Thoughts on Healthy Communities

The inner world is in our mind. Our outer or human experience is where and how we exist, interact and observe others, gather news, spend our time, and be in the world. The mind is the harbinger of mental health. Can the environment we live in impact our mental health? The short answer is, “Yes, of course.”

Yoga and Living

I am a 25-year yoga practitioner. My early practice was a work-out, as is very typical for many yogis. The United States yoga industry has flourished focusing on a cardio yoga routine while predominately ignoring the inner work. In my 30’s, my lunchtime routine was either running three miles on the Seattle waterfront, pumping my heart to a pulsating aerobics class or practicing balance, shoulder stand and flow in a yoga class. All relieved the downtown law firm workday tension and got the blood flowing from my sitting, day job. Getting out of my chair for an hour long yoga class to move, stretch, breathe, was a weekly highlight, which has continued almost unabated except for a year when my children were young.

My early practice was trying to master the famous yoga pretzel poses–you know the ones you see that you can’t ever imagine doing. After years of concerted effort and practice, my heels have never touched the floor in a downward facing dog and my toes are always out of reach in any forward bend unless I bend my knees at least 30 degrees. For close to 20 years my practice was an outward viewing experience, comparing myself to what others could do and the legendary calendar poses.

Bridge Pose

Then, lifes ups and downs got in the way. I became an untethered professional (also called working for myself) and started practicing yoga more rigorously again. Unknowingly, I took a class being taught by a former fellow practitioner that I had met when taking classes with my first teacher, Kathleen Hunt. If you don’t know, it’s helpful to understand that yoga is an almost never ending lineage of teachers that likely started more than 5,000 years ago. Each student has a teacher or teachers to which they credit their yogic path or yoga evolution. Yoga is not just exercise, but an evolution in awakening–getting beyond the physical experience and into the mental and spiritual forms of the practice.

That fateful day my teacher was Melina Meza, who I now credit as my second teacher. She encouraged me to consider taking yoga teacher training. Of course, I said, “I can’t be a teacher, I can’t even touch my toes without bending my knees!” From the human or outer world existence, yoga teacher training is just that, how to be a teacher of yoga. What Melina didn’t tell me and I could only learn by doing is that teacher training is the beginning of a journey to unpeel and examine the layers of my inner world.

ULI’s Health Leaders Network

For 40 years my professional world has involved land use, civil engineering, and real estate development–components of the built environment. How land is used has always fascinated me as it is how we live and experience the built, agricultural, and natural worlds. This upcoming academic year, I am looking forward to bringing my professional world together with my yogic world, as I participate in the Urban Land Institute’s Health Leaders Network. The recently formed Network is bringing together a group of 40 professionals involved in the real estate business from across the country that will do a “deep dive” to develop a better understanding and develop tools on what it takes to  build healthy communities. Personally and professionally, I want to know what it takes to make a healthy, happy community (and as a result perhaps a healthy mind–where the inner and outer worlds are at peace). I realize I may be asking a lot and have set a high expectation. However, if I do not start this new venture with high intentions and aspirations, than I could wander and not know what to look for or what questions to ask.

In preparation for the Network’s venture, I’ve been assembling some of my thoughts on what I think makes a healthy place. I know I live in a healthy place. I can just feel it in my every day experiences and it is confirmed by AARP Livability Index score. The Livability Index was originally created to address the needs for the senior population but is now advertised as “Great Neighborhoods for All Ages.” Neighborhoods that benefit the elderly are good for everybody.

AARP’s Livability Index–Health Score

Two of the seven AARP Livability Index categories for my neighborhood–health and environment–score in the top third or above average at 75 and 74 respectively. The Livability Index is a beneficial tool as the scores are calculated on reproducible and measureable metrics and data. Each category is measured both by neighborhood census blocks and/or county and regional measureable attributes. The category indices are further refined by incorporating an assessment of adopted government policies and plans that further characterize livability.

Unhealthy Smoke Filled Seattle Sunrise

To measure health, six metrics are evaluated and two policy categories are considered. For my neighborhood, five of the six metrics were rated the highest while only one metric was below average. My neighborhood is 30% below the national average on smoking prevalence, 21% below the national average on obesity, and more than 40% below the national average on the number of hospital admissions for conditions that can be addressed through outpatient care. The only Livability Index metric that needs improvement is the “percentage of patients that give area hospitals a 9 or a 10, on a scale of 10” for patient satisfaction on the quality of health care. This metric is lower than the national average, but I suspect there are health care facilities that have high marks close to my home as there are many hospital options in the Seattle area.

