Designing an Active, Healthier City

Meera Senthilingam in the New York Times: “Despite a firm reputation for being walkers, New Yorkers have an obesity epidemic on their hands. Lee Altman, a former employee of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, explains it this way: “We did a very good job at designing physical activity out of our daily lives.”

According to the city’s health department, more than half of the city’s adult population is either overweight (34 percent) or obese (22 percent), and the convenience of their environment has contributed to this. “Everything is dependent on a car, elevator; you sit in front of a computer,” said Altman, “not moving around a lot.”

This is not just a New York phenomenon. Mass urbanization has caused populations the world over to reduce the amount of time they spend moving their bodies. But the root of the problem runs deep in a city’s infrastructure.

Safety, graffiti, proximity to a park, and even the appeal of stairwells all play roles in whether someone chooses to be active or not. But only recently have urban developers begun giving enough priority to these factors.

Planners in New York have now begun employing a method known as “active design” to solve the problem. The approach is part of a global movement to get urbanites onto their streets and enjoying their surroundings on foot, bike or public transport.

“We can impact public health and improve health outcomes through the way that we design,” said Altman, a former active design coordinator for New York City. She now lectures as an adjunct assistant professor inColumbia University’s urban design program.

“The communities that have the least access to well-maintained sidewalks and parks have the highest risk of obesity and chronic disease,” said Joanna Frank, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Active Design; her work focuses on creating guidelines and reports, so that developers and planners are aware, for example, that people have been “less likely to walk down streets, less likely to bike, if they didn’t feel safe, or if the infrastructure wasn’t complete, so you couldn’t get to your destination.”

Even adding items as straightforward as benches and lighting to a streetscape can greatly increase the likelihood of someone’s choosing to walk, she said.

This may seem obvious, but without evidence its importance could be overlooked. “We’ve now established that’s actually the case,” said Frank.

How can things change? According to Frank, four areas are critical: transportation, recreation, buildings and access to food….(More)”