NEW YORK—In an effort to make it easier for New Yorkers to become healthier, the city government and its many agencies are promoting physical activity and health through design.
Parking meters, 17,000 of them, will be converted into bike racks by the Department of Transportation. Stairways in buildings across the city are being made more attractive to residents and visitors. Water fountains in new buildings must have 10-inch faucets so bottles can be refilled.
It’s all in an effort to help reverse the “obesity epidemic,” according to Linda Gibbs, deputy mayor of Health and Human Services. City statistics show that half of adult New Yorkers are overweight (34 percent) or obese (22 percent),” according to the Health Department’s website. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than one out of five NYC schoolchildren are obese.
“The health benefits of physical activity—people are focusing on it now because of the obesity epidemic—but the health benefits go way beyond obesity prevention,” said Thomas Farley, Health Department commissioner. He checked off a long list of diseases and conditions that fitness helps prevent, including diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer.
Farley referenced an article published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2005, saying that if everyone added two minutes of stair climbing a day (about six floors) every day, it would power enough calorie burn to flatline weight gain.
The three main things for getting New Yorkers healthier is “decreasing bad stuff, increasing good stuff, increasing physical activity,” said Gibbs. By stuff, she meant edibles. Next she joked about the city taking a host of “bad stuff” out of the commissary in Riker’s Island, saying a riot could potentially be at hand.
“The inmates that want their M&M’s, and we say ‘No,’ and ‘Would you like a lovely apple?’” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd packed into the session during Fit City 7: Promoting Physical Activity Through Design on Monday at the American Institute of Architects’ New York building in Greenwich Village.
“We were more scared of the seniors,” she added, referring to efforts to offer healthier food at senior centers.
A host of city officials joined Gibbs and Farley for the session, explaining their roles in helping shape the city into a place where one can’t help but become healthy.
Besides banning smoking in parks, Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, lauded safe bike paths as “one of the single biggest contributions to a more livable and fitter city.”
With the help of the Trust for Public Land, school playgrounds have started opening during off-hours and weekends, said Benepe. Replacing grass on playing fields with synthetic turf has increased their durability, while lights stretch the hours people can use the fields.
Edna Wells Handy, Department of Citywide Administrative Services commissioner, said that in the Manhattan Municipal Building some agencies have begun having mobile meetings, or walking and talking, on the newly opened, 30,000-square-foot 17th floor.
A central issue during the presentations and discussion, the Active Design Guidelines, were developed to give architects and urban designers “a manual of strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces, based on the latest academic research and best practices in the field,” according to city’s Department of Design + Construction website.Building codes are usually treated by architects and designers as set criteria while they are supposed to be minimums, said Ira Gluckman, Queens borough commissioner for the Department of Buildings.
“What will happen is those publications will filter into the minds of the designers, slowly but surely, and eventually they’ll have an effect on the codes, where the codes will become more liberal in nature but less stressed about the minimums, and give advice on how to do better,” he said.
Richard A. M. Beaumont, a project manager with SLCE Architects, expressed uncertainty about whether the building codes are helping or hurting. “New York City is one of the strictest cities with building codes,” he said. “You’re constantly going back to the post to make sure you’re complying with it.”
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