The exertionists: Bloomberg’s commissioners would prefer that you not take the elevator, please

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A poster for the Fit City campaign. ()
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One of the hot topics at the sixth annual “Fit City” conference was stairs.

If this weren’t clear from the several images of stairs on material handed out at the Center for Architecture yesterday, there was this, from David Burney, the commissioner of the NYC Department of Design and Construction:

“I think bringing back the staircase is probably one of the biggest design opportunities since the invention of the elevator, because the elevator effectively killed the staircase,” he said. “It became this horrible dingy place, in the back of the building. So we’d like to bring that back. It becomes a programmed space, it becomes a social space."

As it is in the new Cooper Union building, which was designed by Thom Mayne, and completed in 2009.

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Burney was dressed in a black suit and dark patterned tie, and sitting on a stool in the Center for Architecture’s lecture space. To his right was city parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, and Andrew Goodman, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. To his left, on identical stools, were Wendy Feuer, assistant commissioner of design and art at the city Department of Transportation, and Amanda Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission. Standing behind the podium was Rick Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The conference subtitle was Promoting Physical Activity Through Design. It was a day-long event, with sessions such as Private Sector & Community Leadership: Designing Spaces for Active and Healthy Children. This session was the Commissioners’ Panel 1: Active Design in the City.

Somewhere near the beginning of the event, Burney gave a "shout-out" to Les Bluestone, a founder of Blue Sea development who Burney called "sort of fellow traveler with us on these development and design guidelines."

"Among other things he took a residential building that was in full flow and about to start, and redesigned it, because he learned that his staircases were not as prominent as they might be, and directed his architects, and made a last-minute change, so that his new building now will have equal importance to the staircase and the elevator," Burney said.

As an example of some of the work the city health department is doing, Goodman cited “promoting stair use.”

“And I think you’ve probably seen the green signs that we have, so we distributed about 10,000 of those signs in nearly 1,000 buildings,” he said. “And over the course of our project with the signs we’ve distributed over 24,000.”

Much of the discussion among the panelists referred to the “Active Design Guidelines” that the city released in January of 2010, as part of a series of manuals the Bloomberg administration has put together. This particular one was essentially dedicated to how to make people exercise, which, the panel agreed, is not easy.

“One of the things I think we’ve learned in the health department is that it’s very difficult to really shift behaviors by relying on education alone,” said Goodman. “And instead we have to think about how we change the environment, and how we make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

These measures include—other than the obvious bicycle lanes, pedestrian plazas, future bike sharing—pop-up cafes, which, Feuer said, are good because “people have to walk! To go and eat. And hopefully they’ll eat healthy foods. We will be working on a bench program, which is a little bit counterintuitive, but, especially for seniors, they don’t have a place to sit, they sometimes don’t go out and walk.”

Also, she said, citing a recent experience in which a couple of tourists in the subway station at 53rd and Lexington asked her where Rockefeller Center was, they are planning a “wayfinding program.”

“They were thinking they had to take the subway to where they were,” she said.

Benepe had just opened a cricket ground (“the ground is where you play it,” he explained) in southeast Queens; cricket is apparently the fastest growing sport in New York City, and the Parks Department looking into building more grounds. They are installing night lighting on fields, to extend the time during which they can be used.

Some initiatives require partnerships with for-profit entities.

“We have hundreds of volunteer instructors from Equinox clubs, and others, doing free fitness programs in parks and recreation centers across the city,” Benepe said. “That’s been terrific.”

Empire Blue Cross, he said, has been funding exercise programs, in part because it’s to their advantage that their clients be healthy.

Another Parks Department program is called “Swim for Life.”

“We live in a city of water, and, unfortunately, too many people in New York simply can’t swim,” Benepe said.

It’s a big public health issue, because, he said, “If they fall into that water, they will drown. They will be afraid to go canoeing or kayaking, because they can’t swim.”

The program has a lot of non-government support, according to Benepe, and collaborators include not only the Department of Education, but the YMCA and a not-for-profit organization called Asphalt Green. The goal is to teach New York City children to swim by the time they are in the second grade.

“Basically try to drown-proof as many of our kids as possible,” Benepe said. “You could be a future city planning commissioner, or architect, or president, but if you don’t know how to swim your life could end prematurely very quickly.”

The fact that the city is in the business of facilitating swimming lessons, Burden was quick to point out, is very much in keeping with the ethos of this administration.

“This is Mayor Bloomberg’s first priority,” Burden, who was dressed entirely in black, said from her perch. “Public health is his paramount concern.”

“Fortunately, here in New York we have a mayor and City Council that thinks that parks are important, that they’re not just something to do at the end of the day when you have a little bit of money left over,” Benepe said.

The level of investment, he said, is “unparalleled in the modern history of the city. You’d have to go back to the WPA days to have that kind of expenditure on parks.”

And then, it was federal money. “This is city tax dollars,” Benepe reminded the audience, confident that this was the sort of crowd that might be pleased that their tax dollars were being spent on such things. “This is the city saying it’s important to have great spaces to get out and exercise in.”

Feuer, from the Transportation Department, said later, “In a certain sense, the streets of New York have been in suspended animation since the ‘60s, when they were designed around the car.

“We’re coming out of that sort of frozen place and really trying to change them [the streets], but, you know, the issue is that there’s not—we’re not creating demand here. It’s not like we’re advertising and that you’re buying a product. There’s absolutely pent-up demand.”

Answering a question from an audience member about how zoning laws could be used to encourage exercise, Burden said, “You have to have alternate means of mobility; you have to encourage people to walk in every way. And that means making the sidewalks really, really, really, walker-friendly. And there are all sorts of components to that,” Burden said, listing street trees, outdoor cafes, active storefronts, protecting the character of a neighborhood, the right scale, bicycle parking.”

There are two main difficulties in their mission of creating a city more conducive to a fit lifestyle, the panelists agreed. One is targeting the right people—not, presumably, ad men playing tennis in Central Park—and the other is being able to know how it’s working. They are not necessarily unrelated.

“Epidemiological statistics say [where] people are unhealthy—where they’re high risk for diabetes or for being overweight,” Benepe said. “We put the targeted pre-exercise programs into those communities.” And “in some of our work with the fitness program in neighborhoods we actually get people to sort of check in when they start and check out when they’re done, but it’s all self-reported.”

“We talk about measuring a lot,” Burden said. “We are the Bloomberg administration; we love to measure everything.”