An In-Depth Look at Active Design with Dr. Karen Lee

March 30, 2011 | By Yetsuh Frank | Make a Comment »

Q&A with Dr. Karen Lee, Director of the Built Environment Program at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The Active Design Guidelines focus on many issues that, while obviously important, might also be called common sense design issues; designing streets for people rather than cars, or designing stairs to be used rather than ignored, etc.  Why aren’t these things just done as a matter of course?  Another way of putting this is, how did get to the point where the Active Design guidelines are necessary?

The design strategies you mention used to be a “matter of course!” We used to have to rely on our own bodies to move ourselves between buildings, within buildings, and during play and recreation. With technological advances (and in the name of “convenience”), over the past few decades we have managed to design such movement out of our daily lives. Today it’s possible for people to leave their houses, get into their cars, park at their destination and step right onto an elevator or escalator – leaving them with almost no physical activity in their daily lives.

Today we are facing an unprecedented epidemic of obesity, along with related chronic diseases such as diabetes. Heart disease and strokes continue to be the leading cause of death in NYC and the U.S. and recently overtook infectious diseases as the leading cause of death globally. Here in New York, approximately 60% of adults and 40% of children are overweight or obese, and 75% of deaths in the city are due to chronic diseases. We sometimes refer to these as “diseases of energy” – since today people are consuming more and more calories, and at the same replacing physical activity with devices that consume large amounts of petrochemical fuels and electricity (cars, elevators, escalators, televisions, etc.). The result is a negative impact on our health, and on our planet.

Luckily, New York City is taking the lead to reverse these trends through initiatives like the Active Design Guidelines (also referred to as “ADGs” – you can download a free electronic copy). We’re seeing a parallel surge of national programs, including Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. With these efforts, we’re beginning to change our built environment and our culture to increase opportunities for daily physical activity, and begin reducing our reliance on so much petrochemical fuel and electricity.

The ADGs are similar to LEED in the sense that they provide guidance for people interested in doing things better.  One of the issues with LEED is that, as a guidance document and not a prescriptive code type document, it is very difficult to legislate.  Are aspects of the ADG proposals the sorts of things that might make their way into legislation?  Or will they remain the province of guidance for select projects?

The ADGs offer an extensive set of strategies for designing opportunities for physical activity into our buildings, streets, and neighborhoods. A subset of these strategies may be amenable to legislation, and we’re incorporating them when relevant. For example, the NYC Department of City Planning recently adopted a zoning text amendment to increase the availability of bicycle parking for all new construction, major renovations, and parking garages. Recognizing that parts of the city have very minimal access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the Mayor’s Office, NYC Economic Development Corporation and NYC Departments of City Planning and Health and Mental Hygiene have worked together on FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health), which offers zoning and tax incentives for developers that incorporate supermarkets into projects in high needs neighborhoods.  Our team continues to conduct research, design analyses, and feasibility studies to explore other potential incentive opportunities within NYC codes. For example, we are working with City Planning to explore the feasibility of other zoning incentives for physical activity-promoting spaces.

We have also worked with USGBC and the LEED rating system to promote physical activity. For example, we created a new LEED Innovation in Design Credit called “Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity” for one of our own Health Department buildings and it has now been approved for other buildings as well. This credit is being used in projects being designed in New York City, Florida and California, and we want the credit to be used as much as possible in LEED projects to promote stair use and recreational space access for children and adults, in addition to the sustainable site credits for bicycle storage and change rooms, density, community connectivity and walkability, and transit access.

Given that many of the proposals in the ADGs are ways in which individual projects can help mitigate a societal scale epidemic, are the impacts of a given project measurable in a direct fashion?

Yes, we can undertake evaluations of health outcomes for specific projects, and also monitor changes in people’s behaviors at the population level. And we try to do both routinely. For instance, after we launched our stair prompt sign initiative telling people to “Burn Calories, Not Electricity. Take the Stairs!”, we conducted evaluations in three buildings of different heights, types and locations. We found increased stair use at all three, including a 10-story building in the South Bronx where stair use remained elevated at more than 40 percent higher than baseline at 9 months after the posting of the signs at elevators.

We have another initiative called Playstreets to create more children’s active playspaces as part of our ADG implementation efforts. These single-block street closures on quieter streets near schools, farmers markets and community gardens across all five boroughs provide children and families who currently don’t have enough playspaces with low-cost spaces to play. We did interviews of the parents who brought their children out to play and found that they were coming out many times to the weekly closures, that they were spending on average over an hour to two and a half hours at the Playstreets, and that the majority said their children would have been inside or watching TV otherwise.

