers.

While young people used to find a job and then a place to live nearby, more young people today start by finding a city or community they love and then looking for a job where they want to live, said Silver. That means employers want to be where people want to live.

Beyond attracting employers, dense growth means more tax revenue for cities. It would take 150 acres of 600 single-family homes to equal the tax value of Raleigh's Wells Fargo Capitol Center, which sits on 1.2 acre land, said Silver.

A report from Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by San Diego State University, found that green spaces have economic pay-offs as well. The existence of a park within 1,500 feet of a home increased its sale price by between $845 and $2,262 (in 2000 dollars). Additionally, as parks increased in size, their impact on property value increased significantly, according to the report.

This builds on parallel research finding that preventive health efforts are sound business decisions:

  • The Healthier Americans for a Healthier Economy report showcases several states and cities that have found that better health for their citizens can also improve their bottom line, in collaboration with local businesses. Read more on the report and a Q&A with Tom Mason, President of Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota, on the business perspective on prevention.
  • An investment of $10 per person annually in proven, community-based public health programs could save the U.S. more than $16 billion within five years—a $5.60 return for every $1 invested. Read more on the report on the return on investment of prevention.
  • Companies that sell "better-for-you" foods perform better financially. Read a Q&A with the report author.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.