Architects Fight Obesity Epidemic Through “Active Design”
The Via Verde mixed-income housing complex in the South Bronx is piloting New York City's Active Design Guidelines. The exterior features stairways leading to landscaped rooftops; the terrace shown under construction in the photo will serve as a community garden.
By Paula Melton
Better design choices in homes, workplaces, and communities can increase access to healthier food and provide built-in opportunities for physical activity, fighting the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. That’s the premise of the burgeoning “active design” movement focusing on elements like playgrounds, walking trails, gardens, and prominent and attractive stairways.
The Active Design Guidelines developed by New York City collect many of these design strategies—for cities, neighborhoods, and individual buildings—into a free reference guide. Baani Singh, Assoc. AIA, who is healthy LEED and green development coordinator at New York’s Center for Active Design, points to alarming rates of obesity: 40% of children and 60% of adults in New York are overweight or obese. Singh claims that since the City started focusing on healthy food and physical activity, her office has seen a reversal in childhood obesity trends. “All of this awareness is actually helping,” she says.
Active design features include some already-familiar sustainable design strategies, such as facilities for cyclists and access to public transit, as well as several emerging strategies not yet deeply encoded in sustainable design:
• appealing, visible, well-lit stairways and less-prominent elevators and escalators;
• building programs, circulation systems, and interior designs that encourage frequent walking;
• convenient and inviting exercise facilities with views to the outdoors;
• appealing entryways and integration with neighborhood walkways;
• site planning that includes access to fresh food and contributes to pedestrian safety, walkability, and community.
Incorporating such strategies into any LEED project has become an established pathway to an Innovation credit, with five such projects approved for the credit with Singh’s support.
One of these is Via Verde, a mixed-income housing complex under construction in the South Bronx that will include rooftop community gardens, recreational spaces for children, and an onsite fitness center. The design features daylit interior stairs as well as multiple exterior steps leading from ground-level courtyards to a number of rooftop terraces. The project team, including Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects with developers Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Houses, hopes to include an onsite farmers’ market.
Robert Garneau, AIA, senior architect at Grimshaw, describes Via Verde as “an architectural solution that creates social interaction and promotes a healthy lifestyle.” Starting at ground level, “you can go on a walk—almost a hike” that ascends seven floors and “culminates in a fitness room with an outdoor exercise area.”
Interior stairs are immediately visible from the front entrance and will feature bold colors, daylighting, artwork, and possibly even music—a far cry from harshly lit, forgotten fire stairs. Signs encouraging people to “burn calories, not electricity” will further motivate occupants.
Only time will tell whether these features will be used as intended, but according to Adam Watson, AIA, associate at Dattner, “There’s been great response in the press but also great response from people who want to live there.” In the South Bronx, safe access to open community spaces, fitness facilities, fresh food, and the other amenities offered by Via Verde are in high demand. The design team faced challenges—particularly around security—that they tried to address by tapping the developers’ property management experience. They were buoyed by the sense that “to do affordable housing the same way it’s always been done can lead to its own social problems.”
Whatever happens, it won’t have stretched the project’s tight budget. Most of the features were part of the design before they considered piloting the Active Design Guidelines or going for the LEED Innovation credit. “We tried to tally how much more we spent to achieve Active Design Guidelines; it was about $1,000,” Watson said.