Dept. of Heavy Lifts: Philanthropy vs. Car-Culture

When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation set out to create a culture of health in America, it made clear that, among other things, this required changing the way Americans live and get around. So much of how our society is designed right now encourages us to be sedentary, which is literally deadly, and car-dependency is a big part of this problem. 

Urban and suburban dwellers know this problem well, navigating four-to-six-lane arterial roads that channel thousands of cars through endless fields of asphalt, concrete, and strip malls. 

These so-called auto-centric commercial corridors make up some of the least-pleasant locales in the country, a scourge for those working toward green spaces and reduced car travel. They also have a foe in RWJF, the country’s largest health-focused foundation. 

You'll understand RWJF's interest if you’ve ever tried to get around one of these places in any way other than behind the wheel. Or if you’ve ever tried to stop for a healthy meal amid the fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that line them.  

In an effort to overhaul these corridors into something more beneficial to public health, RWJF just extended its funding to research and education outfit the Urban Land Institute for its Building Healthy Places Initiative. The foundation has supported ULI’s work in the past, but a $1.5 million, two-year grant is a significant increase in funding. 

The initiative started in 2013 as an overall effort to shape projects and places in ways that improve health through affordable housing, more transportation options, healthy food, and access to the natural environment. Within that, the Healthy Corridors project launched in 2014 to focus on these auto-centric commercial corridors. 

Over the past two years, ULI has worked in four corridors as demonstration projects—in Los Angeles, Boise, Denver and Nashville—and researched best practices and success stories around the country. ULI just released a report that included case studies from around the country.

In Arlington County, Virginia, for example, stakeholders used tax increment financing and an alternative method of zoning that focuses more on physical form to make significant changes to its Columbia Pike. The project added dense housing, including affordable units, walkable storefront retail, community centers, farmers markets, and better walking, biking, and transit options.

The institute’s work has impressed RWJF, leading the funder to support the four original corridors, plus four more. Funding will also create a network of leaders across the country to explore the connection between land use and health, and expand ULI’s focus on healthy communities. 

While land use planning and placemaking are pretty hot topics in philanthropy, with all kinds of arts, environment, and local funders getting on board, we haven’t seen a ton of health-focused foundations in the mix. There’s quite a lot of healthy food access funding, and anti-obesity and wellness funding, but this strong focus on physically connecting places to nature, public transit, and healthy activity is unique. 

If anyone was going to back it, however, it would be RWJF, with its grand ambition to literally change how we live in the quest for greater health. It makes a lot of sense to look at land use as part of this. As an RWJF  senior program officer puts it, “Our zip code may be more important than our genetic code in influencing our health…”