This is the fourth in a series of five interviews with staffers at the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), where the interviewer interned while pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning. Read the first three installments here, here and here.
This year marks the five-year anniversary of DCP’s Urban Design division, which since the 1960s had been joined with the zoning division. Among the group’s key accomplishments are the Active Design Guidelines (ADG), a joint effort between several city agencies published in 2010. Five new appendices, covering topics such the intersection of the guidelines with affordable housing, are set to be released by early next year.
Here, Skye Duncan, an associate urban designer with the division and an adjunct assistant professor with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, talks about the impact that smart design can have on the health of a community.
Next American City: How did the ADG come about?
Skye Duncan: About seven years ago there was a conference called Fit City that the Department of Health organized with the local New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This brought the health professionals and the built environment professionals together to have a conversation. It became a series of annual conferences, and out of it came the idea to create a document that would guide designers on what they can do to provide opportunities for physical activity in their designs.
Credit: Design for Health
NAC: How significant an impact can the built environment have on public health?
Duncan: There is a strong relationship. If you look back to the 19th century, issues of overcrowding and inadequate systems led to disease epidemics. We had TB, cholera and yellow fever, and we saw a huge drop in disease rates thanks to the policy and design response: Subway systems were created that allowed the density to shift out of the city; sanitation departments were formed to clean the streets; Central Park was built for the ventilation of the working man’s lungs; the Tenement Housing Act [of 1901] was passed to stop dark, airless buildings; and a  zoning ordinance required buildings to be set back from the street, so that light and air could get through.
Today, we’re dealing with chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes. There’s an imbalance of energy — we’re consuming too much, and we’re not having enough opportunity to exert it. And how we shape the built environment can have a really large impact on these disease rates. Currently, 60 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are overweight or obese in this country. And 70 percent of deaths in the U.S. stem from chronic diseases.
NAC: Can you say more about how the ADG are organized?
Duncan: There’s an introductory chapter with health background, and there’s an urban design chapter, a building design chapter and a chapter on synergies. They look at everything from land use planning — concentrating density around transit, so people have places to walk — to thinking about bicycle storage, to the way we use our streets and design them, to the scale of a staircase and how it’s designed and where it’s placed in a building.
NAC: A lot of the case studies in the ADG are big-budget projects like the High Line Park and the Museum of Modern Art. Do the suggestions translate to more modest efforts, including affordable housing projects?
Duncan: Yes, a big thing with active design work is that it actually doesn’t have to cost a lot of money — particularly if people are aware upfront about making some of these design moves, because it does get more expensive to retrofit a building and change its structural elements.
The Melody is an affordable housing project in the Bronx, and they’ve just painted the staircase and put up artwork and installed speakers to make the stairs more enticing to use. And they’ve put some gym equipment on the ground floor. It’s a small part of their budget, but they’ve taken these guidelines and have received a LEED physical activity credit. The credit has only been used in New York so far, but there’s work underway to take it national.
NAC: A city like New York is already very pedestrian friendly. Is there enough room for improvement in the design realm to really have an impact on public health?
A path in New York’s Central Park. Credit: Jim Linwood on Flickr
Duncan: Oh yes, PlaNYC projects that a million new people will be moving to New York City [by 2030], and part of our job here at city planning is to figure out where these people should live and play and work. If we encourage that to happen near transit, we can allow people to live their lives without relying on a car. Everything from the big picture of where we direct growth, to where we encourage supermarkets in neighborhoods in need through programs like FRESH, to creating a text amendment that encourages buildings to provide bicycle parking, can improve the public health of the citizens of New York City.
NAC: Of the five follow-up appendices to the ADG that are currently being produced, DCP is working on two. Could you briefly introduce them?
Duncan: One deals with active design opportunities in zoning. In the ADG, there’s a checklist in both the chapter on urban design and on building design. If people want to take any of these things a step further, we’re looking at how they might translate guidelines into policy. We’ve looked at codes around the country, and it’s not a best practices. It’s really a categorizing and a cataloguing of the different ways that people mandate certain practices or allow or incentivize them.
The other one is called “Shaping the Sidewalk Experience,” and this really aligned with our commissioner Amanda Burden’s passion for great public spaces and her charge to us to design the sidewalk so that it’s adequate for the public realm before we get caught up in the buildings. And it also looks at how we can align with the incredible efforts of Janette Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation.
NAC: Could you say more about how you approached the sidewalk study?
Duncan: Sidewalks are actually very complex spaces, especially once you start looking at all of the different policies and agencies that impact them — from the Department of Buildings, to Environmental Protection, to the people who protect the trees and the infrastructure under them. And there are all of these different policies that shape the surrounding buildings—from where you put the entries to how transparent the ground floors are, to the lighting, to the texture and details of the building facades. If there’s a setback from the sidewalk, is it planted or is it designed as a great plaza?
And this was really the premise of the document we worked on: We looked at the sidewalk as an experience shaped by this physical space. We wanted to think about it from the pedestrian perspective. It’s not a static experience — we move through a sidewalk almost like a room. It has four planes, and we isolated each one and started to understand the different physical elements within it.
NAC: What methodology did you use?
Duncan: We measured sidewalks to gather both quantitative and qualitative information. We went to five other cities around the country — Birmingham, Louisville, Nashville, Seattle and Portland — and measured their sidewalks and talked to their people. We’re not trying to tell people what they should do. We’re trying to increase awareness of the different design elements and policies that influence a sidewalk experience. There’s not one perfect design. If you’re downtown, a sidewalk might be busy and messy and kind of creative and really vibrant, but you may also have a green, lush, quiet sidewalk elsewhere that’s also an example of really great design.
NAC: And it’s important to remember that this attention to design is motivated in many ways by a public health mission.
Duncan: Absolutely. The sidewalk study was funded by a grant from the Center for Disease Control to look at walkability. What is it that entices people to get off the bus a stop early and walk those extra five blocks, or to choose to walk to a train station instead of taking a car, or to walk around their local neighborhood on the weekend? A lot of it comes down to variety. We get bored. The more different things that happen along the way — if you can peek in and see the people sitting at a café, or the dress in a store — the more intrigued we are to keep walking. So we’re trying to break down what the policies are that actually shape these things whether intentional or not.
We’re not proposing anything revolutionary. And the outcome is not just encouraging people to be more physically active, it’s also about better design and more beautiful places. And then businesses do better, and the economy is healthier and people are, too. Small-scale design decisions, which begin with a designer drawing a line, can snowball.
Bridget Moriarity is a journalist based in New York City. Her writing has been published in Travel + Leisure and Art + Auction, where she also worked as an editor, as well as in Time Out New York, I.D., Modern Painters and Sotheby’s at Auction.