A photograph captured of a walker in stride on the river walk under the Cesar Chavez bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.

Examples of active, healthy environments are easy to think of: parks, hiking and biking trails, campgrounds, lakes, and other “outdoorsy” places where people can recreate without the dangers of traffic. But why does urban life and an active life have to take place in separate spaces?

Well, they don’t and they shouldn’t, according to a growing number of health, planning, and design experts nationwide.

The third annual Health & Built Environment Conference at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Nov. 13 will explore the impact the built environment – that is, infrastructure like streets, sidewalks, landscaping, and literally buildings – has on chronic disease, environmental health and other public health concerns.

Click here to register for the conference, which has programming from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $55.

“A built environment that encourages active living plays a key role in health outcomes,” San Antonio Metropolitan Health Livability Coordinator David Clear said Tuesday. “(The conference will) reinforce that and discuss best practices from around the country in creating more livable, walkable, and more healthy environments.”

Representatives from the local architecture, planning, development, and public health communities will join national speakers including Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Executive Director Cathy Tuttle who will talk about Vision Zero (more on that later), Traditional Neighborhood Development Partners Managing Director Robert Chapman who will present “Livable & Affordable Neighborhoods: A Real Estate Developer’s Perspective,” and John Simmerman, president of Active Towns, who will present “Livability: The Metric of Tomorrow.”

It will be literally impossible to attend every single session, as many run concurrently. Attendees are encouraged to check the schedule ahead of time, which will be online soon, to pick out which will interest them most. NOWCastSA will be live streaming and recording the conference.

While last year’s event focused on highlighting community groups pushing for a more active environment, this year will dig into how cutting-edge practices and policies could be applied in San Antonio, Clear said.

Graham Weston, board chair and co-founder of Rackspace Hosting, will have a conversation with Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard during a lunch sponsored by Weston Urban, a real estate development and investment firm founded by Weston. Weston Urban is slated to break ground in fall 2016 on the first new office tower on the San Antonio skyline in 25 years, right next to the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. Leaders and designers for both developments, as well as countless other projects in the city, will likely be tuned into the wisdom the conference brings to the table. Weston Urban, it seems, already is.

“Our work at Weston Urban downtown strives to create inviting and healthy environments, both indoors and outdoors,” Weston stated in an email. “And that means all kinds of people living and working in the central city: Millennials, retirees, seniors, and people of all income levels and backgrounds. What we want to offer all of them is an inviting experience that contributes to their well being and their appreciation of San Antonio’s urban spaces.”

The most common example of how to make the built environment enable or inspire healthy lifestyles is the “complete street” model for road design – that is, designing a street that takes into account all users, not just motorized vehicles. Complete street features include wide sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, bus lanes, safe crossing opportunities, and more.

“These things used to be (considered) the ‘jewelry of the streets,’ something that you want to have but are not the most important thing,” Clear said. “But now cities are flipping that logic” after finding that features like that can actually save lives for relatively low cost.

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Oftentimes, a major barrier to convince someone to walk or bike to work, run errands, or visit local amenities is simply that it’s not physically possible, Clear said. Complete street policies, like the one City Council adopted in 2011, make these modes of transportation healthier.

Tuttle, of Seattle, will present her perspective on Vision Zero, the global movement to reduce roadway deaths to zero. Complete street design is a critical tool in realizing that goal. San Antonio recently launched its own Vision Zero initiative with Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) at the helm. Gonzales will also participate in the conference.

(Read more: San Antonio Calls for Safer Streets With Vision Zero)

The conference is, of course, about more than transportation. Among the new topics this year, Clear said, is a session on how physical environments at the workplace play in to mental health issues, from inside the building and its architecture to the exterior lighting, streets, and landscaping.

“After buying the former Windsor Park Mall and converting it to The Castle, Rackspace headquarters, we learned how very important it is to design spaces that enhance the quality of life for people, allow them to interact and collaborate with fellow Rackers, and at the same time, enjoy their working environment,” Weston stated.

The conference sessions are, according to Metro Health, designed to appeal to community members, elected officials, planners, architects, health professionals and just about anyone interested in living or working in a city in the next 100 years or so. This likely includes you.

“In 2014, 77% of attendees indicated that the conference stimulated ideas that will lead to changes in their work,” the Metro Health’s website states, “and over 83% of attendees felt the conference had a high level of quality that was beneficial to their work.”

*Top image: A walker in stride on the River Walk under the Cesar Chavez Boulevard bridge. Photo by Scott Ball.  

Related Stories:

Vision Zero: Making San Antonio’s Streets Safe

City Sends Broadway ‘Complete Street’ Concept to VIA

Elizondo Defends San Pedro Creek Design

Pelli Clarke Pelli to Design Weston Urban’s Frost Bank Tower

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org