As planners circulate a draft redesign for central George Town, an urban revitalization expert from the United States was on island recently to present about principles for creating healthy cities and improving public health through design at the Cayman Islands Healthcare Conference.
The planning, design and architecture of a city can have serious impacts on the health of the people who live there. That was the message of James Moore with the U.S.-based Urban Land Institute. How a community is laid out, Mr. Moore said, cannot make people healthier but it can make it easier for people who live there to make healthy choices.
As the Cayman Islands government embarks on a new plan for central George Town, Mr. Moore told Cayman’s healthcare and government workers to “put people first.” He said, “People are more likely to be active in a community designed around their needs.”
Mr. Moore, chairman of the Institute’s Urban Revitalization Council, said designing healthy cities involves simple principles, such as putting sidewalks on a street to make people more likely to walk, just as bicycle lanes make it safer for cyclists and make people more inclined to ride their bikes. People will be more likely to spend time outside, Mr. Moore said, if there are parks with playgrounds or splash pads for children to play in. And when kids want to play outside, their parents will want a coffee shop or other place to sit and watch their children.
“We spend way too much time indoors,” the Florida-based architect said. He said people should “reclaim the right of way.” He continued, “We have given that over to automobiles for far too long.”
Research in the U.S. shows that someone’s zip code, where she or he lives, is a better predictor of long-term health than their genetic markers, Mr. Moore said.
After Mr. Moore’s presentation on the first night of the conference, Health Services Authority CEO Lizzette Yearwood said it was a “timely topic,” given the ongoing effort to redesign central George Town. She said, “We definitely want a role in the discussion” to integrate health into the eventual plan.
The George Town redevelopment plan, currently in draft form, calls for government to buy up land and demolish buildings for a new road layout while closing some roads to make them pedestrian-only. Additional ideas in the plan call for making North Church Street one way, widening sidewalks and adding trees to make the waterfront area more attractive to pedestrians.
Former planning director Kenneth Ebanks, working as a private consultant leading the project, said at a recent public meeting, “What we are hoping … is that enabling [an] encouraging environment will then attract new business to come and be located in our capital.”
The ULI’s Healthy Places Initiative has four central ideas: offer good affordable housing and safe, comfortable and convenient transportation options; have access to healthy food, the natural environment and other amenities; design should make it easier for people to make healthy choices like walking or taking the stairs; and healthy places “address unique community issues with innovative and sustainable solutions.”
“We can build our way to better health,” Mr. Moore said. Inside buildings, staircases shouldn’t be pushed into back corners behind bland doors with elevators front and center. He said that should be flipped, with grand staircases attracting people to walk up a flight or two and make the elevators secondary.
Healthy places, Mr. Moore said, are worth the investment. He said developers in the U.S. have found that building with health as a core principle in the design would “maintain if not improve economic value.” He added, “If you take this seriously, you can improve the returns on your investments.” He pointed to the movement of millennials, people born since 1980, to cities and communities that have healthy amenities like bicycle lanes, parks and healthy food.
“Values are going up on healthy, walkable communities,” he said.