What Can Architecture Do for Your Health?


In an effort to make New York City’s built environment “more livable and hospitable” the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation (DOT), and City Planning have developed the Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design to be referenced in conjunction with the DOT’s Street Design Manual and other guidelines produced by NYC. The guidelines are written for urban planners, designers and architects and are driven by the need to address health concerns such as obesity and diabetes through intelligent design. Our built environments give us cues as to how to inhabit them and have tremendous effects, sometimes subconscious, on our lifestyles. Do you walk, drive, or bike to work? Do you take the stairs or the elevator? We make these types of decisions, which are largely based on comfort, on a daily basis. But the guidelines established in this manual are intended to give designers the tools to encourage healthy lifestyle choices to address the social concerns of NYC. So, what can planners, architects and designers do to create an active and healthy city? Find out after the break.

Since the nineteenth century, we have learned to combat infectious diseases. Preventative measures have proven effective: build better buildings and infrastructure, and incidents of infectious illnesses will decline. It happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries with cholera and tuberculosis. In this century, the diseases that we face are often self-inflicted. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and obesity all have roots in the sedentary lifestyles and poor dietary choices that many people have today.


But much of New York City is already conveniently walk-able – numbered streets, a regular grid, public transportation, a broad selection of parks and greenways, and a vast amount of the street life that Jane Jacobs commended in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. On the scale of its boroughs, New York City functions as an active city. But what can the city improve? The guidelines are geared toward five key measures: improving access to transportation, improving access to recreational facilities and open spaces, improving access to fresh produce and groceries, improving community connectivity with street infrastructure, and facilitate bicycling for recreation and transportation.


Projects such as the Highline, currently a one-mile walk from Gansevoort St to 30th Street, and the South Bronx Greenway, currently under construction and development and includes a network of bike paths connecting the South Bronx with Randall’s Island and existing paths, already address the some of the new guidelines – proving how the measures can work. Just as vital as it is to observe these guidelines for urban design uses, the building and its everyday uses and accommodations can inspire day-to-day healthy patterns. The key measures are:

The Highline: Eastern Rail Yards - Courtesy City of New York and Friends of the High Line

  • Increase stair use among the able-bodied by providing a conveniently located stair for everyday use, posting motivational signage to encourage stair use, and designing visible, appealing and comfortable stairs;
  • Locate building functions to encourage brief bouts of walking to shared spaces such as mail and lunch rooms, provide appealing, supportive walking routes within buildings;
  • Provide facilities that support exercise such as centrally visible physical activity spaces, showers, locker rooms, secure bicycle storage, and drinking fountains;
  • Design building exteriors and massing that contribute to a pedestrian friendly urban environment and that include maximum variety and transparency, multiple entries, stoops, and canopies.

The guidelines read like a rating system. They are not part of scientific research; they are observations of behavior – how people interact with their environment and what precedents tell us about how spaces function, actively or passively. Other urban environments were assessed according to the five “D’s” – density, diversity, design (coined by Robert Cervero and Kara Kockelman), destination accessibility and distance to travel. The priorities of the guidelines are to encourage land use mix, walkability, bicycling, infrastructure, and parks and open space. This requires that planners consider the types of programs in a given neighborhood and encourage the development of full service supermarkets, physical activity facilities, public transportation routes, and outdoor parks. Some of these measures also encourage more responsible environmental design as well. By encouraging alternatives to cars for transportation and expanding green spaces, designers can reduce air pollutants and greenhouse gases in neighborhoods. According to the guidelines, NYC addresses most of these fields, yet design can always be improved upon.

The manual is divided into subsections to address each measure individually for urban design: land use mix, adequate access to parking and transit, access to parks, open spaces and recreational facilities, children’s play areas, public plazas, proximity to grocery stores and fresh produce, street connectivity, traffic calming, pedestrian pathways, creating street-scapes, bicycle networks and infrastructure.  Each has suggestions assessed for effectiveness according to strong evidence, emerging evidence, and best practice.  These are followed by a series of case studies, from projects such as the Highline, Greenstreets, Madison Park and bus shelters.

South Bronx Greenway: Hunts Point Landing © New York City Economic Development Corporation

A similar layout is organized for interventions in building design. The subsections are: stair design for everyday use with visibility and accessibility, stair dimensions, creative solutions for stairs as sculptural elements central to the building, reducing the prominence of elevator and escalator use, building programming, varied walking routes, building facilities that support exercise, and building exteriors and massing. This chapter describes successful case studies such as the Museum of Modern Art, Harlem Children’s Zone and the New York Times Building.


In conjunction with Active Design Guidelines, planners, architects and designers are encouraged to look at PlaNYC - a strategic plan that addresses the issues that currently face NYC: a rapidly growing population, an aging infrastructure and global climate change. The strategies within this manual give planners insight into urban environments through points that give sustainable and active solutions to environmental planning. Several of the city’s agencies are working in conjunction with one another. The DOT has been and is continuing to develop streets that make walking more attractive through traffic calming measures, landscaped medians that provide shade, and public plazas that have been converted from streets. Along with this, the DOT is expanding the on-street bicycle network along with bicycle infrastructure, such as bicycle parking, that is mandated by zoning regulations in community and commercial spaces. Universal Design is an additional manual by the NYC Department of Design and Construction to promote design that can be adapted for and used by all users.


Together, these measures strive to find solutions that combine these various goals – active design, sustainable design and universal design – and finding a balance between design and cost. Case studies of these types of solutions are also provided. The Riverside Health Center in the Bronx, Morphosis’s new building at 41 Cooper Square, and the Via Verde Mixed-Use Development in the South Bronx share connectivity of paths, green spaces, prominence and accessibility of stairs and building programming to create interesting circulation paths for users. The manual is a dense and comprehensive combination of strategies and suggestions that can inspire unique and creative strategies for designs that incorporate elements that are active, sustainable and universal on a variety of scales. Accessibility is important and in terms of design, it makes strong suggestions to encourage design strategies such as: imageability, enclosure, human scale, transparency and complexity. Download a copy of manual here.

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art © Iwan Baan

Image gallery

See allShow less
About this author
Cite: Irina Vinnitskaya. "What Can Architecture Do for Your Health?" 26 Jun 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/244063/what-can-architecture-do-for-your-health> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.