We know we should take the stairs and not the elevator because it’s better for our health and doesn’t burn fossil fuels. But when that elevator is slap bang in the middle of the foyer and the stairs are tucked down the end of some creepy passageway, our willpower tends to give way to convenience. Recognizing this ultimately self-harming quirk of our psychology, New York City is now taking steps (pardon the pun) to encourage people to take the stairs through the process of Active Design.

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If you are in New York, chances are you’ve seen the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s new poster campaign. “Burn Calories, Not Electricity. Take the Stairs!” aims to fight the health risks associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, while also tapping into New Yorkers’ green conscience. From a public health perspective, just the small behavioral shift of taking three to five flights of stairs a day can prevent the average one pound per year that U.S. adults gain. As Dr Karen Lee, a Senior Advisor to the Department, told NPR “If the average American adult was to climb just two more minutes of stairs per day, we could burn enough calories to offset the average annual weight gains we see in American adults.”

Related: INFOGRAPHIC: How to Create Community Through Quality Public Spaces

But how do you override the convenience factor? A number of New York City agencies united a few years ago to create the Active Design Guidelines for architects and urban planners. The city also funds the Center for Active Design. In addition, all new city buildings must now consider active design strategies in their planning. By way of explanation of the impact that design can have on the public health outcomes of a building, former New York City commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, David Burney says, “As architects and planners, we’ve been part of the problem, in terms of making our lives so sedentary, making things so easy. And there are ways that we can and should correct that.” He likenscombating the public health issues of a sedentary lifestyle with architecture to the design improvements in sanitation and public spaces that helped beat infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid in the past.

Favoring the carrot over the stick, Active Design aims to encourage people to use stairs by making them the more appealing option. This provides opportunities for architects to design elegant solutions too. As Burney states: “There was a time before the elevator when the staircase was a huge opportunity for architects — three-dimensional space, the sculptural quality of the stair.” Through a combination of public awareness campaigns and increasing the attractiveness of stairs as architectural spaces, New York City is working to defuse a public health time bomb, with the added bonus of cutting energy consumption in the process.


Photos by Vicente Villamón via Flickr, and JD Hancock