February 9, 2010
by Jacqueline Pezzillo Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: Active Design Guidelines Launch
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.27.10
Speakers: David Burney, FAIA — Commissioner, Dept. of Design & Construction; Amanda Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIANY — Commissioner, Dept. of City Planning; Thomas Farley, MD, MPH — Commissioner, Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, Dept. of Transportation; Craig Zimring, Ph.D. — Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology, College of Architecture
Sponsors: NYC Department of Design and Construction

The recently published “Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design” is the “first publication to focus on designers’ roles in tackling one of the most urgent health crises of our day: obesity and related diseases including diabetes,” as stated in the manual’s introduction. The publication — which grew out of AIANY’s Fit City conferences — is a collaborative effort among the NYC Departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, and City Planning, as well as the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, the AIA New York Chapter, and several others including Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA; Ellen Martin; Linda Pollak, AIA; John Pucher; Jessica Spiegel; William Stein, FAIA; and Shin-Pei Tsay. Spurred by the desire to increase physical activity in the city to deliver myriad physical and mental health benefits, the publication is part of the Take Care New York 2012 health policy agenda that offers strategies for New Yorkers to live longer and healthier lives.

The practices put forward in the “Active Design Guidelines” are rooted in research-based evidence and encourage architects and urban designers to introduce physical activity within the environments they design. Strategies delineated in the manual include: the development and maintenance of mixed-use neighborhoods; improved access to full-service grocery stores, fresh produce, parks, and recreational facilities; pedestrian and bike-friendly streets with high connectivity; infrastructure that offers safe indoor and outdoor bicycle parking; conveniently located and appealing stairs within buildings; and motivational signage to encourage walking over elevator usage.

The manual serves as a series of design suggestions to improve physical activity and does not serve as a rating system independent of LEED. However, incorporating the “Active Design Guidelines” in a design will qualify for the LEED innovation credit “Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity.” According to David Burney, FAIA, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), his agency will identify opportunities for implementation of the guidelines in DDC-managed projects as well as other commercial projects within the city. Burney alluded to a possible future “seal of approval” recognizing projects successfully designed with adherence to the guidelines.

A crucial component to the creation of a healthier city is the synergy among the various NYC agencies. As stated by Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, this is a “broad based initiative rooted in many city agencies” to combat urban and building designs that have “engineered physical activity out of our daily lives.” Amanda Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIANY, commissioner of the Department of City Planning, views her agency as one of many puzzle pieces that will work to ensure the success of this initiative. Burden’s agency is working to introduce new zoning regulations for bike parking, the improvement of greenscape and pedestrian environments at street level, and incentives for neighborhood amenities.

The role of designers is crucial in addressing health epidemics. Historically, cholera and tuberculosis were defeated, in part, by the improvement of urban infrastructure such as buildings, streets, water systems, and parks. The publication cites that today physical inactivity and unhealthy diet are second only to tobacco as the main causes of premature death in the U.S. The severity of the current epidemic was echoed by Department of Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan. “Creating healthier lifestyles is an urgent priority,” she stated. With the help of “Active Design Guidelines,” NYC may be the catalyst of change nationwide to shape up.

Jacqueline Pezzillo, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is the communications manager at Davis Brody Bond Aedas and a regular contributor to e-Oculus.