There might be a way to fight the obesity epidemic that doesn’t involve telling people to eat healthier and exercise more. And it doesn’t even involve outlawing McDonald’s. The key just might be urban planning.
But not just any urban planning. Urban planning that encourages an active, healthy lifestyle.
On Fast Company’s design blog, Jack L. Robbins, an urban designer, points to a new set of active design guidelines adopted by the New York City Department of Planning and Construction. The idea is to create active environments in people’s daily lives that are convenient and that people actually want to use. These are environments that encourage people to walk or bike instead of drive or take the stairs rather than the elevator, for example.
New York City’s Active Design Guidelines may represent the beginning of a strategic shift in the battle to get Americans to exercise. Instead of trying to change individual choices by using a moral appeal about what is good for us (you should walk to work because it is better for you), it’s about changing the environment to reshape the available choices (you’ll want to walk because it is easier, cheaper, faster, or more enjoyable).
And enjoyment is key. Active design doesn’t just encourage people to walk more by adding a few more sidewalks and a staircase. Because it won’t do much good to put a sidewalk next to a highway. The design has to draw people in.
Studies have shown that walkable places have a clear sense of definition or enclosure, are identifiable and memorable, relate to human scale, and have a sense of activity, complexity and visual richness—in short, an environment that feels stimulating and safe.
Environments that are unwalkable are boring, feel vast and scaleless, and present blank unvaried views. Contrast a vast parking lot with a lively café-lined street and it’s clear what makes an environment walkable.
NYC’s Active Design Guidelines recommend that neighborhoods:
- Develop and maintain mixed land use in city neighborhoods;
- Improve access to transit and transit facilities;
- Improve access to plazas, parks, open spaces, and recreational facilities,
and design these spaces to maximize their active use where appropriate;
- Improve access to full-service grocery stores and fresh produce;
- Design accessible, pedestrian-friendly streets with high connectivity, traffic
calming features, landscaping, lighting, benches, and water fountains;
- Facilitate bicycling for recreation and transportation by developing
continuous bicycle networks and incorporating infrastructure like safe indoor
and outdoor bicycle parking.
While the guidelines, are in no way law-binding, they do demonstrate New York City’s commitment to livable communities and healthy, active citizens.
But it’s not just New York City that’s recognizing the link between obesity and the built environment. Even car-centric cities like Indianapolis are seeing the benefits of this type of urban design. Indianapolis’ Health by Design coalition has been promoting a healthy lifestyle through the built environment since 2006. In 2007, the city broke ground on the bike- and pedestrian-friendly Cultural Trail that connects the city’s downtown cultural districts. It’s a far cry from the rest of the city, but, even in the city famous for cars driving in circles, active urban design is recognized and promoted.
Robbins reminds us that urban design that promotes an active lifestyle isn’t a “silver bullet” to fight obesity. But in cities like Indianapolis, where 1 in 4 are obese and 92 percent drive to work, it certainly wouldn’t hurt for the city to take active urban design guidelines, like in New York City, more seriously.