It was only his first hour as the city’s new health commissioner, but Dr. Thomas Farley had already singled out a new target in the fight for New Yorkers’ well-being: elevators. “Over the past 60 years, we engineered physical activity out of our lives,” the rail-thin infectious disease specialist told a conference called Fit City, held at the Center for Architecture in July. Elevators and escalators seemed “like a good idea at the time,” but now New Yorkers needs more stairs, the doctor ordered. Moving up and down by foot isn’t just cheaper and more energy efficient than using an elevator: Just two minutes of stair climbing a day burns enough calories to eliminate the one pound an average adult gains each year. If we engineered physicality out of our lives, Farley added, “we can engineer it right back in just as easily.”
Musings about elevators by the health department may sound weird, but so too is the problem: Today the majority of adults and nearly half of the elementary school children in New York City are overweight or obese. And the underlying causes of obesity – physical inactivity and unhealthy diet – are, after tobacco, the leading causes of New York’s premature deaths, disproportionately affecting the city’s black and Latino communities.
New York may be America’s thinnest city, where cars are becoming as passe as smoking, thanks to healthy doses of density, public transit, open space and, increasingly, bike lanes. But only a quarter of city residents get regular exercise, Farley estimated. “This is a great city for moving around,” says David Burney, the city’s commissioner of design and construction. “But we have a lot of opportunities for improvement. There’s a conspiracy of small things we’re doing that can make the city better.”
This week, officials in the Bloomberg administration are issuing a hefty set of recommendations called the Active Design Guidelines, which call for a design revamp that could get the city on a daily regimen of body moving. “It’s not necessary for us to go to the gym,” says Dr. Lynn Silver, assistant health commissioner, who helped write the new handbook. Instead, making stairwells more attractive, building “supportive” walking routes, creating access to fresh produce, and “animating” streets to make them more pedestrian friendly can encourage all the exercise a New Yorker needs. It’s LEED green building standards meets P.E. class. “People will get exercise wherever they can,” says Rick Bell, who runs the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which also collaborated on the guidelines. “The role of designers is to figure out how to give them those choices.”
The link between public health and urban design in New York harks back to the 19th century, when infectious disease was the city’s leading public health scourge. It was a concerted effort between city officials from both sides that brought light and air into the city’s dank, dark tenement neighborhoods, developed sewage systems, established zoning that divided industrial from residential areas, and built a subway system that relieved downtown congestion. Long before the High Line was a paragon of green cool, Fredrick Law Olmstead’s Central Park wasn’t just a leisure space when it opened in 1857: It was hailed at the time as “ventilation for the working man’s lungs.”
A century and a half later, a number of city agencies are engaged in what Burney calls “the battle for a quality urban environment, a battle that’s fought street-by-street, block-by-block.” Part of the fight, already underway through the city’s PlaNYC program, is inspired by “that Jane Jacobs thing about the diversity of the city,” which puts residents within walking distance to amenities like parks, healthy food and libraries, and allows for a certain amount of lively urban chaos. But to create a really green city, Burney sees less obvious steps. “Good lighting, traffic-calming features, bike racks, water fountains, benches along walking paths – anything that gets people out and walking,” he says.
And then there are the stairs. Officials like Burney want to return New York’s stairs to their pre-elevator grandeur, before they were dingy, narrow and tucked into the backs of our office buildings, to be used largely in the event of fire. For a healthy counterexample, officials needn’t look farther than City Hall, with its gorgeous symmetrical staircase (“There’s an elevator and nobody uses it,” says Burney), or even the mayor’s company’s headquarters on Lexington Ave., which boasts a luminous central staircase that almost everyone uses to get between floors. The benefits aren’t just physical, says Bloomberg’s Judith Czelusniak. “The stair encourages interaction and conversation, and at the top and bottom of every staircase you’ll see beautifully designed seating areas to encourage ad hoc meetings and idea sharing.”
Boosting interaction was also the thinking behind the city’s most innovative elevator-killer, the new Cooper Union building by Morphosis. Located across the street from Peter Cooper’s original 1858 building – which included the world’s first elevator shaft – the new building hinges around a central atrium that begins with a grandiose cubist staircase and ends in a sky-lit series of catwalk stairs. The architects aren’t just inviting people to walk up, but nearly mandating it too: the elevator only stops on the third and eighth floors (the handicapped can use a swipe card to access a regular elevator). The building isn’t the first to use a “skip-stop” elevator — Baruch College’s Newman Library in Manhattan and Josep Lluís Sert’s Riverview housing in Yonkers have similar systems — but it’s the boldest yet. To get people taking the stairs, Victoria Milne, the Director of Creative Services at the Dept. of Design and Construction, also suggests elevators be made to move more slowly; she calls this “the naughty strategy.”
The biggest doubters of a “fit city” aren’t, surprisingly enough, handicapped rights groups. “This is about encouraging people across not only age groups and ethnicities but body types as well to engage in exercise,” says Matt Sapolin, who heads the mayor’s office for people with disabilities. “As long as we abide by code, active design can benefit everyone.” The real obstacles may be the city’s developers, who see initiatives like making room for more stairs as taking away from rentable space. Vishaan Chakrabarti, the former chief of city planning for Manhattan who now serves as a top executive at the Related Companies, brushes aside that concern for another one. “You can end up inadvertently promoting much lower density because people want to use stairs and not use elevators. I think it’s fine to say, ‘let’s see how you can use stairs across a few floors in an office building. But practically speaking, you’re never going to get past a few floors without using an elevator.”
Then again, simply reminding New Yorkers that stairs exist may be enough. In one experiment conducted by the Department of Health and the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, simply posting a sign at a housing project in the South Bronx (“Burn Calories, Not Electricity – Take the Stairs”) led to a 42 percent increase in stair walking over nine months. Says Dr. Silver, “It turns out this is actually something people get pretty easily.” That brings up another potential adversary: the city’s fitness companies. No wonder Chakrabari’s Related Companies sounds like they could be running a little scared: they’re also the owner of the city’s Equinox gyms.