Beth Buczynski

INTERVIEW: 5+Design's Michael Ellis Discusses How Architecture Can Fight Obesity

by , 02/06/14

obesity, physical activity, exercise, fitness, healthy environments, healthy buildings, exercise in the built environment, anti-obesity architecture, 5+Design, design for health

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in America, and countries around the world are quickly following suit. One thing most health and nutrition experts can agree on is that there’s no one solution for rapidly growing obesity rates—it’s a problem that must be tackled simultaneously on multiple fronts. While some fight to eliminate sugary drinks, increase fruit and vegetable intake, or reduce portion sizes, Hollywood-based 5+Design is working to combat obesity with its approach to architecture and landscape design. Inhabitat recently sat down with 5+Design’s Michael Ellis to learn more about anti-obesity architecture, and how the built environment can get people to adopt healthy habits without having to think about it. Keep reading for what he had to say.

obesity, physical activity, exercise, fitness, healthy environments, healthy buildings, exercise in the built environment, anti-obesity architecture, 5+Design, design for health

Inhabitat: Some people are sure to read the term “anti-obesity architecture” with some skepticism. Do current architectural practices really discourage healthy behavior?

Ellis: Actually things are changing now quite quickly, but until recently, especially in the US, planning and zoning had a great deal to do with creating unhealthy environments. Separating work areas from residential areas, and emphasizing transportation between these different zones by automobile rather than mass transit, has had a major negative effect on the amount of time people spend walking. And a general lack of emphasis on creating a sense of place in many environments, where there is negligible benefit when walking anyway in terms of enjoying the environment, added to the problem.

Lately there has been a much greater understanding of the beneficial effects of clustering different building types and uses together, which encourages walking. There is also a greater emphasis on creating spaces enjoyable to people, so that they are encouraged to come out, dine and shop, people watch, and linger. There is a greater understanding that combining access to mass transit with mixed-use environments that are pleasing to people can have a very positive affect on peoples’ lives and health.

Within buildings themselves, Europe has lead the way for quite some time in providing access to fresh air and natural light, especially in office buildings. While the US lags in this regard, it is catching up, partly through greater emphasis on sustainable practices, but also because building tenants are starting to demand these types of spaces for their workers.

obesity, physical activity, exercise, fitness, healthy environments, healthy buildings, exercise in the built environment, anti-obesity architecture, 5+Design, design for health

Inhabitat: Give us an example of a project you’ve designed where the emphasis was on health, exercise and/or movement.

Ellis: Luxehills in Chengdu, China (pictured above) is modeled on traditional hill town architecture, and provides numerous ways to move around the project, ascending and descending various passageways as the project is explored. Adjacent housing within walking distance of the town center, also designed by our firm, encourages residents to walk as well.

The masterplan we have just completed for the Dubai International Financial Centre (pictured in gallery) provides both an interior and an open air promenade which spans the length of the project and provides pedestrian access to all buildings and parkland that is completely segregated from automobile traffic. Because of the extreme summer temperatures in Dubai an enclosed passageway is necessary, but during the fall, winter and spring months the temperature can be quite temperate, and the open promenade will provide this center an amenity unlike any other in the city.

Pier Park in Panama City Beach, Florida (pictured at top) is a retail, dining and entertainment project along the Gulf Coast. Unlike much of the surrounding area, which consist of stand-alone buildings with little relationship to each other, accessible only by parking, Pier Park is a walkable street with a great deal of design emphasis on appropriate street furniture, signage, lighting, and landscaping, along with retail and restaurants. This project is among the most popular destinations in the region and a favorite place for an evening stroll for tourists and residents alike.

obesity, physical activity, exercise, fitness, healthy environments, healthy buildings, exercise in the built environment, anti-obesity architecture, 5+Design, design for health

Inhabitat: Is there any evidence that suggests these projects achieve their goal?

Ellis: The proof we have that these projects have worked is in the popularity amongst the visitors and primarily the developers who continuously come to us to design similar projects for their regions. We focus on public space, and on providing pleasing and comfortable connections between different buildings and uses in our projects. We also have many projects located near or on mass transit stations, and we always emphasize these relationships because they are so effective at bringing people to our projects.

Inhabitat: What’s the most important architectural/landscaping tactic designers can use to encourage a healthier populace?

Ellis: Encourage walking. Link different buildings and different types of uses together through pedestrian paths, not only through roads for cars. Make the journey, whatever it may be, pleasurable and not just a necessity. Provide areas of discovery, areas of rest, variety in terms of paving, landscaping, lighting. Create places where people can come together comfortably– people love watching other people, so creating environments where this is possible can go a long way.

+ 5+Design

All images © 5+Design

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