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How to use funding trends to promote healthier lifestyles and better public space

December 03, 2021

3 ideas to match your community development plan with trends that drive funding

“Nature is essential to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of every family and community in America,” according to the US federal government’s  ‘America the Beautiful’ challenge.

At Stantec, we couldn’t agree more. We have seen the far-reaching benefits that occur when we invest in ecological restoration, natural areas, and parks and recreation in urban, suburban, and rural settings.

One of the best things we can do as a society right now is to focus on wellness. We all know that a healthy diet and exercise lead to that goal. But it’s also one of the best ways we can make our communities more resilient to economic shifts, social unrest, and natural disasters. The healthier we are as a society, the greater the chance we’ll be able to pull together to solve complex problems.

Research by Barry D. Wilson, landscape architect and part-time professor at the University of Hong Kong, shows that outdoor spaces and improving the public realm can help to address important issues including social equity, climate change, and economic development. Most of us intuitively know the benefits that the public realm provides, but not everyone has equal access to it.

Make funding mega trends work for you

As we enter a period of increased infrastructure funding in North America, we need to prioritize investment in high-quality parks, open spaces, trails, and pedestrian/bike networks. Communities can wait for funding to be finalized and specific application criteria to be released, or they can proactively decide on priorities and have a plan in place.

That means understanding where funding priorities are coming from, matching those priorities with community needs, and executing your plan once funding is available. Many public funding sources are available and, if leveraged correctly, will attract a cross-section of private-sector investment.

Now is the time to plan for the future wellbeing of your city by prioritizing the landscapes we all value. This preparation includes:

  • Updating comprehensive plans to reflect a clear mission and purpose around economic development
  • Preparing redevelopment plans for special districts, corridors, and land parcels
  • Re-thinking transportation plans to adapt to changes in mobility
  • Re-assessing open space systems and active transportation networks, and prioritizing capital improvement projects that are aligned with plan goals and objectives.

Below are three ideas to help get you started in creating a plan and increasing your chances of success when seeking funding.

The healthier we are as a society, the greater the chance we’ll be able to pull together to solve complex problems.

Promoting health and wellness by creating high-quality open spaces for people

Many communities contain former industrial sites that are prime candidates for redevelopment. Various funding streams are available to turn these underutilized properties into community assets through meaningful stakeholder engagement, programming, planning, and design. In addition to economic development, these sites represent excellent opportunities to promote health, wellness, and cultural connections.

We can accomplish this by incorporating revenue-generating uses as well as high-quality open space for exercise, recreation, and social interaction. A great example of this is the riverfront in Wausau, Wisconsin. City leaders worked to acquire, remediate, and plan a series of brownfield parcels just north of downtown that has now linked many properties with a riverfront trail and greenway system.

Riverfront Redevelopment in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Considering outdoor spaces as economic drivers

Typically, professional sports stadiums see a dramatic drop in activity at the end of the season. The pandemic has reinforced the need for year-round public spaces, and the iconic marquee at Chicago’s Wrigley Field remains one of the most popular places in the Midwest to take a selfie—even in the dead of winter.

In many of our communities, city planners, owners, and fans are asking more of our professional sports stadiums. There is a desire to create mixed-use entertainment complexes and open spaces complementary to stadiums. This is driven by renewed interest in the cultural life of cities and the desire for owners and developers to invest in these neighborhoods, bringing long-term revenue outside these popular venues.

Creating places that are more fully utilized is of great value to owners, as well as benefit to the City in terms of economic development. At Wrigley Field, we’ve created a mixed-use entertainment district and a public park that comes alive for 80+ home games, but also stimulates activity for the surrounding neighborhood for the other 285 days of the year.

Gallagher Way & The Park at Wrigley in Chicago, Illinois.

Addressing social inequity and bringing the community together

Across the US, we have seen historically that city-building and industrial development have often marginalized racial minorities and divided populations by socioeconomic class. As we enter a new era of equity and inclusion, we predict that future projects will aim to bring people together rather than divide us, while undoing some of the mistakes of the past. A great example of this is the East Midtown Greenway in New York City. The project is part of a larger vision to “close the loop” of the Waterfront Greenway, providing New Yorkers from all backgrounds and neighborhoods access to the waterfront and open space around Manhattan.

East Midtown Greenway in New York City.

Successful public realm projects in the future will aim to bring people together and galvanize communities. Some projects achieve all three of these goals at once (brownfield redevelopment, economic development, and social equity).

The Shipyard Redevelopment Project in Green Bay, Wisconsin promises to be a prominent destination locally and across the upper Midwest. Formerly a rail and water transportation hub to move raw materials, the now vacant brownfield site is in the process of being dramatically transformed into a regional, all-season destination focused on recreation and tourism.

Shipyard Redevelopment Project in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

It’s no secret that successful outcomes often come from careful planning, decisive leadership, and the courage to take action. Many municipalities, metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), and other agencies embrace this attitude when thinking about the future. Now is the time to thoughtfully plan for the future of our communities.

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