On the policy front, Washington State excels in smoking regulations, if you value clean air. In 2006, the state legislature enacted a law prohibiting smoking in public gathering places and where people are employed and does not allow smoking within 25 feet of the entrances of these same locations. This law has changed my night life as I will now go out dancing or to a bar! I don’t come home and leave my smoke-filled clothes on the doorstep or take a late night shower so my pillow doesn’t smell like smoke in the morning!

What is lacking on the health policy front is any statewide or local plans to create age friendly communities. Granted there are local age-restricted 55+ plus communities, but evidence is mounting that perhaps my generation of seniors want more inclusive multi-generational communities with housing and transportation options that “create great neighborhoods for all ages!”

Just last night I had a conversation with a 61-year old female colleague that said she is specifically looking for a multi-generational community as she ages. She is married, but never had children and has only one niece. Being dependent on just family for her community is not an option. She doesn’t know what her community will look like in 20 years, but knows she doesn’t want to be with “just old people.” Multi-age friendly communities need to include different housing sizes, price points, and accessibility that encourage and allow all ages and abilities to mix together in community.

AARP Livability Index–Environment Score

Denny Creek Flows Generated from Snow Melt

Air and water quality are the metrics measured for the AARP Livability Index environment score, which are all above average for my neighborhood. The water quality metric measures the health of our drinking water supply. Seattle’s public water supply violations are practically non-existent, as our water comes from pristine, protected reservoirs in the Cascade Mountains that are snow-fed by incessant winter storms. Our water supply is  highly dependent on cold winter temperatures to ensure that we get snow rather than rain in the mountains. As the globe warms, our water supply could be more tenuous, but thankfully is stellar now.

Air quality measures monitored in the Livability Index include being less than 200-meters from a major thoroughfare with more than 25,000 vehicles per day, proximity to industrial facilities with airborne pollution, and the number of unhealthy air quality days per year. On all of these metrics my neighborhood grossly exceeds the nationwide average, thereby excelling in healthy air. On average, we experience 1.7 days per year of unhealthy air. This summer however, we exceeded the average because of multiple forest fires about 200 miles north of Seattle in British Columbia, Canada. Weather patterns smothered our state with unhealthy, smoky, gray haze for a week and a half until our cool marine air finally pushed the smoke away. If I lived next to Interstate 5 where more than 200,000 cars travel through downtown per day or adjacent to an industrial area with uncontrolled airborne pollution they would impact my air quality.

The upcoming Health Leaders Network sessions will explore and expand the knowledge base on what are the ingredients needed to create and ensure longevity for healthy communities. I am looking forward to evaluating and discussing all elements of a healthy community that could impact one’s inner and outer worlds.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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How Does Your Neighborhood Score?

I live in a great city-the Emerald City- Seattle, Washington. Living here 32 years is more than half my life.  I started life as a New Englander, growing up in a Connecticut suburban town with a couple elementary school years in Buffalo, college in Schenectady, New York, and Massachusetts where I started my professional career in the Boston Metro area before moving to Seattle. After three decades, I call this place home. It didn’t take 30 years to say that but it definitely took awhile. Now, I can’t imagine leaving. Living in this wonderful part of the world is enhanced by living in a great neighborhood.

Biking on the Burke Gilman Trail on a mid-summer’s day

What makes where I live so special? My uncle taught me the first rule of real estate is location, location, location. It’s the neighbors and the location! I live one and a half blocks away from the Burke-Gilman Trail a 20-mile former railroad grade that stretches from the City of Bothell at Lake Washington’s north end to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, connecting with the King County trail system. At my trail access is a compact commercial area with City People’s Mercantile a member of the True Value Cooperative, Katterman’s Pharmacy, Sand Point Grill, and other small retail establishments. One-half mile away by walking, biking, or driving is Metropolitan Market-Sand Point a full service grocery store.

