AMLI Residential and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) are partnering to design for an optimal future—a future where residents live better and their housing contributes to their health and well-being. The two firms are leading the 2018 Multifamily Executive Concept Community, "Building Positive + Living Well," being designed for Chicago.

While every major market has its own individual challenges, many can now be tracked using the City Health Dashboard, an online resource with community-level health, social, and economic data for the nation’s 500 largest cities, launched earlier this year by the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine. Although intended to help city leaders address broad issues, the tool can also help developers understand residents' needs.

Through the 2018 Multifamily Executive Concept Community, SOM and AMLI are sharing their experience in and knowledge of sustainable practices while partnering with other leading experts to address some of the local issues the Dashboard highlights.

The Dashboard reports on 36 key measures of health, along with conditions that influence health. Let’s take a look at some of the key metrics that stand out in Chicago, some of which the Concept Community will be able to influence.

Key Health Metrics in Chicago
Chicago has a walkability score of 77.8, which compares quite favorably with the national average of 42.8 across the Dashboard’s 500 cities. The Concept Community will be positioned in an area of Chicago that has high walkability scores. The project's proposed address, in fact, has earned a 90% walkability score from the Walk Score Advisory Board, as well as an 88% bikability score.

Access to healthy food is a problem in Chicago, the Dashboard found, though not as notably as in the average metro: 19.2% of the Windy City's residents have limited access to healthy food, compared with an average of 61.9% of residents across the Dashboard's 500 cities. And at the Concept Community's proposed address, limited access to healthy food drops down to a mere 2.9%.

In terms of outdoor air pollution, Chicago has an annual average index of 11.3, measured by the daily concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter. Nationally, that figure is 9.3. Using optimal building systems and materials, Building Positive + Living Well aims to improve on the average indoor air quality of many existing apartment developments, a goal the team hopes counterbalances some of the negative health consequences of outdoor air pollution.

In a comparison of poor health outcomes, Chicago is at the national average for cases of breast cancer, mental distress, physical distress, and high blood pressure. However, the city suffers many poor health outcomes that are well above the national average, including cardiovascular disease (232.2 deaths per 100,000 people, versus the national average of 209.6); colorectal cancer deaths (18% more annually in Chicago than nationally); and diabetes (13% more cases annually in Chicago than nationally).

One of the most significant health problems in Chicago relates to violent crime; Chicago has 54% more violent crimes per 100,000 people than the Dashboard’s other cities. The hope is that some living conditions can be improved in a way that will benefit residents' mental health, bringing them a sense of community and belonging, and thus, hopefully, eventually lowering the metro's violent-crime rate.

While incorporating all of these factors, the AMLI and SOM team will also make the Concept Community affordable. According to the Dashboard, Chicago housing is less affordable than in most other metros. In Chicago, 41.9% of households have excessive housing costs, compared with 37.8% nationally.

The City Health Dashboard also shows a relationship between excessive housing costs and unemployment: As housing costs in an area go up, so does unemployment.

Another comparison across metrics shows that the higher excessive housing costs go, the more mental distress there is among city dwellers. Building Positive + Living Well will focus on the social, community aspect of housing to address mental health, creating a place where people feel welcome and comfortable and can interact with one another easily.

Determining the Greatest Need
The City Health Dashboard originated with the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and HUD's National Resource Network less than three years ago. Shoshanna Levine, program director for the Dashboard, says the two groups noticed that city leadership wanted to be able to address health issues on a broad scale but lacked access to applicable metrics. Working with the NYU School of Medicine, they piloted the City Health Dashboard with four cities to gauge market interest. In May 2017, the Dashboard received additional funding to expand to 500 cities nationwide with populations of 66,000 or greater.

“We've seen one city use the data for grant writing,” Levine says. “Some cities don’t have a city health department, so they need good data to show what's going on [in their locale]. Other cities have used it to target programs: You can look at many of the metrics by census track and others by demographic group to target a specific project. It helps cities determine where the need is greatest and be smart about using resources.”

For example, Chicago just announced a developer incentive program from a $30 million housing fund with the aim of improving affordability in high-cost neighborhoods. The Opportunity Investment Fund would provide low-cost loans to purchasers of multifamily buildings in targeted areas in exchange for the buyer’s commitment to make at least 20% of the units affordable for at least 15 years. 

Levine says the group is currently mapping the future of the tool so that it stays relevant and up-to-date about the most pressing urban issues.

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