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July 1, 2017

“DDC Talks” Lecture Series Highlights City’s Active Design Initiative

Dan Leibel

Long Island City, NY - The latest lecture in the “DDC Talks” series presented by the New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) saw two experts from the Center for Active Design – Suzanne Nienaber, Partnerships Director, and Bryan Ross, Associate – discuss ways to leverage urban design to improve community health. The Center for Active Design is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in New York City, that promotes architecture and urban planning solutions to improve public health.

Stairwell at Elmhurst Community Library
A central stairwell and glass walls that allow for natural illumination are two features at the Elmhurst Community Library in Queens that follow the City’s active design guidelines

“The built environment connects to a range of community health outcomes,” said Suzanne Nienaber. “Conscientious design influences behavior. Plaza development, for instance, encourages people to be outside and leads to increased socialization. This is important because cities can use design to effectively enhance connections between people and strengthen its neighborhoods.”

Led by a coalition of the DDC, the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP), New York City published Active Design Guidelines in 2010 that promote physical activity and health when designing public projects.

Nienaber and Ross described the benefits of design through the lenses of these guidelines, which were written in partnership with the Center for Active Design. A green roof, for example, like the one on Manhattan District’s 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage, improves the air quality of the surrounding area and helps filter out pollutants contained in rainwater.

The green roof at the M 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage
The green roof at the M 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage helps to improve air quality and reduce stormwater runoff

Other improvements to public health can be influenced by layouts of new public buildings, they said. The Elmhurst Community Library boasts multiple features that follow the City’s active design guidelines. Designed to maximize natural light, the building’s central lobby creates a welcoming and interactive community asset. Additionally, a visible, attractive, central stairwell encourages active movement by library users. By designing the stairwell as a centerpiece of the library, patrons are more physically engaged, ultimately adding to the mental and social well-being that the library provides.

Nienaber and Ross also discussed how infrastructure upgrades, such as rain gardens (bioswales) in communities across the City, contribute to an active urban environment by functioning as green areas and a means to collect polluted stormwater runoff before it hits the City’s waterways. Green spaces encourage people to go outside and socialize with one another, they said. More aesthetically pleasing to the eye, plantings in the City are shown to reduce stress and boost mental health of urban dwellers. The same is true for open spaces including parks, plazas and other seating areas.

A new rain garden, also known as a bioswale, helps to add green space to the City landscape

Fine details in parks and public buildings also greatly contribute to the mental health of those who use the spaces, Nienaber and Ross said. Sensory elements such as lighting and sound can greatly influence perception of City life. By adding sound muffling glass to buildings, or trees to public spaces, New Yorkers can get a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of urban life and achieve a sense of peace and quiet within the concrete jungle.

Active design also has a ripple effect, with benefits amplified as more active design elements are introduced. Higher levels of physical activity are associated with better mood. Strong social ties, encouraged through community spaces, can benefit mental health and aid in dealing with stress.

“We want to harbor diversity and we want to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles,” said Bryan Ross. “Designs for safe, walkable, and well maintained buildings and neighborhoods maximize an important range of community health outcomes.”

Active Design Guidelines
The City’s Active Design Guidelines were published in 2010 through a partnership led by four City agencies

With expertise in urban planning and facilitation, Suzanne Nienaber has orchestrated over 100 presentations and participatory workshops that encourage designers, planners, developers and policymakers to transform the built environment to support physical activity and healthy eating. Previously she consulted for New York City’s inter-agency Active Design team, where she developed and implemented training programs to familiarize professionals with NYC’s Active Design Guidelines.

Bryan Ross supports civic engagement, training and outreach initiatives at the Center, bringing his diverse experience in operations and strategy across the legal, financial, design, cultural and urban planning sectors. He currently spearheads the Center's collaboration with New York City as it seeks to leverage design in elevating holistic community health.

About the NYC Department of Design and Construction
The Department of Design and Construction is the City’s primary capital construction project manager. In supporting Mayor de Blasio’s lenses of growth, sustainability, resiliency, equity and healthy living, DDC provides communities with new or renovated public buildings such as such as firehouses, libraries, police precincts, new or upgraded roadways, sewers, water mains in all five boroughs. To manage this $15 billion portfolio, DDC partners with other City agencies, architects and consultants, whose experience bring efficient, innovative, and environmentally-conscious design and construction strategies to city projects. For more information, please visit