How one small town balances the needs of tourists with retaining community character.

Asheville, N.C., is a small city of about 75,000 that embodies the issues of much larger cities on a more compact scale. Its beautiful environment, the Blue Ridge Mountains, is attractive to wealthy retirees and active young people as well as the professionals of a thriving health care center. The influx of both tourists and retirees is an economic boon, but increasing development is a threat to the character of the community. For economic vibrancy, it needs to attract new residents, but for the health, safety, and social character, it can’t lose the qualities that draw residents and visitors here. The city must provide areas for new homes, businesses, retail, and other services, but almost any expansion involves clearing and grading heavily wooded mountains.

Health care professionals in Asheville have noted with growing alarm the epidemic of obesity that touches their community, as it does many places in America, especially in the Southeast. To create a strategy to address the issue, three obesity-focused planning sessions were held in 2009 involving several groups with a stake in the issue. In 2010, the Healthy Living Summit brought together the original stakeholders and other community leaders. This was a large, facilitated day-long workshop designed to build on the previous work. The Summit was designed to:

  • Clarify the community’s actions to support improvement in physical activity and healthy eating.
  • Organize participants into small groups closely fitting their mission and purpose.
  • Refine existing activities and identify gaps or areas for innovation.
  • Create the big picture of how all organizations can collectively move toward a more healthy community.

The key thing here is that civic leaders are thinking about community health first, then seeing the opportunities to design around it. As they begin the implementation of their collaborative ideas, they will have myriad issues before them. What can Asheville do to encourage a walkable city? Halt or encourage higher density downtown development? Allow or disallow projects that require clear-cutting and grading of steep sites? Permit or deny projects that lead to new demands on roads and utilities?

Providing incentives for increased density in Asheville’s urban center has met with open hostility by those who want to preserve the town’s character. Developing the mountains has met with equal hostility from those who see the mountain views and access to wooded wilderness as the reason for being there. As they move forward, this group of health-oriented professionals and activists may well impact the city’s development practices.