Active Design Goes Public

Reports from the Field by • 07/20

Event: Active Design Planning Workshop: Design Professionals
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.08.10
Speakers: Ernest Hutton, Assoc. AIA, FAICP — Principal, Hutton Associates; Suzanne Nienaber — Training Coordinator, NYC Active Design Program; Karen K. Lee, MD, MHSc — Director, Built Environment Program, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Reena Agarwal — Design Policy Analyst; Joseph Sopiak — Senior Design Liaison, NYC Department of Design and Construction; Charles McKinney, Assoc. AIA, ASLA — Principal Urban Designer, NYC Department of Parks; Donald Burns — President, APA New York Metro Chapter; Lauren Yarmuth, LEED AP — Principal, YRG / Urban Green; Tricia Martin — President, American Society of Landscape Architects, New York, & Principal, WE Design; Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY
Organizers: AIANY; NYC Active Design Guidelines Team

Through the combined efforts of five city agencies, a group of academic advisors, AIANY, and a host of editors and consultants, the Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design (ADG) was launched in January. This document combines research about the relation of the built environment to public health with practical recommendations for constructing urban spaces that respect the human body. The ADG team is now taking steps to make sure this volume moves off the shelves of architects, planners, and civic officials and into the public discourse.

The first in a series of outreach workshops — first addressing design professionals, with further meetings planned for educators and the real estate industry — gathered a small interdisciplinary group to brainstorm about ways to increase awareness of the ADG’s potential to reshape urban space. Karen Lee, MD, MHSc, reprised the case she has made at the Fit City panel series, describing the sea change from design strategies aimed at infectious disease to a new priority, the “diseases of energy,” a category of clinical conditions resulting from the societal-scale substitution of motorized movement for human activity.

If the designers of 21st-century public space can implement epidemiologic knowledge as effectively as their early-Modernist predecessors did, history offers reasons for encouragement. Thanks to aqueducts, sanitation, and construction standards that brought light and air into dank urban spaces, the city’s infectious-disease mortality statistics from 1880 to 1940 improved dramatically — predating the discovery of penicillin (1939) and the antibiotic era, one should note. America’s most significant health victories have more to do with spatial design and public health measures than with medical technologies, applied one patient at a time. For a comparable re-engineering of built space to encourage better use of human energy, the design professions have the tools at hand already: e.g., replacing mechanical transport with inviting, prominently-placed stair designs, augmented by skip-stop elevators where possible. (Where it isn’t, slowing the elevators down is an effective way to encourage people to take the stairs.)

Charles McKinney, Assoc. AIA, ASLA, observed that no one disagrees that the ADG’s measures are worthwhile. The challenge is one of rhetoric, memetics, and motivation, weaving the ADG principles into city policies and everyday practices. Discussion recurrently touched on the synergies between environmental and public-health progress: architect and sustainability consultant Lauren Yarmuth cited the experience of the U.S. Green Building Council in promulgating the LEED system, noting that these standards became far more effective once they were linked not just with honorable intentions, but with measurable incentives, such as the marketing advantage developers could claim once a building earned its precious-metal plaque.

Through a broad range of mechanisms, from social media to sponsored events to incorporation into RFPs, codes, and awards criteria, the ADG message will soon be spreading through the professional and local communities most directly affected by the bodily consequences of design.

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