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VOL. 129 | NO. 40 | Thursday, February 27, 2014

Healthy Design

Hernando mayor touts role of design standards

By Amos Maki

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The road to community health and wealth is paved, at least in part, with smart design principles.

Design guidelines, such as what’s seen in Downtown’s Harbor Town neighborhood, are seen as important to creating healthy communities that cities like Hernando are using to lure business.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Density, a strong mix of uses, high design standards and amenities such as bike lanes and parks can produce healthier communities that attract business investment, Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson told Urban Land Institute Memphis members this week.

While incentives still play a large role in business recruitment efforts, companies are increasingly focusing on quality-of-life issues when making their site selection decisions, said Johnson, co-chairman of ULI’s Healthy Communities Initiative.

“We have to have a place these companies want to be,” Johnson said. “It’s not the incentives that get them to Hernando. Everybody’s pretty much offering the same incentives these days. It’s the workforce and quality of place. That built environment is huge.”

And part of having an attractive workforce, Johnson said, is having healthy employees who show up to work every day.

“The site selectors were telling us what to do to get businesses to show up,” said Johnson. “The first thing they said was not give them incentives. They said give us a good workforce. That’s the No. 1 thing companies are looking for, and a big piece of that good workforce is a healthy workforce. People who are healthy are going to show up to work every day. That is huge.”

Hernando requires developers to install sidewalks in new and redeveloped areas, including residential, commercial and industrial developments. Developers must also donate a minimum of 10 percent of the land they urbanize to open spaces and parks. Hernando also requires connected streets, which can encourage walking and bicycling.

But Johnson said it’s not enough to implement policies that encourage smarter, healthier, more sustainable growth. Cities must enforce those policies, despite the short-term pushback that often occurs.

“We stick to our design guidelines, and I catch heat for it every day,” said Johnson.

Requiring sidewalks, open-space set-asides and a mix of uses helps produce a sense of community and encourages residents to be more active. Think of Harbor Town in Memphis, where single-family homes, apartments, retail and offices share space, allowing residents to walk or bike to work or the store.

Even seemingly minor requirements – such as using white striping for parking spaces instead of yellow striping and including trees in surface parking lots – can produce sometimes subconscious results in residents.

“We literally have people driving past the Olive Branch and Southaven Wal-Marts to shop at our Wal-Mart because it feels safer,” said Johnson. “And the people don’t know why it feels safer. We know why it feels safer. It’s those tiny, little things that make the whole thing feel better.”

Smart design principles can also have a huge impact on a community’s coffers. Policies that limit lot sizes can lead to greater density, allowing cities to deliver more cost-effective services.

“If you look at the numbers, these big-lot subdivisions are going to break us financially,” said Johnson. “In simple terms, I think, ‘Do I need 100 taxpayers lining one mile of road to pay for that road or 30?’ It would just make sense that 100 taxpayers are the better option. We’re going to have to educate the public that density is not a bad thing, not a dirty word.”

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