4 Award-Winning Buildings That Nudge People To Live Healthier Lives

These projects, ranging from a rural school to an affordable housing site, won a competition for their ability to quietly encourage citizens to make healthier choices.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was infamous for many of his innovative public health “interventions,” from trans-fat bans to a crackdown on large-sized sodas. One of the lesser known was his administration’s pioneering of the concept of “active design,” the relatively new idea that city and building designers can play a major role in nudging people to live healthier lives through exercise and other habits.


The Center for Active Design, a nonprofit established by the Bloomberg administration in 2013, is now on a mission to spread the gospel of the active design guidelines put out by the city. (Bloomberg also signed an executive order that all city-funded buildings, from affordable housing construction to new office spaces, must follow these guidelines.) The center recently announced its first annual “Excellence Awards,” featuring four innovative projects that are already built and making an impact on people’s lives.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that really proves that the spaces where we live and the design of the communities we lives has a direct impact on our health,” says Joanna Frank, executive director of the center. “There’s been this realization that the design community has a large role to play in public health.”

Frank cites a wide range of small tactics that change people’s activity in built spaces. Benches on sidewalks increase the number of people who walk. Stairwells that are nicely lit and are actually possible to find are a good “active building” strategy. Gardens increase access not just to healthy food, but to increased physical and social activity. “We’re talking about using design to make the choice to move the one you actually instinctively want to take,” she says.

A jury selected these four winners out of 40 entries, from around the country and a few from around the world.

Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School, Dillwyn, Virginia

Designed by VMDO Architects, the rural school has a problem with childhood obesity, with little access to fresh, healthy food or parks for kids. Recognizing this, the school designers created a teaching kitchen, a food lab lounge, a kitchen garden with raised beds, and a “grab-n-go” garden adjacent to play areas.


In addition, the lobby stairwell is attractive and naturally lit. It connects two shared common spaces and functions as a social hub. Desks are designed to encourage “micro-movements,” allowing students to fidget, lean, and sway, and develop active postures.

Sephardic Community Center, Brooklyn, New York

BKSK Architects’ renovation and expansion of a 30-year-old building turned the central stair into the focal point of the community. A key innovation is the glass wall along the wide central stair that dramatically incorporates more than 400 images of family members who immigrated to the U.S. The building design funnels natural light into the stairwell, despite it being in the center, while elevators are featured less prominently nearby.

Blue Hole Regional Park, Wimberley, Texas

After years of recreational use, this natural, spring-fed swimming hole needed a rescue. A design team led by Design Workshop, Inc. envisioned its restoration as a regional park that balanced environmental considerations with active recreational use–a difficult balance to achieve. The team managed to protect 96% of the area from development while simultaneously adding 320,000 square feet of playgrounds, fields, and camp sites.

Greenbridge Master Plan, King County, Washington


Major challenges to revitalizing this 100-acre affordable housing site in Seattle included creating a walkable design and transforming the single-use residential configuration into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. A variety of pedestrian routes now pass by many types of destinations, including parks, food gardens, and “pocket parks.” Art is located in relation to the reserved existing trees to enrich sensory cues that support walkability and create nodes for community gathering.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire