Presentation at the 2015 Active Living Research Annual Conference.
Walkability is tied to many health, social, environmental, and most recently, economic benefits. Concurrently, walkability is influencing an increasing number of individuals and firms locational decisions: 80% of Americans aged 18-34 want to live in walkable places; over 40% of those over 50 want to live within a mile of daily needs and services; and in 2011, 58% of venture capital in the top five US markets went to firms located in walkable areas. Yet walkability seems out of reach. The average walkability of US cities with populations over 200,000 is 47 out of a possible 100 based on Walk Score. While many real estate, community development, and government stakeholders recognize that walkability is key to livability and economic competitiveness, paving that path has proven challenging. A number of barriers to implementing or facilitating walkable development exist. Public sector stakeholders lack mechanisms by which to identify the most effective interventions or investments. They often lack the metrics, capacity, expertise, or political will to implement evidence-based approaches that could maximize walkability and leverage community change. Moreover, many public stakeholders still find it difficult to communicate (and justify) the benefits – especially economic benefits – of walkable developments, both to the community and to developers (progressive or otherwise). On the private sector side, a growing number of responsible property investors are looking to fund projects with a social impact – like walkability – but lack proper metrics to gauge that impact, both in terms of predicting it pre-project and then measuring it post-project. This presentation will 1) describe State of Place, an empirically based data analytics and community engagement platform that helps cities and social impact stakeholders make smarter planning, economic development, and investment decisions to boost walkability and health and 2) present a case study of how State of Place served as a mechanism to guide the investment and development decisions of the Healthy Neighborhood Equity Fund (HNEF), a $30 million private equity real estate fund, created via a public-private partnership, that invests in high-impact, transformative real estate projects that deliver social, environmental, and community health benefits in addition to financial returns.
State of Place was born out of the Irvine Minnesota Inventory (IMI), a widely-used, objective audit tool that measures built environment features tied to walkability funded by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation in the first round of Active Living Research grants. For years, practitioners sought ways to adapt this tool, but it lacked a non-researcher user friendly analytical framework. State of Place addresses that need and seeks to ameliorate existing barriers to implementing walkable development. State of Place trains community stakeholders themselves to use an updated, app-based version of the IMI to collect data, block by block, on over 280 built environment features, fostering community engagement. The State of Place Index, a score from 0-100 that measures place quality, along ten urban design dimensions empirically tied to walkability and economic value, is then calculated. The State of Place Index classifies both existing places and projected projects’ assets and needs, helping to identify the most effective community interventions and investments, based on communities’ performance, budget, goals, capacity, feasibility, and community feedback. State of Place has been used in a number of projects, ranging from creating regional economic development strategies to guiding walkable development projects. The HNEF was created by the Conservation Law Foundation Ventures (CLFV) group in partnership with the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation (MHIC) and the State’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. The HNEF uses a “Quadruple Bottom Line” (QBL) approach, evaluating projects based on community, environmental, and health impacts in addition to financial returns, focusing on historically distressed Boston neighborhoods. This presentation will explain the development of State of Place and how CLFV is using it as a key metric to screen and choose the projects they will fund and as a way to provide objective feedback to developers of ways to facilitate more walkability.
Translating research tools into evidence-based planning and real estate approaches is challenging, both in terms of establishing a viable business model and communicating the values of such tools in an effective, relatable way. Implementation requires flexibility on the researchers part and willing early adopters.
Building effective evidence based tools requires a transdisciplinary approach that not only incorporates various areas of research and methodologies, but also bridges academia and practice, including applying Lean Startup business development principles, using multi-channeled communication, and engaging across sectors – both in person and in print .
The State of Place tool will be translated into a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform that can be integrated into cities’, developers’, and investors’ decision-making processes. Also, additional studies will be conducted to assess the relationship between State of Place and potential health costs savings and to examine the actual impact of State of Place’s recommended investments and interventions.