June 2, 2010
by: Linda G. Miller

Event: Fit City 5: Promoting Physical Activity through Design
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.18.10
Keynote Speaker: William Bird, MBE — Natural England (UK)
Speakers: Thomas Farley, MD, MPH — Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene; David Burney, FAIA — Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Design + Construction; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Transportation; Amanda Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIANY — Chair NYC Dept. of City Planning; Adrian Benepe — Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation; Fatma Amer, PE — Deputy Commissioner, NYC Dept. of Buildings; Matthew Sapolin — Commissioner, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Thomas Balsley, Hon. AIA, FASLA — Principal, Thomas Balsley Associates; Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY; Les Bluestone — Blue Sea Development; Vincent Chang, AIA — Principal, Grimshaw Architects; Craig Dykers, AIA — Co-Founder, Snøhetta; Robin Guenther, FAIA — Principal, Perkins + Will; Ernie Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA — President, Hutton Associates; Robyne Kassen, Assoc. AIA — Owner, Urban Movement Design; Karen Lee, MD, MHSc — Director, Built Environment, NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene; Thom Mayne, FAIA — Principal, Morphosis; George Miller, FAIA — 2010 President, AIA; Jonathan Rose — President, Rose Companies; Anthony Schirripa, FAIA, IIDA — 2010 President, AIANY; Lynn Silver, MD, MPH, FAAP — NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene; Susan Szenasy — Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis Magazine; Katie Winter — Principal, Katie Winter Architecture
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter; NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene


Courtesy of AIANY

We think of New York as being a fast-paced, walking city. Yet obesity, and with it type 2 diabetes, has reached epidemic levels in NYC. Whereas infectious diseases were once the greatest risk, the largest killers of our time are chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, and diabetes. At “Fit City 5,” panelists considered the many possibilities detailed in the new Active Design Guidelines — Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design (ADG), released January 2010. It presents strategies for designing neighborhoods, streets, buildings, and outdoor spaces that encourage activity, and provides us with a plan to turn New York from a “fat city” into a “fit city.”

By appearing together on one panel at the Fit City 5 conference, nine representatives from varying city agencies demonstrated their solidarity in a mission to create whole, healthy, safe neighborhoods throughout the city. Ideally, neighborhoods should be pedestrian friendly — with amenities close to home so people can walk or bike to mass transit, work, parks, and waterfronts. It’s one of the reasons the city has built miles of new dedicated bike paths and lanes; turned school playgrounds into parks during off hours; designed parks to engage the public, including those with physical or mental disabilities; and encouraged exercise with park furniture that can be used as both exercise equipment and for relaxing.

Buildings themselves provide an opportunity to promote physical activity. Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Take the stairs instead of the elevator — a practice that has been encouraged for years at the Center for Architecture. Many new buildings, including 41 Cooper Square by Morphosis and Gruzen Samton, have installed skip-stop elevators and designed stairways people want to use. Other approaches include locating building entrances and attractive gathering places to encourage walking; encouraging biking with secure bike storage; and designing building exteriors and massing that make walking a pleasure for passersby.

Craig Dykers, AIA, of Snøhetta, who used to live in Norway, walks to work, owns two bikes, and yet he has gained weight since living in NYC. He reasoned that he hasn’t found a single restaurant in Manhattan that doesn’t use preprocessed food. To remedy the situation, both Snøhetta offices have a kitchen, and the Norwegians even have a chef preparing wholesome meals.

Brian Tolman, AIA, LEED AP, managing principal of STUDIOS Architecture, said his clients are requesting designs that actively engage employees. His proposed ingredients are: communication, sustainability, and activity. One example is the firm’s Dow Jones Offices (recipient of a 2010 AIANY Merit Award in Interiors), where the newsroom acts as a hub to the offices and employees interact as they traverse the interior stairs.

Environmental design strategies (daylight, fresh air, sanitation) were used in the 19th century to fight infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, and yellow fever, NYC agencies are combining forces to combat obesity in the 21st-century. The NYC Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Design + Construction (DDC), Transportation (DOT), and City Planning have partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and the AIA New York Chapter, as well as members of the academic and design communities, to publish the ADG. The Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability; the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; the School Construction Authority; the Departments of Parks & Recreation, Housing Preservation and Development, and Aging also contributed to the ADG.

“My theme this year is Architect as Leader,” said 2010 AIANY President Tony Schirripa, FAIA, IIDA, “and what better way to exemplify that principle than to facilitate this discussion. Architects can lead the way by designing buildings that are not just sustainable but can also help maintain good health by design.”

In his keynote, Dr. William Bird, MBE, a British medical doctor who has set up strategies to promote good health and encourage people in the UK to exercise. “Good design is about making people want to exercise,” he said. As the strategic health advisor for Natural England, he feels using the environment as a major health resource is a moral obligation. Every doctor at the conference, from Commissioner Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, to Built Environment Director Karen Lee, MD, MHSc, both of the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, stressed the urgency of the obesity epidemic.

There is definitely a synergy, as well as cost effectiveness, between active design and local, national, and international initiatives like LEED and PlaNYC. The tenets of the ADG, however, address the ways that architectural, landscape, and urban design can meet people’s varying needs. In a combined statement in the introduction to the ADG, AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, and 2009 AIANY President Sherida Paulsen, FAIA, wrote: “The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects is dedicated to design excellence, professional development, and public outreach. The City’s Active Design Guidelines combine these three goals in a well-written document that should be used by all architects, designers, and building owners as a reference and resource.”

Linda G. Miller is a NYC-based freelance writer and publicist, and a contributing editor to e-Oculus and OCULUS.


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