Designing cities with health in mind has never been more important

Equitable community design as a social determinant of health

Why It Matters

COVID-19 has highlighted that our health outcomes are linked to socioeconomic factors – and those in turn are affected by where and how we live. Now is the time for social purpose real estate to help lead our recovery efforts towards more equitable, regenerative, and healthier communities for all. This series on social impact real estate is crafted in partnership with Windmill Developments and Urban Equation.

Welcome to the final article in our series on social purpose real estate (SPRE), a topic that is more relevant than ever, given the tremendous impact of COVID-19 on how we interact within our built environment and with each other. 

It’s impossible to think about social purpose real estate now without looking at it through the lens of COVID-19. There are already many examples of real estate assets being repurposed to help with emergency relief, from turning convention centres and sports arenas into field hospitals and massive commercial kitchens, or using hotels as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness. But as we embark on the long road of economic recovery and rebuilding our social structures, there is so much more that SPRE can contribute to the betterment of our communities’ collective health – which the World Health Organization defines as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.


The great revealer

That holistic perspective is the basis of the social determinants of health, a set of interconnected factors, like poverty or access to food, that together have a profound influence on an individual’s health. This was a somewhat academic concept that was well-known only in social work, public health, and community development circles. It’s now more widely understood and accepted than ever before, thanks to one of the thinnest of silver linings of this pandemic: the widespread media coverage of the disproportionate toll that COVID-19 has taken on those living on the margins of our society

Countless words have been written about how COVID-19 is not the “great leveller,” but in fact the “great revealer” of the structural inequalities in our social and economic systems. It is now common knowledge that not everyone faces the same level of hardship, sacrifice, and risk when it comes to protecting themselves and their loved ones from getting sick. This inescapable reality has surfaced and reinforced the fact that our health has more to do with our socioeconomic circumstances than any other factor, which in turn are influenced by factors such as colonization, racial discrimination, or even one’s postal code. That’s health equity in a nutshell, and it comes with harsh truths: Being poor makes you sick. Inequality is a pre-existing medical condition. Not everybody wants things to go back to normal.


Designing healthy communities

What does this have to do with social purpose real estate? How we choose to plan and design our buildings, neighbourhoods, and cities directly affects a great many of the social determinants of health. These decisions benefit some – but too often at the expense of others – by influencing whether residents are likely to walk or drive, encouraging social inclusion or isolation, and determining access to employment, education, and essential services. Something like housing (un)affordability can exacerbate problems like homelessness and poverty, economic issues like employment and business development, and well-being issues like addictions and mental health. SPRE must be part of the solution if we truly aspire to build healthy communities for all.

The first of the 10 guiding principles of the One Planet Living framework, developed by sustainability consultancy Bioregional together with WWF, is ‘health and happiness,’ but it’s clear that many of the other principles also have direct connections to the social determinants of health. For example, a real estate project that’s designed to foster a sense of community belonging can help reduce social isolation, which we know can negatively affect mental and physical health. Choosing suppliers, subcontractors, and other local businesses who pay living wages and have fair benefits policies means workers won’t have to choose between their health or their job


Prioritizing people and planet

One of the newest One Planet Living developments in Canada is currently underway in Guelph, a mid-sized city about an hour west of Toronto. The City of Guelph is redeveloping approximately 500,000 square feet of its downtown core, consisting of a parking lot and several adjacent buildings, into a mixed-use development — a place where people live, work, shop, and play in close proximity — called the Baker District. The centrepiece will be a new central branch for the Guelph Public Library, connected to an urban public square that will together become a new community landmark. 

Windmill Developments was chosen to lead the planning, design, and development team, which also includes its sister consulting company Urban Equation, along with two highly regarded architecture and urban design firms that have a strong repertoire of landmark cultural institutions and public realm projects to their credit. 

At the centre of the project is the One Planet Living framework and its 10 guiding principles, redefining how the community gets a say in how a real estate development of this size and scale will be designed, built, and used. A typical public consultation is usually about what people are against, rather than what they are for. But a consultation grounded in One Planet Living’s holistic approach enables a different kind of conversation. How can the City, the public library, and the community at large work together to make residents happier and healthier? How can the architects and builders accomplish their work in a way that minimizes carbon emissions, waste materials, and pollution? How can the design incorporate accessibility, public art, and affordable housing to ensure that the result is an inclusive landmark where all residents feel like they belong?


Building community and culture through food

One principle in particular, local and sustainable food, has particular significance to Guelph, a city with a long history in and reputation for food and agriculture. Home to a university renowned for agricultural research alongside 40 other agri-food research centres, over 1,600 food businesses and entrepreneurs, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, food is a core part of Guelph’s community culture and identity. In 2019, together with neighbouring Wellington County, Guelph was one of the four winners of the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge, winning $10 million to develop Canada’s first circular food economy – “a food system where everyone can access nutritious food, nothing is wasted, and the impact on our environment is minimal.” The project, named Our Food Future, has three ambitious goals, summed up as ‘50x50x50 by 2025:’ increase access to affordable, nutritious, local food by 50 percent, create 50 new circular businesses and collaborations, and increase circular economic revenue by 50 percent, all by the year 2025.

A circular food economy is well-aligned with both the One Planet Living principles and the social determinants of health. The Baker District plans to support the Our Food Future project by promoting food accessibility, providing opportunities for urban agriculture, and supporting local entrepreneurs and innovators seeking to reimagine food supply chains. As a ‘green developer,’ Windmill is also ideally positioned to help reduce the planetary impact of food – a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production, transportation, and consumption – by reducing onsite food-related carbon and food waste. 


SPRE requires a team effort

If the vision of the Baker District is fully realized, the project will not only honour One Planet Living’s 10 guiding principles, but also improve the social determinants of health and enable the adoption of more active, socially-connected lifestyles that ultimately produce better health outcomes for its residents. 

Of course, there are only so many factors even a social purpose real estate development can influence, but they are big ones. Designing for and building a mix of price points in a compact rather than sprawling form is well within its reach, as is prioritizing the ability to walk and bike safely. Well-designed and well-maintained common areas (inside buildings) and public space (outdoors) can facilitate and even encourage social connection and inclusion, especially if residents have a hand in its programming. And incorporating social infrastructure like public libraries helps build community resilience, a sense of belonging, and reinforces equitable access to knowledge, technology, and public space. 

Not every city will have Guelph’s incredible combination of prime downtown land, visionary government, environmentally- and socially-minded developers, a cross-sector collaboration of private sector, academia, and civil society to build on their city’s existing strengths, and a $10M prize from the federal government to get them going. But every community, from Canada’s largest urban metropolises to the smallest rural towns, can adopt the perspectives, principles, and practices of social purpose real estate to create more sustainable, inclusive, equitable, prosperous places – and as we now know, healthier communities as well. 

This topic is sponsored by Windmill Development Group, a real estate company with a triple bottom line approach that aims for zero ecological footprint, and its sister company, Urban Equation, a consulting company that advises those in the real estate industry on innovative practices for sustainable development. Future of Good retains full editorial control, as in every other article it publishes.