Panelists discuss health and the built environment at the Buechner Breakfast Sept. 7.

The difference between a secure and appealing neighborhood and one that’s unsafe and disconnected translates into gaps in residents’ physical and mental well being.

This relationship between the built environment and health was the subject of the first Buechner Breakfast of the new academic term. Attendees packed the Terrace Room of Lawrence Street Center to hear the panel speak on “Health and the Built Environment: Creating Healthy Cities.”

The series, coordinated by the Buechner Institute for Governance at the University of Colorado Denver, takes place on the first Friday of every month and focuses on policy matters and societal issues affecting Colorado and the nation.

Each panelist had a different area of expertise in relation to building healthier communities: Wes Marshall, assistant professor of civil engineering at CU Denver (transportation issues); Jill Litt, associate professor of environmental and occupational health, Colorado School of Public Health (restoring urban areas); Gosia Kung, architect and director of Walk Denver (pedestrian-friendly areas); and Kimball Crangle, senior developer with the Denver Housing Authority (redeveloping economically disadvantaged neighborhoods). The session was moderated by Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, writer for Solutions, a Buechner Institute publication.

In a room where everyone enjoyed a delicious breakfast, Kung drew chuckles when she said that after moving from her hometown in Poland, which was pedestrian friendly, to Knoxville, Tenn., which was not, in 1997 she gained 20 pounds. “Our stomachs are connected to our feet,” she said. “… What do we do when we’re stressed or depressed? We turn to ice cream or potato chips. What if there were other alternatives?”

Alternatives discussed included more bicycle lanes, pedestrian-friendly urban areas, community gardens and public transit.

Just by regularly walking a mile or two people improve their physical, mental and even economic well-being, Kung said. In a nation where there are four parking spaces for every car, “We have to talk about how do we get people to businesses instead of how do we get cars to businesses,” she said. Referring to how Europe is ahead of the United States on bike and pedestrian-friendly projects, she said, “The best time to plant trees is 20 years ago; the next best time is today.”

Marshall noted that even though Colorado still has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, it’s climbing — reaching the 20 percent threshold this year. Even so-called progressive developments can be improved; he said that Stapleton, which has many green spaces and bike lanes, is surrounded by high-speed arterials.

“We need to change our mindset and priorities and understand that the way we build and design our communities is most certainly a public health issue,” Marshall said.

Litt said she is interested in restoration of urban areas and returning people to the landscape.

Litt is part of a research project that sampled Denver households that were within a mile of a community garden. “In almost every single measure — whether it’s social, emotional or health — we saw statistically significant differences in those who said they garden, whether it was community or home, and those who did not … The gardeners’ outlook is just fundamentally different than the non-gardeners.”

Funding decisions are often out of alignment with health and safety problems, panelists noted. For instance, Kung said, less than 2 percent of infrastructure investment goes to pedestrian and bicycle projects, but 14 percent of all traffic-related injuries happen to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Crangle said the Denver Housing Authority is working on a redevelopment in the poverty-stricken South Lincoln neighborhood. The poverty cycle is a systemic barrier to promoting health through a built environment, she said. “The good news is we’re actively redeveloping this site. We’ve received large funding grants, so we’re under way,” Crangle said. “… It’s a long distance to get from the policy and theory side of what we’re talking about to actually building it, so we all need to work on it together.”

Litt emphasized that strategies for improving health and community engagement need to be multi-pronged. She agreed with other panelists that built environments take time to develop, but consistently deliver synergies in physical activity and community engagement. The result is better physical and mental health.

“What’s different (in Colorado) than in other places is that people love to be outdoors and that’s an important starting point,” Litt said. “Slowly but surely it’s becoming easier to navigate the city on bike or on foot or with public transit.”

The event was sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation.

(Photo: Panelists discuss health and the built environment at the Buechner Breakfast Sept. 7.)

CU in the City logo