What is Active Design and why is it important?
Active Design forms part of a bigger development called “placemaking”, which refers to designing public spaces to serve social needs. Too often, urban living spaces for city populations are designed after buildings and transportation infrastructure have been built. Following a placemaking-focused approach, urban design follows the logical sequence “people – places – buildings” rather than the other way around.
Active Design comes out of the realization that cities had not been designed for activity. Contrarily, they often encourage very sedentary occupations, leading to a variety of undesirable health outcomes. Obesity is one of the most important health issues since it leads to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Architects with their escalators, elevators, and drive-in options are part of that problem.
Addressing this insight, Active Design translates evidence about how the design of the built environment is linked to physical and mental health outcomes into design solutions that promote health. Thereby, it is not enough to force people to go to the gym. Instead, the environment needs to be designed in a way that encourages people to be more active without consciously thinking about it. Also, for improving health outcomes through the built environment, a multitude of factors such as the air quality or access to healthy food need to be considered in addition to physical activity.
How does Active Design look like in practice?
Arguably the most important lever is to shift the focus of city planners from traffic engineering to pedestrian and cycling engineering. In many places, cars take over three quarters of the space on a street, it is dangerous to cycle because there are no cycling lanes, and pedestrians are stuck on a narrow sidewalk. It is not a question of eliminating motorized vehicles altogether, but of redressing this imbalance and having streets shared in a more equitable way. Therefore, specific measures of Active Design often aim at reducing parking space, extending bike lanes, and widening sidewalks.
A further measure is redesigning the open environment by creating plazas. In New York alone, 86 new plazas have been built – and they immediately fill with people. This demonstrates the pent-up demand for public space. Within buildings, staircases should be integrated more prominently to incentivize people walking up a few floors or using stairs to move between floors.
Sport is a critical component, too, especially among youth. On the one hand, there needs to be space for organized sports. A highly successful example for this is the American Youth Soccer organization, for which the city of New York has provided soccer fields. In combination with regulatory adaptions such as Title IX, a federal law that required schools to provide organized sports for girls on the same level as they did for boys, great impact can be achieved. The US women’s soccer team is the best in the world and soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. On the other hand, informal sports played on streets or on courts built in neighbourhoods are enabled by city governments and municipalities that reserve space for physical activity.
What are the challenges associated with integrating Active Design principles in specific projects?
First and foremost, municipalities in the United States and other countries often lack the financial means to invest in long-term projects incorporating Active Design principles.
Also, we are talking about long-term projects where it is very difficult to establish a true causal relationship between changes of the physical environment and health outcomes. Nevertheless, it is key to convince city governments and the population of the cause. They need to understand the long-term public benefits of making space for cycling, walking or for sports more generally.
Especially politicians need to be willing to take measures that will bear fruit after their terms.
In some countries such as China a further challenge lies in the fact that bicycles have become associated with poverty, worsening traffic issues in the urban environment.
How can corporates in general and organizations from the world of sports contribute to urban environments built for physical activity?
Corporations can help, and are helping, by sponsoring socially responsible projects.
For example, organizations such as Nike have been paying for the renovation and construction of basketball courts in underserved areas in New York. In other places such as Detroit, the owner of Quicken Loans Dan Gilbert has been very involved in redesigning urban places across the city. In addition to their general community engagements, corporations also have a vested interest in the physical environment where their staff live. In this case urban design becomes an element of employee retention and recruitment.
Just as for other companies, for sports organizations, a lot of untapped potential remains in the support of Active Design projects. Financing sports facilities for schools or neighbourhoods and publicly supporting projects to convince governments and the population of their value are ways how they can spur the cause of Active Design. In this way, they can also reap tangible public relations benefits for themselves.
The job of intermediary organizations such as the Project for Public Spaces is to facilitate the cooperation between private actors and government agencies and to raise awareness in companies that they can invest in a variety of public spaces and support initiatives that benefit local communities.
David Burney is Professor of Planning and Placemaking as well as co-founder and director of the Urbans Placemaking Management program at Pratt Institute School of Architecture. The graduate MS program is the first in the country to focus on the emerging field of "placemaking" as an approach to urban and community design. He is also Chair of the Board of the Center for Active Design. The Center supports public health by increasing opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating through the design of the built environment. It was established in 2012 as one of the key initiatives to emerge from New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s Obesity Taskforce.