March 6, 2014 - From the March, 2014 issue

At ULI’s Building Healthy Places Conference, Randall Lewis Addresses Community Change

Randall Lewis of the Lewis Operating Company joined The Urban Land Institute’s Building Healthy Places Conference at the Westin Bonaventure on February 20 during a panel titled, “The Legacy of Building Healthy Places: Where We’ve Been; Where We’re Headed.” In this transcription edited by TPR, Lewis discusses Healthy City initiatives across Southern California, particularly in the Inland Empire, and answers questions about building for health on the community level. An excerpt from the panel moderator, Gadi Kaufmann, serves as an introduction.


Randall Lewis

“[Developers] need to do a good job with individual developments and...can get even more leverage working at the community level to get the whole community engaged with [Healthy Initiatives].” -Randall Lewis

Gadi Kaufmann: This conversation will focus on real, in-the-field solutions with respect to building healthy places and focusing on residential and community development.

We’re going to talk a little bit about examples of best practices that each one of these players has implemented or is implementing in their communities. We’re going to talk a bit about how they measure success, and effective models for partnerships. We’re going to try to wrap up with a conversation about what we can do to move the needle to advance this cause—to advance these solutions we begin to share. 

Randall Lewis: I’m going to speak wearing two hats—first as a developer and then as a health advocate. As a developer, we do the same good stuff as everybody else. We’ve been involved in this for 14 or 15 years. We do community gardens, we do dog parks, we do no-smoking buildings, we do gymnasiums. We partner with school districts, water districts, universities, and cities. We try to do all that. We’re all friends up here, and we all copy from each other, share ideas, and learn together. 

In the mid-1990’s, my parents were both very sick, and I thought, “Can’t we do a better job to prevent those kinds of things?” Intellectually, it was pretty interesting to say, “Can a place matter? Can you do something that can change people’s lives?” It was the health side, and it was the idea intellectually, “Can you make a better world through what we do?” We don’t make cigarettes and we don’t make pencils—we create environments that can change and improve the world. It sounds idealistic. It’s real. 

I think what we’ve done that’s been different is try to also address change at the community level. The thought was, as we try to do things in our individual developments, it sure would be a lot easier if the communities also got involved. We’ve been engaged over a decade working with a lot of cities. There’s an area called the Inland Empire—San Bernardino and Riverside counties. I would guess that there are more cities there that have Healthy City initiatives than anywhere else in the country. The counties and cities there are really phenomenal when it comes to Healthy City programs.

We have been involved in about half of them in a significant way, meaning talking to mayors, city managers, and getting funding. We ask, “How do you create a Healthy Chino, a Healthy Ontario, a Healthy Cucamonga?” We try to go to that level.

A second thing that’s helped us to do that is we’ve created an internship program with some of the people here today. This year, we have about 23 or 24 interns, and next year we’ll probably have 35. They’re either masters students or doctoral students in public health. We’ve got six universities involved now, including Loma Linda Medical Center, Claremont Graduate School, UCLA, and three others. They spend a year working in a city trying to say, “We’re going to help you tackle things like community gardens or General Plan changes,” or whatever the individual city wants.

That’s been a pretty cool thing to do. It’s really been able to leverage what we do and what others do (I’m not the only one—there are a lot of people in our area who are doing this) to try to help these cities do these programs. The neat thing is when other cities hear about it and want to participate. Someone sent an email last week, “I heard about it. Will you come to our city?” That’s a nice thing. 

We’re going to have an intern or two working for ULI this year. This year, for the first time, we’ve had an intern working for the Southern California Association of Governments. It’s one of the biggest planning organizations in the United States. I think it’s the biggest regional planning organization. We’re going to have interns investigating, “What are best practices from all over Southern California and all over the country?” We learned a lot at this conference about Denver and other cities, and we’re going to try to share ideas with them and ask, “How do we then leverage it across 180 cities in the SCAG region?” The message is: You need to do a good job with individual developments and you can get even more leverage working at the community level to get the whole community engaged with this.

When you talk about community, are you talking about the city or the county?

