City as gym

The Active Design movement seeks to improve public health through changes to the built environment. I talked with Reena Agarwal and Suzanne Nienaber of the New York-based nonprofit Center for Active Design about their work.


What is active design?

Suzanne: Active design uses architecture, urban planning, and policy as tools to promote public health.

We know that people respond to cues in the built environment. We know that obesity and chronic disease are the most significant health epidemics of our time. So through active design we’re creating and espousing a set of solutions that uses the public health evidence base to inform the way designers, architects, urban planners, and other people who affect the public realm orient their work.

When I work with community outreach and community groups, I explain active design as designing our communities to make healthy choice the easy choice. We don’t want it to be hard for people to get the daily physical activity that they need to stay healthy — we want it to be a natural part of their day-to-day life.

We don’t want it to be hard for people to get the daily physical activity that they need to stay healthy

I often categorize active design according to four different major themes: active transportation, whether it’s walking, biking, or access to transit; active recreation — and that’s for children and adults, all ages and abilities; healthy food access; and then finally active buildings, which can pull from the other three categories but also really emphasizes the notion of active circulation.

For the past several decades, we’ve relied on elevators as the primary way to move between floors, particularly in our very vertically oriented city, but there’s an evidence base that climbing stairs is extremely good for you. It can actually improve employee performance to get up and move around a bit more. We want to reorient toward the stairs and find a way to have a more integrated vertical circulation system, where there are still elevators but the stairs are viable and enjoyable for people to use on a day-to-day basis.

How long has the Center for Active Design been around?

Suzanne: We’re a relatively new organization, but we grew out of work that New York City has been doing for quite some time. Reena and I were both consultants to the City in the past, both at the health department and the Department of Design and Construction. The City of New York published the Active Design Guidelines in January 2010, and we were basically brought on board to help implement these concepts.

Part of the reason why we started the nonprofit organization is that there was so much interest around active design being generated nationally and internationally. At this point there have been at least 25,000 copies of the Active Design Guidelines either downloaded or distributed in hard copy form, and we’ve had visitors on our website now from over 150 countries. That’s exciting, to have this opportunity to extend a global conversation on what active design is and how it would apply in different contexts and cultures.

Credit Flickr user Matthew Kenwrick

The other reason is that we wanted to make sure that there was continuity for this movement. With a shifting administration, it’s critical that we can advocate back to the City about how the work has been so effective and this is why it needs to continue.

Reena: Another reason the center was established centers around an executive order signed by Mayor Bloomberg this past July. The executive order requires agencies to prioritize health and active design along with other items such as universal accessibility and sustainability. It says active design is equally as important. It now requires city staff to incorporate active design in all its projects, contracts, RFPs, bids, and so forth. And along with that, it encourages agencies to build internal capacity by getting training from the Center for Active Design.

So is the movement as a whole being led out of New York?

Reena: The concept of active design was born here. In 2006, the health department and AIANY hosted a conference called Fit City where both design and health professionals were invited to come together and talk about the rising obesity epidemic in the city and how designers can respond to all the health research that was out there.

At that time, the Health Commissioner, Tom Frieden, and the Commissioner of Design and Construction, David Burney, who’s now the chair of our board, came together and said, “Let’s put together a set of design guidelines that will really put this movement on the forefront and talk about what the actual strategies are.” There is a lot of health research out there, but it’s not always translatable to the design community. Active design is a way of translating that research into practical design strategies.

New York City initiative promoting stair use

Suzanne: This is an example of where the real push for change often derives from a health department. There’s a new orientation within the public health community to really understand how the built environment impacts people’s lives. Where people live makes a difference in their health. It was a real interest within the public health world to understand this stuff, but they needed the design and the policy and planning community to actually implement these ideas.

We really see ourselves as translators and facilitators. We take these concepts related to architecture, urban design, and urban planning and convey them effectively to the health professionals, because they are often the ones who are really interested in making changes and have some funding to support it. At the same time, we also want to convey the public health priorities to the design community. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about doing the type of training and workshops that we do — it’s really recognizing the expertise of everybody in the room, but asking them to put a new lens on the camera and think about, “How do I design for health and prioritize health in my projects?” A lot of designers get really excited about having a new perspective on how they approach their work.

