Faces of Public Health: Rick Bell

Aug 16, 2013, 12:37 PM

file Rick Bell, American Institute of Architects New York, at the Fit Nation exhibit

In the last decade or so, leaders in the field of architecture have begun to look at not just the aesthetics of building and community design, but also their own impact on the health of communities. In New York City, for example, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architecture’s New York chapter partnered with several agencies in New York City, including the departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Design and Construction, Transportation, City Planning, and Office of Management and Budget, as well as research architects and city planners to create the city’s Active Design Guidelines. These provide architects and urban designers with a manual of strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces, based on the latest academic research and best practices in the field. The Guidelines include:

  • Urban design strategies for creating neighborhoods, streets, and outdoor spaces that encourage walking, bicycling, and active transportation and recreation.
  • Building design strategies for promoting active living where we work and live and play, through the placement and design of stairs, elevators, and indoor and outdoor spaces.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Rick Bell, policy director of AIA New York, who was instrumental in the creation of the guidelines, about the burgeoning intersection between design and healthier communities.

>>Read more on architecture and design for a fit nation.

NewPublicHealth: How did AIA New York become involved in healthy design with the city of New York?

file Active Design Guidelines

Rick Bell: Much of the credit goes to Dr. Richard Jackson who, as a member of the AIA board several years ago, gave a significant speech at a major AIA conference. I heard that talk and Dr. Jackson had imagery that forever resonated, showing that architects were not only responsible for the parts of the built environment that precipitated problems of lethargy and inactivity and physical complacency in our society, but were actually complicit, therefore, with the obesity epidemic. His images included an escalator up to a second story fitness center at a strip mall in San Diego and someone walking his dog out of the passenger window of his car on a street that didn’t have sidewalks.   

It was because of Dick that, as an architect, I started to think of architecture as directly related to public health. And coincidentally, a young French designer, Laetitia Wolff, had just participated in an exhibition, called ValueMeal about obesity, and wanted to bring her entry to New York, to our Center for Architecture.

Wolff’s show was so visually compelling. Dick had just presented the CDC statistics at the AIA conference that showed the map of the United States and how obesity rates had changed year by year. Letitia took the statistics and represented them graphically by a wall of painted cans of food stuff, which was visually astounding.

I spoke with Lynn Silver who was then the Assistant Commissioner in charge of chronic disease prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (and now health officer in Sonoma County, California). After that the City put out a request for proposals for a conference on how active design could enhance, not impede, mobility by what architects and interior designers and landscape architects and urban designers and city planners do. That became the Fit City Conference, which brings together health professionals and design professionals, and we just held the eighth one.

NPH: Tell us about the conference.

Rick Bell: We started with the premise that we would do an annual conference and bring together people who could talk about evidenced-based design, their own research, and ideas to encourage healthier lives.   

One of our early speakers was Jan Gehl, who’s been consulting to many cities, including our own here in New York, on how to increase the number of people bicycling to work. As an architect in Copenhagen, he was responsible for bringing the idea that bicycling wasn’t just for occasional recreational activity, but could be a form of public transit. Now more than two-thirds of daily commuting trips in Copenhagen are made by bicycle. 

While it is great to have these conversations and have a couple of hundred people in the room, what we really need to extract from these discussions are principles, guidelines or a document that could influence more than just those in the room.

file New York City's High Line Park, excerpted from the Active Design Guidelines

And with that third conference, now five years ago, we initiated the notion that Active Design Guidelines could not only be published from the discussions at the conference, but could benefit from additional workshops, expertise and analysis, and we used subsequent Fit City Conferences as a testing ground for the guidelines. The city of New York is now publishing supplements on particular areas including more attention to sidewalks, more attention to housing, and more attention to issues of security and density, because we’ve learned a lot in discussions we’ve had since the original publication. 

NPH: Are the guidelines New York City-specific?

Rick Bell: They are New York City-specific insofar as all the case studies published as examples are within the city limits of New York.  But when I travel with the Guidelines, when I speak about them in other cities and even overseas, people immediately jump to the principles, not the case studies. The case studies are illustrative and help to explain the principles—such as creating parks that encourage people to walk and not just sit.

I spoke two years ago at the Geneva Health Forum in Switzerland, and I used the principles of the Active Design Guidelines as the organizing rubric of the talk, but used examples from everywhere other than New York City so that whether conference participants were from western Europe or from Asia or from the Pacific Northwest here in the U.S., the universality of the examples came through.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.