The Active City

Now that green design has gone from a fringe concern to an absolute imperative for the architecture community, you have to wonder what, if anything, is the next frontier. The recent publication of New York City’s Active Design Guidelines suggests one possible answer: architecture to get people off their butts.

The Guidelines, which were unveiled at the Center for Architecture last Wednesday, outline how architects, city planners, and other design professionals can encourage daily physical activity among city dwellers. Strategies range from the simple (posting signs encouraging office workers to take the stairs) to the formidably complex (creating a vibrant streetscape with mixed land use, attractive public plazas, and designated bikeways). And although they’re specifically geared to New York, many of them would be relevant anywhere.

Reading the 144-page document, you come across a lot of intuitive ideas, like the aforementioned public plazas and bikeways, as well as some more unexpected ones. Increasing the number of sidewalk cafes, for instance, is proposed as a way to encourage pedestrianism. Or furnishing bus shelters with seats, which doesn’t exactly make riders more active, is encouraged because it attracts more public-transit users, itself associated with higher levels of physical activity. Inside buildings, it’s not only about making stairs more prominent but making elevators and escalators less prominent.

The goal is to enlist designers in the public-health battle against obesity and its related diseases. Conveniently, this effort also dovetails nicely with the green movement: the design moves that encourages people to be more active also tend to save energy and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. For now, however, the Guidelines are just that—guidelines—and not enforceable by law. But they’re undoubtedly a good step (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in the right direction.

Related: In our recent “What’s Next” feature, two experts speculated about the future of design for public health. In 2008, we looked at Bruce Fowle’s “stair tactics” in the New York Times Building.

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