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June 3, 2015
by BillJuliaLindaCamila
Participants at "Using an Innovative Visioning Method to Activate Change: Learning from Staten Island"Credit: Center for Architecture
The "Activating Open Space at a Mott Haven NYCHA Development" workshop.Credit: Center for Architecture

Panel: Designing for Health in Affordable Housing
By Bill Millard

Some observations at this session (links between subpar housing and poor health, risks affecting the rent-burdened), familiar to veterans of FitCity 1-9, were important enough to repeat as the series’ scope and audience expand. Moderator Yianice Hernandez and the Center for Active Design’s (CAD) Joanna Frank traced a century of shifting economic and epidemiologic patterns, with chronic diseases replacing infectious diseases as chief causes of death; conditions such as obesity and diabetes now account for over 83% of the nation’s $1.4 trillion health expenses. The U.S. is on track to have an 86% obese or overweight populace by 2030; “sitting,” Frank noted, is “the new smoking.” Rent burdens nationwide are also already severe: one in four tenants spends half their income on housing. Such data accumulate to make designing healthier, affordable environments an urgent mandate.

Frank’s overview of research on effective interventions offers some encouragement. Two minutes climbing stairs a day burns enough calories, for example, to prevent average annual weight gain in American adults; men climbing 20-34 flights weekly have a 29% lower risk of stroke. Residences, she says, should focus on daily activities affecting all social groups: walking to work, accessible stairs, and healthy eating, not just trips to gyms.

Developer Maryanne Speroni discussed her firm Vitus’s support of active design in collaboration with CAD and Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit spinoff of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity program, assisted by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and Vitus’s own Social Impact Fund, actively seeking “impact investors.” William Sabatini, AIA, ACHA, profiled Casitas de Colores in downtown Albuquerque, bringing the elements an Architectural Record article defined as the essentials of luxury (“privacy, light, and silence”) to a neighborhood showing signs of socioeconomic recovery. Kimberly Murphy, AIA, of Edelman Sultan Knox Wood presented the Bronx’s New Settlement Community Campus, a collaboration with Dattner Architects that combines two schools (whose library cantilevers proudly above the entrances) and a community center featuring a swimming pool, competition-size gym, roof garden, dance studio, and other active attractions that users coming from as far as Bedford-Stuyvesant find restorative.

Panel: Urban Schoolyards: The Next Great Public Space
By Julia Christie

“Activity has been designed out of our lives,” said moderator Rebecca Lee, MPH, physical activity and nutrition coordinator for the East & Central Harlem District Public Health Office.  Often the second largest land occupants in U.S cities and civic focal points, schoolyards are a unique public space for tapping into physical activity, learning through play, and community engagement. The panel demonstrated how thoughtful schoolyard designs can have a profound impact on communities, and how designers and the public can organize to push this public resource to its greatest limit.

Ray Pultinas, an NYC public school teacher and sustainability coordinator at DeWitt Clinton High School, founded the Clinton Garden in 2009 in conjunction with the Witt Seminar, an elective focusing on social activism and sustainability. Pultinas’ poetic presentation showcased how the garden has since grown into both a safe haven and active meeting and performance space for students. The seminar now publishes a yearly literary journal, and the James Baldwin Memorial Outdoor Learning Center is an outdoor classroom named in honor of the notable alumnus. Lois Brink, chief strategist of the Big SandBox, presented many examples of different playground designs that included nature, gardens, community gathering spaces, shade structures, play structures, and painted yards. Brink emphasized the potential of schoolyards as sites of community revitalization, while Linda Pollak, AIA, a partner at Marpillero Pollak Architects, highlighted the many kinds of learning through play that can occur in a schoolyard: “Play can be action-driven or quiet or contemplative; it can be team-building, build coordination, community, resilience, confidence.” For Pollak, urban gardens provide a triple bottom line of sustainability: urban agriculture and food, clean water and air, and human connectedness.

There are 500 registered school gardens in New York City, according to Sharon Jaye, director of sustainability at the NYC Department of Education. Jaye ended the panel presentations by looking towards climate change: our enduring ability to live on this planet is dependent on the next generation’s devotion to the environment, a devotion that can take root through a connection to nature beginning in school.

