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The Best Active Designs That Help People Live Healthier Lives

Design influences our health and quality of life, for better or worse and in ways we might not even realize. These are six inspiring examples of the best.

Ever walk into the a building and the stairwell is so dark and dingy, that you decide to take the elevator, even if you’re only going up one flight?

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That’s one very basic way that building design influences our health and fitness. The emerging concept of “active design” aims to push people in the right direction by getting architects, designers, and urban planners thinking about the major role their work plays in getting people to lead healthier lives.

In New York City, the Center for Active Design–established by public health policy guru and former mayor Michael Bloomberg–is working to formalize and popularize principles that guide this kind of thinking. In its second annual excellence awards, its outside jury panel chose six exemplary “active designs” that were built or published in the last year and included at least one of four approaches: active transportation, active recreation, active building, or healthy food access.

Here’s a look at the inspiring winners below (and you can also see last year’s winners here):

City of Pontevedra, Spain

Gustavo Marshall

In 1999, this Spanish city became an early adopter of active design, setting the goal of transforming itself to support walking and cycling rather than driving. Its community-driven master plan put people and public spaces first–widening sidewalks, improving street lighting and adding 400,000 trees. Today, 81% of schoolchildren walk to school, half of them on their own. From 1996 to 2014, traffic downtown has dropped 70% and 30% in the city overall. There have been zero traffic fatalities in eleven years. The judges called it a “great precedent” for other communities.

Guthrie Green, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Jonnu Singleton

This 2.7-acre park serves as a social and cultural hub in a city with some of the worst obesity and life expectancy rates in the nation. The design converted a former truck yard into a gathering venue, with gardens, a central lawn, an outdoor stage, and “interactive” fountains. A foundation provides support for activities like year-round fitness classes, bike races, and farmers markets. The judges laud the design for “addressing health and equity issues in a state with high rates of obesity.”

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New Settlement Community Campus, Bronx, New York

Esto Photography

This campus started with a push for a public swimming pool but extended far beyond that to address overcrowded schools and poor community services. The campus, complete with rooftop garden, cooking classes, and outdoor playgrounds, now brings together activities once located separately in nearby affordable housing facilities and serves a neighborhood with 1,160 K-12 students. The judges say the design works because it shows that “health and community are visible and valued.”

Casitas de Colores, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Patrick Coulie

This “holistic housing project” brought needed affordable living spaces to downtown Albuquerque and has been recognized for making walking a more visible part of city living. With open, wide stairwells, terraces, and patios that provide community facilities and offer views and colorful and inviting walking paths, the project “not only addressed active design but also spurred economic development downtown, leading to the opening of a new grocery store,” say the judges.

Queens Plaza, Long Island City, New York

Sam Oberter

Before its redesign, Queens Plaza was a mess–a parking lot surrounded by 16 lanes of traffic and several loud subway lines. These days, it is “a space that prioritizes the pedestrian.” The multi-agency project created new crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalks, seating, trees, and public art. Landscaping helps improve the air and tamp down the noise. Bicycle traffic is up 12%, with more than 3,400 people using the route daily, and walking rates have doubled.

Stanford Healthy Neighborhood Discovery Tool, United States, Mexico, and Israel

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This is a little different from all the designs above. It’s a research project that is supposed to give citizens a louder voice in policy decisions that affect the build environment around them. The app allows citizen scientists to assess their neighborhoods using geo-coded photos, audio narratives, and GPS walking routes, and surveys. The app has been used in three countries so far. The judges says it is a “big step towards broader community engagement.”

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.

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