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Providing a 'Beautiful Central Stair' and Convincing People to Use It: Exploring the Notion of 'Active Design'

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Welcome to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community. Have a pressing issue worth discussing? Drop a note to the tipline.

"We'll have no more fat policemen," jokes David Burney, the commissioner of New York City's Department of Design and Construction (DDC), when discussing the city's new police academy currently underway in Queens (above). The building encourages physical activity thanks to a five-story interior staircase, a range of walkways both inside and out, and an indoor swimming pool, and the project—a collaboration between the New York Police Department, the DDC, Perkins + Will, and Michael Fieldman Architects— is the latest outgrowth of the NYC-based Active Design movement.
The new academy has been exalted by the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit founded in September 2012, as a project with far-reaching, global ambitions. "The purpose of the Center is to be a sort of focal point for information and best practices to promote changes in the built environment to improve public health," explains Burney, who doubles as the Center's chair of the board. "Architects and planners have been enablers in this sedentary lifestyle that people have developed—the way we do transportation planning, and the way we design buildings, we keep making it easier for people to not have to move at all," he continues, mentioning the need to "awaken architects and designers to the fact that that's not necessarily good for people, and there are ways we can encourage people to be more active in the way we design buildings and neighborhoods."

Pushing what we always knew to be healthy forward

Sobering health statistics—in the United States, two of three American adults are overweight or obese—gave rise to a conference in 2006 known as Fit City, organized by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANY). Out of this now-annual event, which brings together health and built-environment professionals, grew the Active Design Guidelines (ADG), published in 2010 by New York City's DOHMH, DDC, Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of City Planning (DCP), along with the AIANY. The ADG, which Curbed covered in Feb. 2011, explore intelligent urban and building design, from where to site supermarkets and housing to how to provide accessible, appealing stairs and bike storage.

In other developments, the U.S. Green Building Council has just announced a new LEED pilot credit, "Design for Active Occupants," requiring applicants to have, among other details, a multi-level main stair. And five new supplements to the ADG are in progress, from Promoting Safety and Affordable Designs for Affordable Housing (already published on the Center for Active Design's site), to ones relating to sidewalk design, zoning code, and low-density (or suburban) living.

"This is not rocket science," says Ernie Hutton, a planning consultant with his own firm, Hutton Associates Inc., who co-authored the ADG supplement about low-density communities due out next fall (at the earliest). "We're taking a lot of things that people have been talking about for years, but suddenly you realize what the public health imperative is, that people need to be more active and the environment has been one of the reasons they have not had a healthier lifestyle." He adds: "Architects do need to think about this in the same way they think about green building or sustainable energy design."

There's historic precedent that the built environment can have a huge impact on public health. "Architects, urban designers, and planners have been fundamental, historically, in shaping the design of communities and buildings to help defeat the epidemics of the past—like the infectious diseases of the 19th and early-20th centuries," says Karen Lee, director of the Built Environment Program at the DOHMH. "We designed less crowded buildings with windows for light and air, neighborhoods with parks for people to get fresh air, sanitation systems, and through those measures we were able to decrease mortality rates and bring those epidemics under control even before the widespread use of antibiotics," she explains.

Stairs: not just a walk in the park

Unsurprisingly, the Active Design Guidelines—15,000 copies have been downloaded so far—largely revolve around stairs: where to place them, how to make them user-friendly, and what dimensions to work with. After all, it's estimated that just two minutes of stair-climbing a day burns enough calories to offset the average annual weight gain in American adults. "The stair used to be a central element in many of the great pieces of famous architecture around the world. So now it's an exciting challenge to bring staircases back," says Skye Duncan, an associate urban designer with DCP and an adjunct assistant professor with Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Duncan advises that we keep other, perhaps less obvious, things in mind, as well. "There are also great opportunities to incorporate spaces for physical activity both indoors and out, and to really think about how architects and designers articulate their façades to capture the interest of pedestrians walking by, to incorporate bicycle racks and bicycle parking spaces to help facilitate active transportation choices—even thinking about rooftops of buildings and how these can provide healthy food options for the inhabitants," she elaborates.

Stairs are already a building code requirement for fire safety, but all too often they're not very hospitable—dark, hidden from view, and behind closed doors—which could be one reason, at least, why people opt for the elevator instead. One retrofit that buildings might consider to make fire stairs more accessible is to use devices that hold open stair doors but ensure that those doors will automatically shutter when the building's fire alarm is activated. Right now, in NYC, a building must get permission to use these holders from the Department of Buildings, but Burney notes that the DDC, along with many other city agencies, are working to make this move automatically allowable in certain situations by building code. Another inexpensive retrofit can be something simple, such as painting a mural in the stairwell; that's exactly what the residents of the Intervale Green, an affordable housing complex in the Bronx, did to entice stair use.

Of course, some architects and designers get to build from the beginning—no retrofits required. And it usually isn't a tough sell to encourage them to make use of the ADG tenets: "A lot of the things we're talking about lead to aesthetically pleasing buildings, as well as ones that promote health," says Joanna Frank, director of active design at the DDC and acting executive director for the Center for Active Design. "Providing a beautiful central stair, which is visible from the lobby, isn't something that's difficult to persuade designers to incorporate. But to have the additional knowledge and confidence to be able to refer to the health impact that will have just adds another piece in prioritizing that."

The Apple store in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Photos via Racked NY

One of the people most qualified to speak about the intersection of aesthetics and health is Peter Bohlin, the renowned architect behind many a striking Apple store who has always made the principles of active design key to his projects—well before the ADG came into the picture. "Whether it's a little cottage somewhere or an Apple store or a larger building," he says, "I think about how people move and revealing places by people's movement through them. And then it becomes more intriguing when you move people up and down in buildings, such as getting them to desire to go up or down, which is a great challenge in many buildings. It was a challenge when we did the first two-story Apple store in SoHo (above)," says Bohlin, who will be the design keynote speaker at the upcoming Fit City conference in June. Taking the stairs is a default move in the Apple stores he has designed, and Bohlin consciously thinks about how best to program his buildings. In 1994, he built Eggers Hall, an addition to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (below). "We put the food at the top of the building," he says. "Normally, you put it at the bottom, near deliveries and garbage, and instead we put it at the top of the building so that people would have to move up through the whole building to it. And we made the experience of moving up quite pleasant, and therefore everyone comes into contact with many more others."

The burden of convincing

Building this way, however, is not purely a design challenge but often one of governance; for example, bending building codes to allow for open fire stairs. "A lot of work with the Center [for Active Design] has been helping other municipalities through the regulatory issues," says Burney. "We're working with the region of Peel, in Canada, right now, and their issue isn't so much a design issue, as a governance and regulatory issue. How do you get through the sort of maze of traffic regulations—and so on and so forth—to allow active design principles to flourish?" he adds.

Of course, the public will have to rethink its priorities to meet architects halfway. "It's hard to tell someone without taking on a holier-than-thou stance that life should be inconvenient," says Rick Bell, executive director of the AIANY. "The building equivalent of being chauffeur-driven door to door is for everything to be convenient with a capital C to the point where there's no chance or risk of accidental interaction," he says, later recalling a San Diego fitness center on the second floor of strip mall—it had an escalator leading to and from the parking lot. "You have to look at that and laugh or cry."

Learn more about NYC's Active Design Guidelines at FitNation, an exhibition opening June 13 at the Center for Architecture.

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