Mid-Day at the UW Link Light Rail

The Burke-Gilman Trail has easy bikeable access to the University of Washington’s Link Light Rail station with trains running from 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. daily to downtown and SeaTac Airport. Service is every 6 minutes during rush hour, every 15 from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. and every 10 minutes at all other times. Since March 2016, the Link’s most northern stop at the University of Washington on the north side of the city-splitting ship canal has been a commuting game changer. Biking to the station takes me 20 minutes. I lock my bike and hop the train to get downtown. It can take me as little as 35 minutes from my house to my Pioneer Square office for a $5 round trip. Considering during rush hour it can take up to an hour in an automobile to get downtown, plus a minimum $14 daily parking fee, the Link is a bargain in time and money! The bus is the same price as the train, but takes almost an hour to get downtown, since it gets stuck in commute traffic. LINK’s also easy access to the airport without getting caught in downtown I-5 traffic.

King County Metro busses # 62, #74 and #75 all serve my neighborhood with bus #75 providing simple, walkable access to the University of Washington’s Link Light Rail station, too. Would more frequent bus service on Sand Point Way be a benefit to my commute? Absolutely! Thankfully, I’m willing to bike in almost any weather!

Grades from Walk Score

Today, data also drives information and decisions. Walk Score and AARP’s Livability Index are two great tools to research and evaluate any U.S. real estate address. Walk Score, now owned by Redfin a full-service real estate firm, computes a walk score, transit score, and bike score using mathematical algorithms for addresses across the United States. According to the founders,  

“The Walk Score algorithm awards points based on the distance to the closest amenity in each category. If the closest amenity in a category is within .25 miles (or .4 km), we assign the maximum number of points. The number of points declines as the distance approaches 1 mile (or 1.6 km)—no points are awarded for amenities farther than 1 mile. Each category is weighted equally and the points are summed and normalized to yield a score from 0–100. The number of nearby amenities is the leading predictor of whether people walk.”

The walking distances to my local amenities are: City People’s Mercantile-0.2 miles, Katterman’s Pharmacy and Sand Point Grill-0.3 miles, and Laurelhurst Elementary School and Park-0.6 miles. All are incredibly walkable destinations. University of Washington’s Seattle campus is 2 miles away and University Village, Seattle’s premier shopping center is 1.5 miles away and both are easily bikeable. (Now if University Village would only add more bike parking!) Based on a maximum score of 100, my Walk Score is 57 designated as somewhat walkable, Transit Score is 52 with good nearby public transportation options and Bike Score is 60 with very steep hills and some bike lanes.

All of these scores are low by my summertime standards, but probably accurate for a cold, rainy, winter day standard. In the summer it’s easy to hop on my bike to pick up a few items at Met Market or walk to City People’s. The bike score is low for any destination along the Burke-Gilman Trail and absolutely too high, if a steep hill is on my route.   

AARP’s Livibility Index Scores

A Break on the Burke-Gilman Trail

AARP originally created their Livability Index for seniors, but now advertise it as “Great Neighborhoods for All Ages.” What is good for seniors is good for children! Safe streets, easily available and accessible stores and public transportation, a healthy environment, employment opportunities, possibilities for civic engagement and entertainment, and housing affordability benefit all ages, not just seniors. AARP’s Livability Index is a web-based tool that scores health, environment, transportation, neighborhood, engagement, opportunity and housing. These seven category scores are calculated both cumulatively and individually to contribute to well-being or livability score. Policies, studies and statistics that support and further define each livability factor are expanded under each category. Each category’s individual score can be dialed upwards or downwards in real time by the user to place higher or lower emphasis on a specific well-being attribute. As an example, access to hospital or doctor facilities (Children’s Hospital is 1/2 mile away) may be of utmost importance to one family, while a walkable neighborhood and easy transit access may be the top priority to another family. Housing affordability and job opportunities may be the most important issue for another and be dialed higher or lower individually. Scores are rated in thirds with green scores of 67 to 100 as best, 34 to 66 as middle ranked and less than 33 as below average. 

My neighborhood ranks in the top third in the health and environment categories. We have superior access to parks and recreational facilities, excellent air quality, and comparatively low smoking rates. With Laurelhurst Park and Burke-Gilman Playground being only one-half mile away, I also live 1.5 miles from the 350-acre Magnuson Park with beach access, trails, sports fields, P-Patch gardens, and a playground. Our transportation, neighborhood, engagement, opportunity, and housing categories are in the middle third ranking and our neighborhood has no scores in the bottom third. Housing is our lowest livability score at 37 mostly due to Seattle’s housing affordability crisis. Seattle area housing and rental costs continue to skyrocket.

Both Walk Score and AARP’s Livability Index rank my neighborhood similarly and slightly above average for livability and walkability. What are your scores?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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