The challenges must be so different in different cities, from New York to Houston to Seattle. Do you do a lot of work across the country?

Suzanne: One of the most common questions we get is, “How can we apply this in our suburban, lower-density community?”

Aerial view of Dallas suburb

One of the places where we’ve actually had the most intensive relationship over the past year is the Region of Peel in Canada, which is an extremely suburban environment. It’s three municipalities just outside of Toronto. It’s very car-oriented, there’s extremely rapid development, they have the busiest highway in North America. The region is growing very quickly, but in a pretty traditional kind of suburban design approach.

We consult with the people working on policy in Peel, and talk about how we can take the fundamental active design concepts that grew up in New York City and apply them to this new context. So it’s really a fascinating learning relationship on both of our ends, to orient ourselves toward a totally different type of development and a totally different kind of growth.

Ontario suburb

Reena: They have some pretty innovative case studies which I think we can build on. For example, they have a large suburban parking lot that surrounds their health department building. They’re looking to us to help them transform the parking lot into a place where people can congregate, play, or walk.

And how about within urban environments themselves? I would imagine that even within New York, different parts of the city would have massively different challenges?

Suzanne: If you look at a map of obesity in New York City you’ll see very extreme geographic disparities. In the lower two thirds of Manhattan we’re in pretty good shape compared to the rest of the country. But then you look at parts of the Bronx, East Harlem, central Brooklyn, northern Staten Island, and you start to see that there are some dire situations that we really need to start addressing. There’s not a uniform identity of the built environment as you move across the city.

In our outreach to city agencies, we’re asking them to consider prioritizing capital investments and strategic changes in those communities where they’ll have the most impact. Another key audience we’re targeting is affordable housing developers, because they’re definitely reaching the population that is the neediest in terms of health outcomes. Affordable housing residents often have a disadvantage when it comes to having safe places to walk, to play, to get healthy food. We’re doing a series of workshops in conjunction with the health department, working with affordable housing developers, and thinking about how to systematically integrate these concepts into those projects specifically.

Affordable housing residents often have a disadvantage when it comes to having safe places to walk, to play, to get healthy food

One project that we like to feature is Arbor House, an affordable housing development in the Bronx. It was actually completed by a developer who’s on our board, Les Bluestone with Blue Sea Development. He does a great job of not only doing the basics that we’re promoting, like opening up stairs, but does a fantastic job at it — putting art and music in the stairwell and great lighting, making it a nicer place to be than the elevators. We talk about the importance of having play space: there’s a minimal way to do it, where you can have a multi-use room, but he goes way above and beyond and has an indoor gym in the building, and also some outdoor recreation space that’s basically an outdoor gym. He also has a greenhouse on the roof that’s operated by a private agricultural firm. There’s a CSA relationship with the building, so they provide a lot of vegetables to the tenants and people in the surrounding housing developments. So it’s a great model project because it really checks everything off.

So those are some of the strategies that you recommend for new buildings. And how about existing buildings?

Reena: It totally depends on the opportunities and constraints that are given by the space. For example, we just worked on a senior housing facility in Brooklyn. They had a backyard space and some basement space that were underutilized. So we worked with them to offer suggestions on how they could open up access to the stairs and use the basement space as more of a community room. We offered design suggestions on how to use the basement room to access the backyard and provided low-cost solutions on activating the open space in the backyard.

Signage, wayfinding, some bike racks, maybe a bench outside, maybe a street tree, are simple and cost-effective methods that really do make a difference

So it depends on the building and what is realistic for that space. What we’ve found is that even simple things like signage, wayfinding, some bike racks, maybe a bench outside, maybe a street tree, are simple and cost-effective methods that really do make a difference in places that might originally be kind of dreary. It just needs simple improvements.

Where budgets are a little higher and people are doing more of a major renovation, we suggest strategies such as an interconnecting stairs, and putting in more recreation space.

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