Workshop: Activating Open Space at a Mott Haven NYCHA Development
By Camila Schaulsohn

Before the 05.18.15 unveiling of NextGeneration NYCHA, a comprehensive 10-year plan to financially stabilize New York City’s public housing and deliver long-needed improvements to residents, representatives from the city’s Housing Authority (NYCHA) gathered at FitCity 10 for a two-part workshop to discuss how to activate open spaces at a campus in Mott Haven in the Bronx. Lindsay Haddix, NYCHA’s director for special projects, noted that the agency is looking to raise the bar for its design standards to create a safe, clean, and connected NYCHA.

NYCHA has selected Mott Haven as a choice planning initiative, a site in need of attention and intervention. It has tasked Ennead Lab, an outgrowth of Ennead Architects dedicated to expanding the boundaries of the professional practice, along with Peterson Rich Office and Sagi Golan, with suggesting intervention strategies that will improve the general condition of public spaces and incorporate active design elements.

David Tepper, AIA, associate partner at Ennead Architects, gave participants an overview of two Mott Haven NYCHA sites, noting barriers to access, fragmentation of spaces, and safety concerns. In order to begin tackling these challenging locations, Ennead Lab has distinguished between backyard spaces, controlled areas requiring formal programs; and front yard spaces, visible, accessible, public areas. The goal, then, is to assign ownership and programs to “back” spaces, and improve access to “front” spaces.

Peterson Rich Office and Sagi Golan discussed both green, productive spaces and active recreation opportunities within the Mott Haven sites. They determined what areas receive the most sunlight, and proposed green “productive pathways” to engage NYCHA residents in beautification, waste remediation, and nutrition. They also linked together regional resources to create “Mott Haven Mile,” a path connecting schoolyards, recreation centers, parks, and playgrounds with the NYCHA site.

After these presentations, the speakers led engaging table discussions with workshop participants to brainstorm ways to encourage activity and health in the Mott Haven community. Conversations focused on a number of topics, including resident ownership, public access, and intergenerational relationships.

Workshop: What’s Next in Active Design: East Harlem and the Expanding Vision of Healthy Neighborhoods
By Linda Miller

Karen Taylor, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Community Services at the NYC Department for the Aging, says that seniors are living longer, healthier lives. In New York City, 15.6% of the population is over 60, and by 2030, this will rise to 20%. Naturally occurring retiring communities (NORCs) can refer to buildings, developments, or even neighborhoods that were not built for seniors, but are now home to a significant number of elderly residents. One such NORC is the Franklin Plaza Apartment, where over one third of the residents in the 3,684 apartments are over 60. Partnerships between the co-op board, social services, healthcare providers, and other stakeholders have been formed to allow the community to decide what it needs.

Vision Zero is about ending an epidemic of traffic injuries and deaths. Each borough has its own priority areas, and the NYPD and NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) have formed streets teams in high crash areas to talk to people about their streets. When appealing directly to men 20-45, an age group responsible for more than 80% of crashes, DOT Director of Strategic Initiatives Juan Martinez says the rallying cry is “Your Choice Matters.” Getting the speed limit reduced to 25 mph, installing red light cameras, enforcing traffic laws, making new crosswalks, and rolling out new, enhanced LED lights across the city are methods that make streets safer for pedestrians.

“Is an engaged community a healthier community?” asked Suzanne Nienaber, AICP, partnerships director at the Center for Active Design (CAD). CAD has produced a set of downloadable guidelines that provide architects and urban designers with strategies to create healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces based on the latest academic research and best practices. In addition, CAD has even established its own Excellence Awards, finding that such programs inspire architects, planners, and the public alike. This year CAD selected 11 winners, including four in New York.

La Marqueta is a marketplace under the elevated Metro North tracks on Park Avenue between 111th and 116th Streets in East Harlem. In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of vendors set up shop there selling all kinds of foods. It was and still is an important center for neighborhood socializing. One Saturday, Carmen Dias-Malvido, program manager for East & Central Harlem District Public Health Office at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, set out to collect ideas for improving La Marqueta with the proviso that nothing was too small, too big, or too crazy to consider. About 125 ideas, mostly about the quality and variety of food, the need for more seating and tables, the removal of fences, and the request for a “casita” were submitted. Some people asked for art exhibitions, music, and entertainment. “As long as there’s music, they will come. I will,” Dias-Malvido said.

