Active Design: Guide for Community Groups

The Center for Active Design applauds the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Health Department (DOHMH) for its recognition of the critical need for community input and support to implement Active Design strategies. Through its recent publication, Active Design: Guide for Community Groups and the facilitation of hands-on interactive workshops, the Health Department is helping local community groups throughout NYC’s five boroughs develop their own priorities for transforming neighborhoods to promote greater community health. The collaborative approach between the city and its residents can be replicated by other communities in order to increase knowledge of Active Design and its health impacts, and facilitate neighborhood access to key resources.

The Center for Active Design played an advisory role in the development of the handbook, which outlines the benefits of Active Design, and connects readers to numerous resources offered by public agencies and non-profits throughout NYC. According to Laila Modzelewski, from the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness New York, “Most people had no clue these resources are out there, so it was good to share them.” In less than two months, 1,000 copies have been distributed across NYC and beyond, and the Community Guide has been downloaded over 300 times from the Health Department’s website.

Conversations on the need for a Community Guide originated from community engagement work undertaken by the Health Department. Partnering with member organizations from the CDC-funded Partnership for a Healthier NYC such as Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Development Corporation, Bronx Health REACH, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, over 25 interactive workshops were conducted, which reached over 500 participants. These hands-on workshops were jointly designed and facilitated by Sarah Wolf, Deputy Direct for Built Environment and Healthy Housing at DOHMH, and Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director at the Center for Active Design.

The workshops specifically targeted lower-income communities that have high rates of obesity and chronic disease. Participants were generally enthusiastic about the workshops, as they helped community members come together to envision improved public spaces, understand the resources available to them, and cultivate new relationships with local partners interested in improving public spaces. One participant noted that she appreciated the interactive mapping exercise because it “gave participants an opportunity to visualize for themselves what can be done with a space to make it welcoming to the public for active living.”

The Community Guide addresses five content areas: active transportation, active recreation, active buildings, green space and nature, and healthy foods and beverages. Each section describes how the built environment can promote routine physical activity, and how Active Design can promote physical and mental health, social and economic vitality, and environmental sustainability. As an example, the active transportation section of the publication includes ideas on how to make neighborhoods more walkable, and then provides corresponding information on how to undertake a range of initiatives, including: requesting a CityBench, pursuing graffiti removal, adopting a litter basket, or working with the local community board to request a traffic calming, “Slow Zone” in the neighborhood.

The Community Guide, interactive workshops, and related public outreach have resulted in several success stories. Visit our blog for recent stories from northern Staten Island and Innovation High School in East Harlem. Such approaches can be replicated by other communities in order to increase knowledge of Active Design and its health impacts, and enhance neighborhood access to key resources. By convening community workshops, charrettes, and other training sessions, communities can ensure that unique characteristics are embraced and significant relationships are built in pursuit of designing for health.

Active Design Guide for Community Groups is available for free download by clicking here. To request hard copies, email

To learn more about the community workshop process and how it can be replicated in your community, contact the Center for Active Design at

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