One of the major discussions around LEED is about whether it is measuring the right things, and whether it measures them well.  Is there a way in which we can objectively measure the “success” of a project with regard to Active Design principles?

Absolutely. We can work with researchers and academic groups to systematically measure people’s changes in behavior, such as in the evaluations we have done on Playstreets and interventions to promote stair use. Also, many of the ADGs are in fact already rooted in supporting research evidence. As you look through the ADGs, you’ll see that each strategy is denoted as having a “strong evidence base,” an “emerging evidence base”, or as simply a “best practice” for increasing physical activity.

Our team has also developed several tools to help track the integration of Active Design within projects. The “Urban Design Checklist” and “Building Design Checklist” found in the ADGs are a great place to start (see pages 62 and 104, respectively). The ADGs also include a matrix showing the “Synergies Between LEED and Active Design” (p. 114), to indicate which existing LEED strategies can help promote physical activity. The LEED ID Credit called “Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity” (p. 130) also presents evidence-based items that can increase physical activity when included.

Can you tell us more about the role of Active Design principles within LEED?   Is there a broader role for the subject of Active Design in the development and implementation of LEED?

As mentioned, we have helped develop a LEED ID Credit called “Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity.” This ID credit provides LEED projects with about 30 strategies to choose from in order to promote physical activity – such as those that encourage stair use and provide active recreation opportunities for children and adults. A project can qualify for the ID credit by incorporating approximately 70% of the strategies listed. For more information, as well as sample submission materials from an affordable housing project, see here.  This project, and others that have incorporated the ID credit, will be explored in further detail at Urban Green Council’s upcoming High Performance Building Salon on Thursday, April 14th.

There is definitely potential for a broader role in the implementation of Active Design within LEED. Previously, USGBC has been a leader in air quality and tobacco control by prohibiting smoking as a prerequisite for LEED projects. Now there is tremendous opportunity to take the lead on promoting physical activity, healthy food and beverage consumption, and health. (And by the way, poor diet and lack of physical activity are second only to tobacco as the leading causes of premature death in the U.S.)

One of the great things USGBC did in the release of LEED v3 was to weight credits based on their impact across several categories, which included health as one of the main areas of evaluation. This allowed the value of credits to be determined by a weighting equation. We are now working with USGBC to push Active Design initiatives to the next level through a benchmarking system tied to this weighting equation. We hope to release that benchmarking system later this year at GreenBuild.

Let’s imagine for a minute that you are an architect or a property manager or an institution and you’ve read and, like us, really loved the contents of the ADGs.  What’s the best way for the building industry to advocate for the priorities recommended within the ADGs?

Advocating for the strategies found in the ADGs will require a bit of a shift in our culture – both in terms of design and construction, and in terms of generating public demand for healthier buildings. We would love to see the building industry make use of those LEED credits that are most supportive of physical activity – including the ID Credit for Physical Activity, and the various Sustainable Sites credits found in the “Synergies Between LEED and Active Design” matrix (p 114 of the ADGs.) Once built, these projects can be marketed to the public as being healthier, more sustainable buildings.

New York City is also working with communities around the U.S. to spread the word about Active Design and encourage more widespread implementation of the strategies found in the ADGs. Working locally and nationally, we offer trainings for design, planning, and real estate professionals, as well as technical assistance for staff from public agencies who are interested in implementing Active Design within their jurisdictions. Now that the word is starting to spread (and there have been over 7,800 copies of the ADGs downloaded so far, with approximately 3/4 of the downloads occurring nationally and internationally), we’d also encourage citizens to work with their City Council members, Buildings Department, and Planning Department to make Active Design a priority in their own communities.

If you had to pick just one recommendation within the ADGs which would it be?  Granted- they are all great and really important but which is your personal favorite?

It would have to be using the LEED ID Credit: Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity. The ID Credit incorporates many strategies to integrate Active Design into LEED projects, while allowing project teams the flexibility to select the ones most suited to their project. It also makes the case for the numerous synergistic benefits between increasing health through Active Design, and decreasing our impacts on the environment. Come to the High Performance Building Salon on April 14th to learn more!

A couple of other events in May will also be worth attending if you can: If you are going to be at the American Institute of Architects National Convention, check out the Fit Nation event on May 14th, a free continuing-ed accredited event which will present best practices in Active Design nationally and internationally. On May 17th in NYC, the Center for Architecture will also hold the 6th annual Fit City Conference. More information for both events will soon be available on the AIANY calendar.


- who has written 261 posts on Urban Green Blog.

Yetsuh Frank is a consultant in New York City. An architect, educator and writer, Yetsuh has more than 15 years experience spearheading sustainability throughout the building industry. Yetsuh was Director of Programs at Urban Green Council from 2008 to 2011.

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