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Design Matters:

Building Healthier New Yorkers: Urban Design—Part I

AIA New York issues recommendations to create more active urban environments

by Sara Fernandez Cendon

The Immaculate Conception School
playground is organized through very
minimal interventions to promote
different types of physical activity.
Bothwell Site Design collaborated with Katie Winter on this project
Photo courtesy of Katie Winter.

An art installation by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle at the Bronx Library Center adds
to the complexity of the space.
Photo courtesy of Dattner Architects
and Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

The design of Bronx Library Center building makes ample use of daylight, which also makes the stairs safe and inviting. Photo courtesy of Dattner Architects and Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

The central stair at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (designed by SOM with ZGF architects) is enclosed in glass, which encourages use and interaction. Photo courtesy of Michael Moran, on behalf of SOM.


Like the many Americans still working on their New Year’s health resolutions, the City of New York kicked off the new year by issuing a set of guidelines to help architects and urban designers create healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces. The “Active Design Guidelines,” released Jan. 27, were developed by the City’s departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, City Planning, and the Office of Management and Budget in collaboration with AIA New York.

Several years ago AIANY organized an exhibition about obesity as a design problem. The exhibit got the attention of the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and together AIANY and the Department of Health started “Fit City,” an annual conference to explore and create opportunities for healthier lifestyles within the built environment.

Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of AIANY, says eventually the conversations began to focus on the question of how to involve the many chapter members who were not able to participate in the conference in the process of creating a healthier city.“We wanted to make this information available outside of the conference format,” he says. “We committed to helping to develop a set of guidelines in concert with the Health Department and the Department of Design and Construction, but also with the Departments of City Planning, Transportation and Parks–all the agencies that had been animating the conferences all these years.

“Our Center for Architecture is a place where we do workshops and charrettes, and it was natural for us to take an ‘ecumenical’ leadership role to make sure the process wasn’t the endeavor of a single agency,” Bell says. “We were facilitators, moderators, people who helped bring the interdisciplinary discussion together.” 

Central to the guidelines is the idea that architects and designers can play a key role in combating obesity and other related diseases–the most rapidly growing public health epidemics of our time, as the report puts it–by promoting physical activity and healthy eating. Citing research when available, the guidelines suggest ways to modify daily life to promote healthier behavior. “Architects sometimes need to educate the client,” Bell says, explaining that design professionals can help move clients beyond the strictly utilitarian needs of a project to add elements that bring delight to users, but also enhance their health and preserve the environment.

Though this is the first document of its kind in the United States, the concept is not new. Karen Lee, deputy director for chronic disease prevention and control with the City’s Health and Mental Hygiene Department, explains that even before the discovery of penicillin, New York fought against the infectious disease epidemics of the 19th and early 20th centuries by making changes to the built environment. In the 1840s, engineers built the Croton aqueduct system to bring clean water from upstate New York to the city, helping to fight cholera and yellow fever. “Just as they did in previous epidemics, architects and planners have a very critical role to play again in helping us address the epidemics of our day,” she says.

So far, Lee says the guidelines have been warmly received, with more than 2,000 downloads of the electronic version of the document and about 13,000 “Burn calories, not electricity. Take the Stairs!” signs distributed to approximately 300 different entities in the city. Even though implementing the recommendations is voluntary, the city will encourage architects and planners to use them in the design of publicly bid projects.

Healthier cities

In a chapter devoted to urban design, the report includes many expected planning measures, such as designing open spaces, providing for a mix of uses when planning urban-scale developments, or locating residential and commercial buildings near full-service grocery stores and recreational areas. The effectiveness of many of these strategies has been well documented in medical journals. A study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, for example, connects more walkable neighborhoods in Atlanta (“walkability” measured in terms of land-use mix) with a significant reduction in the likelihood of obesity. Other studies cited in the report have linked proximity to parks and recreational facilities to higher levels of physical activity, and proximity to full-service supermarkets to lower obesity.

The guidelines also include measures to encourage transit use, such as: locating building entrances near public transit stops; placing stops along well-connected streets; providing signage and maps in buildings, streets and transit stops showing routes, distances, times and calories burned.

Other, less familiar design recommendations include several supported by “emerging evidence” that hasn’t yet been conclusively linked to increasing physical activity. “When designing playgrounds,” the report recommends, “include ground markings indicating dedicated areas for sports and multiple use.” The report cites a recent study published in Preventive Medicine that found that children at schools where playgrounds had color-coded activity zones engaged in more vigorous activity than children whose school playgrounds did not have that feature.

Katie Winter, whose eponymous architecture firm is based in New York, has designed a number of play areas for schools around New York, and she has used the suggested approach to great effect. Because most of her clients are nonprofits with very small budgets, Winter tries to work with elements already present in the space – and she counts a child’s imagination as one of the most important among those elements.

“I’ve noticed that kids in schoolyards tend to make up their own games, so a lot of what we do is create an opportunity for children to develop their own narratives,” she says. “We give them space and reasons to run.” 

Winter explains that surface patterns are a cost-effective way to imply different types of activities on the playground without cluttering the space, which is often at a premium. And she says incorporating the natural terrain into her projects – also a recommendation included in the report – is another way to make the most effective use of resources, and another way to stimulate children’s imagination.

One of her projects turned a parking lot into a site of discovery for children who had been playing there for years. After she put artificial turf under the trees that surrounded the parking lot, the children started noticing the leaves, found them to be beautiful, and asked to take them into the classroom.

“I think this is probably applicable to a lot of situations where natural features go unappreciated because they aren’t contextualized in a way that children can see them or appreciate them,” she says. “It’s also a great way to give city kids an opportunity to appreciate nature.”

The report also offers recommendations for the creation of public plazas, such as the ones built in 2008 around Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, accessible by pedestrians and bicyclists, and located near public transit. The guidelines suggest turning these places into destinations by featuring public art, special programs or outdoor cafés.

To support pedestrian activity, the report recommends basic tenants of walkable urbanism. Examples include several traffic-calming measures (medians, roundabouts, narrow streets, etc.), well-connected streets with sidewalks, and pedestrian pathways with support infrastructure such as drinking fountains, benches, good lighting, and restrooms. Recommendations on bicycling include the development of an unbroken network of bikeways with connections to public transit, as well as attention to signage and parking.


Evidence-Based Design: The Deeper Meaning to Sustainability, Building Performance and Everything Else

Hospital Design as a Primary Tool for Healing


AIA New York’s Active Design Guidelines are available here.

See what the Academy of Architecture for Health Knowledge Community is up to.

From the AIA Bookstore: Architecture and the Brain: A New Knowledge Base from Neuroscience by John Eberhard, FAIA (Greenway Communications, 2007).


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