Active Design Guidelines: A new definition for sustainable cities

There’s a new, bright green poster that will be making an appearance around the city in the near future, encouraging people to take the stairs and ”Burn Calories, not Electricity.” In addition to reducing our carbon footprints, the city is offering us another way to help the environment and to help ourselves; reducing body fat.

Or maybe the city simply wants to “promote physical activity and health through design”- the subtitle to the Active Design Guidelines, a new publication and policy initiative released last Wednesday at the Center for Architecture. The commissioners of five city departments gathered for the public launch to make brief remarks about the guidelines and to underscore their importance in tackling the problem of obesity and chronic diseases resulting from lack of physical activity.

Four of the departments, represented by Janette Sadik-Khan of Transportation, David Burney of Design and Construction, Amanda Burden of City Planning, and Adrian Benepe of Parks & Recreation, have each been implementing policy and initiatives to create a greener and more livable city over the last few years. The Active Design Guidelines are an overlay to these initiatives, which adds the dimension of public health to the definition of a sustainable city. Originally conceived during the Fit City Challenge in 2006, a conference organized by the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter and the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, it grew into an inter-agency project of the city. The guidelines are a joint effort of all these agencies as well as other professional and academic institutions to raise awareness about the public health crisis of chronic disease, and to set down a clear, simple set of recommendations about how to address it in the built environment.

The fifth commissioner, Thomas Farley of Health and Mental Hygiene, acted as a client of sorts for the guidelines, and provided the context for the effort. He began his comments by listing the medical benefits of increased physical activity. These include reduced risks for a number of chronic diseases as well as reduced depression, and a reduced rate of cognitive decline in the elderly. These health issues are the most prevalent and most expensive to treat in our society, and something as simple as walking ten blocks a day might be one of the most effective prescriptions for them out there. He likened the current health crisis of chronic disease and obesity to the epidemics of infectious diseases in the 1800’s. Those diseases were defeated through design and infrastructural changes to the city, such as zoning regulations, light and air requirements, and clean water delivery. Similarly, Farley believes that it is through design that chronic disease and obesity will be controlled or defeated. He delivered the most striking comment of the evening, stating that in our current urban environments, we have engineered out physical activity. According to him, these guidelines represent the re-engineering of the choice for physical activity back into the city.

When reading through the actual text, I was struck by its common sense. The guidelines are organized by scale of design intervention, from urban planning down to architectural details, and can be implemented with the aid of checklists. On the whole, there was nothing very new, nothing very radical. From the perspective of a design professional, they seem almost obvious. These guidelines, however, are meant for a wider audience. The entire publication was designed to be accessible to the general public in order to raise awareness of design’s role in public health. The recommendations rely heavily on evidence-based research in order to make the connection between the design of our environment and health clear to all audiences. It may not be obvious to the residents of neighborhoods without grocery stores that a lack of dietary choice has a direct correlation to high incidences of diabetes. There are many cities in this country with no sidewalks, bike lanes, or public transit, and the health benefits of providing transportation alternatives may not be obvious. It may not be obvious to us New Yorkers, who pride ourselves on the walkability of our city, that 43% of our city’s schoolchildren are overweight or obese. The potential importance and impact of the guidelines becomes clearer from this perspective, because good planning and design as well as public awareness and pressure are required to implement them. The recommendations are not just good for the environment or good design moves. They create a city whose infrastructure is designed to keep us fit, active, and healthy. They address pressing social problems through fairly innocuous and inoffensive measures that are understandable by everyone and can be implemented at all scales. If such seemingly intransigent and difficult problems such as the rate of type II diabetes or cognitive decline in the elderly can be addressed by such simple, common sense recommendations, then we have a real chance to solve them. In the process, we can take a few steps towards creating an environmentally sustainable city that is also socially sustainable.

A few hours after the public launch of the Active Design Guidelines here in New York, President Obama gave his first State of the Union Address. In an aside which drew the evening’s loudest applause, the President took a moment to acknowledge the First Lady’s new public health campaign to fight the epidemic of childhood obesity. Was it coincidence that the city chose this date to launch the guidelines? Probably not. Just as other municipalities and regions in this country have looked to New York in the past for answers on issues of zoning and historic preservation, for example, New York City is poised to lead in this new initiative as well. And as the debate about how to provide better, more efficient healthcare continues, perhaps designers here in New York City have an answer; a prescription that requires no doctor and no insurance coverage – just a livable, efficient, sustainable city.


As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Samir S. Shah, AIA is an architect and writer based in New York City. He is a former Fulbright Fellow in Art & Architectural History and has written for various publications, including the Architect’s Newspaper. Samir has taught courses in architecture at the City College of New York and abroad, and is currently principal at Urban Quotient, P.C., a full-service architecture design firm and research collaborative.

3 Responses to “Active Design Guidelines: A new definition for sustainable cities”

  1. Jakobovich says:

    Has anyone ever quantified the carbon emissions connected with use of elevators? Obviously there would be variance according to size of lift and number of passengers but it would be useful to know e.g. if one person was going up alone in a 20-person lift for x number of floors what this represented in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions.

  2. Most simple approaches like this lapse into simplicity, yet I think this avoids it. When my wife and I and kids moved back to NYC after 8 years in New England, where we drove most places (but sledded in the winter!), we immediately lost weight just by walking and going up and down subway stairs. I must confess also that I have friends who walk 30-60 blocks’ worth to work on nice days, especially those who walk through Central Park, and I always take the subway. For them, there are physical benefits as well as the mental and spiritual benefit of being in nature and reduced depression.

  3. It is an fantastic and simple idea to creates signs to promote using the stairs and walking. For people who work in taller buildings it would be great to promote taking the elevator half way up to their offices and walking the rest of the way.

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