Introducing the Center for Active Design
It is my great pleasure to introduce you to the Center for Active Design, a new organization that is dedicated to promoting health through the design of buildings, streets, and neighborhoods. The Center has grown out of years of interdisciplinary work, convening professionals from health, planning, transportation, architecture, and construction. As the Chair of the Board for the Center, I am extremely pleased to take part in creating an organization that will share innovations in design that support the health and well-being of communities around the world. Whether you’re a designer, developer, policy maker, or health professional, I hope that the Center will serve as a resource to communicate best practices, share research and emerging design trends, and create a community of professionals who are thinking creatively about how to make our world healthier.
Initially, the connection between health and the design of the built environment was not immediately apparent to me. However, working with my counterparts at the New York City Health Department, other agencies, and academic institutions, I learned about the important connections between design of our buildings and neighborhoods and public health. History makes the case for this. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the epidemics of infectious diseases in densely populated cities were solved not only through medical advancements, but through a commitment to transforming design and infrastructure. Here in NYC, the Croton Aqueduct was built to pipe in fresh water, Central Park brought greenery and open space as the “working man’s lungs”, the Tenement House Act mandated healthier housing, and a public transit system improved mobility and reduced overcrowding in Lower Manhattan. Together, these initiatives led to a remarkable decrease in deaths from infectious diseases, and a healthier city overall.
These lessons can be applied again today. Professionals from across a variety of disciplines are recognizing that once again, design can play an essential role in reversing today’s major health epidemics: obesity and associated chronic diseases. Approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of U.S. youth are obese or overweight. If trends continue, obesity rates are expected to continue to increase dramatically by 2030 and associated healthcare costs will reach nearly a trillion dollars annually. This is certainly a health crisis, as we may be witnessing the first generation of children with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
The good news is that emerging research points to design strategies, policies, and programs that are beginning to reverse these trends, and some cities across the U.S have recently reported a slight drop in childhood obesity. NYC reported a 5.5% decline in the number of obese schoolchildren from 2007 to 2011. Better nutrition is an important factor in reducing obesity, and it is equally important to reverse our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Health professionals affirm that more physical activity improves all our health and is especially important for the health of our growing senior population. The Active Design Guidelines – published in 2010 – describe a variety of design strategies that can promote greater physical activity and access to healthy foods, and the Center for Active Design will serve a resource for designers and health professionals in promoting a healthier built environment. If you care about design, health, and the sustainability and livability of communities, the Center for Active Design looks forward to working with you.
David Burney, FAIA