We’ve designed our world to keep us from having to exert ourselves. We have escalators and elevators and moving sidewalks precisely because we don’t want to be forced to work out all the time. But combine these conveniences with the largely desk-bound life of the modern knowledge worker, and it starts to look like we may have erred in the other direction—engineering physical activity out of our lives.
A new nonprofit organization in New York City is trying to change that. The Center for Active Design, announced by Mayor Mike Bloomberg last week, is working with architects and designers to create urban spaces that encourage movement, community, and yes, maybe even a little light exercise by incorporating features like staircases, pedestrian paths, and secure bicycle storage. It’s an effort to combat obesity with architecture.
The percentage of obese Americans, defined as those with a body mass index of 30 or above, is on track to rise to 27.1 percent this year, up from 26.2 percent in 2012. In a Gallup poll released earlier this year, a lack of exercise was identified as the single most important lifestyle factor affecting obesity rates in America. In an indication of the seriousness of the situation, the American Medical Association recently voted to recognize obesity as a disease for the first time.
The good news is that evidence suggests that small design changes—something as small, even, as a sign pointing out the health benefits of taking the stairs—can influence how much physical activity people get. And studies show that even minimal regular exercise (a few flights of stairs every day counts) can have large health benefits.
The “Active Design strategies” endorsed by this new center try to make physical activity part of daily life. A building might have attractive, conveniently located stairs, such as the Via Verde affordable housing development in South Bronx, or landscape elements that inspire walking and jogging, such as the paths around the New York City Police Academy building in Queens.
The center breaks Active Design into four key concepts:
• Active buildings: encouraging greater physical movement within buildings for users and visitors;
• Active transportation: supporting a safe and vibrant environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders;
• Active recreation: shaping play and activity spaces for people of different ages, interests, and abilities; and
• Improving access to nutritious foods in communities that need them most.
According to a press release from the Mayor’s office, the center is currently working with New York City, as well as with cities elsewhere in the U.S. and in Canada, the U.K., and Brazil, on streets, buildings, and other public spaces.
This new center seems to be an extension of earlier work by the city’s Department of Design and Construction. Indeed, Bloomberg and New York City have been pushing for new ways to fight public health problems, from the controversial super-size soda ban to the new CitiBike system. As part of last week’s announcement, Bloomberg also issued a new executive order requiring all new major public developments or renovations to follow active design principles.
In that context, some people will surely think about this new center as just another manifestation of Bloomberg’s “nanny state.” But the practical benefits are healthier citizens and less public and private money spent addressing the myriad preventable problems that come with obesity.
And it’s no accident that active design principles often result in spaces that are especially beautiful and popular. Think the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times building, with its extensive indoor staircases, the central atrium of Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union building, or the High Line park, with its extensive pedestrian-oriented landscaping.
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