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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