Does This Building Make Me Look Fat?


Every February 2, hundreds of (health) nuts run up New York City's Empire State Building. But the city as a whole, despite its culture of walking and seemingly insane runners, is basically trudging towards obesity. But there's hope! A new set of design guidelines, developed with local and national architects, aims to reverse that trend.

The Active Design Guidelines, which four whippet-thin city commissioners unveiled last week at the city's Center for Architecture, represent urban planning's farthest reach as a lifestyle nudge. And they follow common sense. For instance, make a building's staircase well-lit and central (and easy to keep clean) and more people will use the stairs. Put bike parking and showers in office buildings and more people will bike to work. Create nifty plazas with benches and space to spread out and people will walk to them.

But there are more suggestions that could apply in a residential building.

Can New Yorkers think of staircases less like ways out of the subway and more like amenities?


In apartment buildings, the guidelines suggest, mail rooms and management offices should be on adjacent floors "or a pleasant walking distance from individual residences." The thinking is that if you make "daily bouts of walking" necessary to get errands done, people will end up exercising without making a point of it.

The new Cooper Union campus, designed by mischievous superstar architect Thom Mayne's firm Morphosis, includes a shimmering winding staircase and elevators that don't stop at every floor- a tactic that the guidelines endorse and suggest "where feasible."

Also, the guidelines urge condo and co-op owners to spend their common bucks sprucing up in-building playrooms and fitness rooms (Running around outside is so '80s). "High ceilings and generous lighting help make physical activity more convenient and appealing," the guidelines say.

The guidelines have no force of law, but proponents say the approach they describe can make fitness-focused design a clearer win for developers and brokers. And, yes, apartment dwellers.

Now, if you think this all sounds like guidance only for New Yorkers who live vertically, think again. The guidelines urge the placement of farmers' markets and grocery stores selling fresh produce "within walking distance in all residential neighborhoods." That's something any city can aim to achieve with tax incentives and cooperative programs.

Indeed, the guidelines' basic logic- that people will move around if moving around seems pleasant- can fit a suburban plan. Maybe a developer would consider creating walking trails or an outdoor training area rather than contain would-be health enthusiasts in a cramped exercise room. But New York has no lock on fitness-focused design. Just ask Craig Zimring.

Zimring's the Georgia Tech professor who advised New York on creating the guidelines. At the kickoff event, he confessed that he got some funny looks from colleagues when he explained his mission: "coming from Atlanta to make New York more walkable." Maybe that's because walking two blocks in the Big Peach is as heroic as running up the Empire State Building in the Big Apple.

But wherever you are, active living begins at home.
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