Research Review: Active Design in Affordable Housing

Environmental Justice recently published “One Step at a Time Towards Better Health: Active Design in Affordable Housing,” a monumental and first-of-its-kind study, evaluating the impact of Active Design interventions on physical activity in an affordable residence setting. This study is an important contribution to public health research because, as the authors note, “lower socioeconomic status has been correlated with higher obesity rates among women and children in urban areas.” A team of researchers, led by Dr. Elizabeth Garland from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, conducted focus groups with tenants from two affordable housing buildings in the South Bronx.

Arbor House (AH) and Melrose Commons V (MCV) are both LEED-platinum certified buildings in the South Bronx. Unlike Melrose Commons, Arbor House also earned the LEED “Design for Health” credit for incorporating several Active Design elements, including: a wide and well-lit, centrally-located stairwell filled with artwork and music, along with a delayed speed elevator placed in a non-prominent location. This building also included an indoor gym and outdoor exercise circuit targeted for both children and adults.

Study researchers held focus groups with adult residents from each of the buildings to understand their use and perception of the Active Design elements. Combined with the impact of the delayed elevators, Active Design stairwells led to the majority of AH participants self-reporting an increase in stair use. Participants noted that the slow speed of the elevators often wasn’t worth the wait and resulted in tenants opting to take the stairs instead. Further, children noted that they loved the stairwell music and often played a role in encouraging stair use by adults. The indoor gym and outdoor exercise circuit were also well received, although time constraints and unfamiliarity with exercise equipment posed barriers to use of the gym. Although children also benefited from the design of the outdoor recreation area, parents wished for more spaces designed specifically for children.

Without the benefit of Active Design interventions, study participants at MCV did not report an increase in stair use, commenting that the building’s stairwells are dark, poorly ventilated, and present safety concerns. Aware of the AH gym, MCV participants expressed a desire for a similar facility in their building. The MCV group also commented on the need for access to active spaces for children. Currently, children’s outdoor play is restricted in the MCV neighborhood, due to safety concerns of the local parks and playgrounds..

In summary, participants reported that the following elements are important promoting physical activity:

  • Design interventions that take into account ambiance and safety
  • Inclusion of a a gym, stairwells with stair prompts that are designed to be inviting, and reduced elevator speed
  • Programs, such as fitness training, health education classes, and active spaces for children can further encourage physical activity among tenants.

Click here to purchase the article, “One Step at a Time Towards Better Health: Active Design in Affordable Housing". For more information about Arbor House and its Active Design elements, click here.

  • User Side Images Image 520
    Indoor exercise room at Arbor House. Photo courtesy of Bernstein Associates.
  • User Side Images Image 521
    Outdoor exercise and recreation space at Arbor House. Photo courtesy of Bernstein Associates.
  • User Side Images Image 522
    Stair prompts and fire-rated glass on stairwell doors help to increase overall stair usage at Arbor House.