Cities. Although we focus often on individual neighborhoods. In some cases, in smaller areas, sometimes there are two cities cooperating.

Break it down for us to your business. How do you take all of these things that you are working on at a community level and internalize them in your business or final product?

In every project that we start, we look at the task through a couple of lenses. We want it to be profitable, otherwise we can’t keep doing these things. We look at it through a lens of health and education. We’re finding more and more that those two things are linked. Everything is linked. 

You have to look at this as a system. It’s how we start; it’s how we do the planning; it’s how we decide which amenities to put in and what kind of partnerships to build. The lens of health and education affects every decision that we make. 

I’m aware of one developer that said, “We want to build a community where the people who live here want to live to be 100 years old. What does that look like?” I thought that was a fantastic question.

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You should look at the city of Loma Linda. I think it has the most 100-year-olds in the nation. How many are there? It’s a lot.  

I think, for the audience, you have to look at it at a very broad level—the 10 thousand foot level—but then also at a particle level. When I talk to people about why they are buying in Paul’s communities, like Ladera Ranch, they never say it’s health or schools. They say it’s everything the company does to create a great community. I think you have to look at the health component as part of a bigger picture. 

As experience has taught us, we don’t sell to thousands of people at a time. We sell homes or rent apartments one person at a time. You have to do it at the very micro level, saying, “Do you have a ping pong table for someone who likes ping pong? Do you have an organic plot versus a non-organic plot for that kind of family? Do you have a dog wash station for someone really involved with their pets?” Think big, but also realize your buyers represent individuals. You have to have health amenities that work for each individual buyer. 

One partnership we have that is interesting is with the University of Southern California. They’re doing a five-year longitudinal study of a project we have in Chino to see, “Does this kind of stuff matter? Are people walking more, are they eating healthier, are they losing weight?” Preliminarily, it shows that it does matter. 

We’re trying to partner with a lot of academic institutions. We’ve partnered with schools, cities, and hospitals to host wellness programs. We did something with the water district, and they’re helping us show how to do healthy gardens. They’ve got a garden in every school program in our area. There are, I think, 30 schools that have gardens that we helped fund. 

So, many of your health initiatives will improve the entire community. It isn’t only about investing inside the boundaries of developments. 

No, we do a lot inside our develoments, and a lot for the community at large. The Wellness Fairs we do on site. We do safety programs. I would say half of our efforts are for our specific developments and half are community-wide. 

It’s hard to say that we’re going to do this health stuff and show a definite bottom line profit from it, yet you have to build a case that it’s good for the community, it’s good for the world, but it’s also good economically. If we don’t solve this, all of our cities and businesses will be financially strained because they will not be able to pay for healthcare for their employees. 

Expanding the role of advocacy, you have to be willing to share with the industry, as well as with cities. This is something that’s new to our industry. This is good stuff—we need to share the very best practices. You have to educate people about the role of public health. I didn’t even know what public health was 15 years ago. Every county has a public health department that can be very helpful. 

We’ve got to engage the press and the media. The health problems are so severe in the United States that we have to know that we can make a difference in doing this kind of stuff. You can use your communities as research tools and teaching tools. 

This is something we’ve been trying to do in the last couple of years. Work with researchers and ask how your community can volunteer to be a research tool. Then, work with schools or your community members and say, “How can we do learning gardens? How can we do trails and teach people something?” Turn your communities into teaching tools and research tools. 

Lastly, there’s a saying: Let your fruit grow on other people’s trees and let their fruit grow on your trees. Don’t be afraid to bring in partners. Don’t be afraid to bring your ideas to someone else. We’re all learning. There are so many smart people here. Bring them into your projects, and bring your ideas to everybody else. 

There’s something new that’s just coming out now. I’m not the one doing it, but it’s the linkage of poverty and economic disparities with health. What people are now saying is that there are a lot of things that cause health problems—overeating and smoking, for example—but now the research has shown that poverty may play an even bigger role. 

As you’re trying to think how to change your communities with your projects, look at the role of poverty and think, “What can we do?” If someone goes to school undernourished, he or she is not going to be completely successful. If parents are unemployed, it’s harder to have a healthy environment at home. 

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.