Panel: Bridging Sectors to Create Recreational Opportunities
By Bill Millard

Design-build projects with fast timetables are not always what people expect from New York City’s public sector, but Charles McKinney’s collaboration with the Parsons Design Workshop on Highbridge Recreation Center is one of several cases where the Parks Department has found unorthodox organizational paths to impressive results. McKinney and Parsons professor Alfred Zollinger, working closely enough to be “joined at the hip,” turned a student project into a tangible community asset in nine months – and on budget (the Splash House), moving on to the fuller transformation of the recreation center over the next two years. This is one of three types of partnerships, noted moderator Susan Chin, FAIA, that can improve the city’s recreational infrastructure. The value of academic, nonprofit, and community-group involvement appears in Lower East Side parks, and in an ambitious vision for the QueensWay – by no means a certainty, but a potentially transformative conversion of a disused 3.5-mile railway into a multiuse urban garden.

Bringing a serious problem (the shortage of interior recreational space in northern Manhattan) to students, McKinney and Zollinger discovered, was a win/win for everyone involved, as design students gained experience in construction and public processes, while the community took to the new gym so avidly that local teens broke in one night – not for vandalism, but to play basketball. Le’alani Boykin described the People Make Parks initiative, active in leveraging government and nonprofit resources to realize community visions, as a way of demystifying the Parks Department’s capital process for partners like the Hester Street Collaborative, Asian-Americans for Equality, and IOBY, a “crowd-resourcing” group that fosters positive “in our backyards” projects. Since the timetable on community-driven efforts from visioning to realization is considerably longer, Boykin noted, People Make Parks maintains an online toolkit that has promoted best practices in the design and capital process for 14 more parks, engaging more than 8,000 residents and raising some $315 million.

Panel: Using Design to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools
By Julia Christie

How can we create schools that encourage healthy choices? Dina Sorensen, project designer at VMDO Architects, teamed with Terry Huang, professor at City University of New York and University of Nebraska Medical Center, and other public health scientists to create the CDC Healthy Eating Design Guideline for School Architecture, and design the Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School, a middle-income public elementary school in Dillwyn, VA. “The big, radical idea,” said Sorensen, “was to transform the cafeteria into the most important classroom in the school, to anticipate new pedagogies, food service practices, all the ways kids learn at different scales.” The cafeteria includes a corner bakery, food lab, commercial kitchen, flexible seating and furniture, an outdoor dining terrace with an outdoor classroom, a composting lab, ample natural daylight, and access to the outdoors. Through great design, Sorensen said that not only is “the healthy choice the easy choice,” but, with features such as low-wall barriers and the use of glass, larger systems – nature, agriculture, food processing, food waste, decomposition, and the human labor engaged at every stage – become more visible. With educational signage posted throughout the building, Sorensen and Huang see the building itself as a site for learning.

The Buckingham school’s “food lab” is a means of subverting safety regulations that prohibit the consumption of food from school gardens in the cafeteria. George Edwards, coordinator of Garden to Café, a School Food program under the NYC Department of Education, organizes a program shaped by the same regulations. Through Garden to Café, produce from 21 school gardens – from carton grow boxes to hydroponic gardens – is consumed by students through special events, often called “garden tastings.” These programs are intended to expose students to where food comes from and different healthy foods, and to encourage students to make healthier choices in and outside of school.

Huang emphasized that weight, sickness, and other measures of health were not the greatest indicator of Buckingham’s success – the most important thing has been whether kids love going to school. Although there were not strong measures of the building’s effect on healthy choices, attendance went up and student drawings demonstrated increasingly sophisticated spatial awareness. Believing that cultural shifts can happen through design, Huang posited that a healthier and more active school could create a groundswell in the community to make changes at the policy level.

The easternmost borough may be the next frontier for community efforts at park development, and consultant/”artivist” Anandi Premlall of Sustainable Queens (“SustyQ”) recognizes the aspects of the QueensWay that face stiff headwinds. Not every group looking at the currently blighted railway wants a park; some don’t want anything, she notes, and some want a restored railroad. SustyQ’s design vision involves converting Liberty Avenue into a clean, safe public space (“Taking Liberty”), growing healing herbs in an “anti-cancer garden,” and connecting playground and park components. Through interactive kiosks and social media, she is building an energetic coalition. “I consider ‘who’s at the table, who’s missing, and who’s on the menu?’ in any project,” Premlall noted, quoting Columbia Earth Institute scholar Prabhjot Singh’s adage to democratize community work in any sphere: “We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

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