In the two years between 2002 and 2004, New York City collectively gained 10 million pounds – with 170,000 New Yorkers becoming obese. While a number of factors contribute to the US obesity epidemic, experts increasingly point to the shape of our physical environment and the sedentary lifestyle it has engendered. With projects for institutions and municipalities at multiple scales often spanning architecture, urban design, and landscape, MPA has been uniquely poised to develop design strategies that prioritize health. The following projects foreground our ongoing research on strategies that engage people in their urban and natural surroundings, encouraging active uses.
Urban Nodes of Exchange
In his keynote address to the inaugural AIANY Fit City conference, NYC Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene Dr. Thomas Frieden made the following remarks:
Our living environment contributes to more people spending more time sedentary… and the challenge is to change that environment so the default value becomes getting more physical activity. That means, for example, buildings that enable the stairs [rather than the elevator] to become the default value – at least for a couple of flights. Public places [that] are more pleasant to walk in, so that people will get off the subway or the bus stop early. That’s not just how wide the sidewalk is, that’s what there is in between the place they get off the bus or subway and where they’re going.
How do we encourage people to take the stairs? How do we inspire them to step off the bus, or out of the car, to walk and to linger? How can the shape of the city itself sponsor an increase in physical activity? Across five annual Fit City conferences, health experts have convened alongside designers and scholars to rethink the urban environment to support health through physical activity. Jointly developed by a cross-agency team comprising the Departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, and City Planning, NYC’s Active Design Guidelines grew out of the Fit City initiative, and present research-based strategies for creating a healthier built environment. The Guidelines are crucial in catalyzing widespread change in policy and practice: raising awareness, identifying potential, linking principles and practices across agency jurisdictions.
MPA’s engagement in the Fit City conferences and Active Design Guidelines has grown out of our long-standing commitment to enabling design to contribute to the life of the city. In 2006, Linda Pollak presented in the first Fit City conference, using examples from MPA projects to demonstrate how designing at the intersection between urban and natural environments can support both human and environmental health. She joined the development team as a design professional in testing the Guidelines, for which MPA’s Elmhurst Library, currently under construction, served as a case study. And she participated in introducing the Guidelines at the 2009 AIA Annual Meeting and Fit City 4.
With the Guidelines launched in NYC, our challenge as designers is not only to meet their recommendations but to test their limits, engaging the subtleties of spatial material relationships even when they cannot be easily measured. In our ongoing, practice-based research, MPA explores the reciprocity between built and living systems, inside and outside, to develop and test ideas for a new urban landscape – combining horizontal and vertical movements in cities and buildings, introducing nodes of exchange and access between pedestrian, bicycle, and transit systems, and focusing on the potential of park edges to engage their urban surroundings and encourage active uses.
Fundamental to MPA’s approach is our conviction that design can act as an integrator: enabling synergies between social, economic, and ecological dimensions of sustainability; layering different kinds of use to facilitate productive relationships between physical and environmental health, and enabling productive relationships between the natural and built environment.