Building attractive staircases to encourage better health

Staircases are necessary in many buildings but a new report suggests constructing them in attractive ways would help boost health:

And as ULI’s report argues, there’s more at stake than just aesthetics. A raft of research suggests that more appealing stairways may actually beckon more people to climb, in turn helping to reduce stroke risk, improving cardiovascular health and fighting obesity.

First, the obvious: More exercise, like the kind you get from taking the stairs instead of the elevator, is good for you. A 40-year study of nearly 17,000 (male) Harvard alumni, published in 1986, found that those who walked, took the stairs and played sports were likely to live longer than their more sedentary classmates. The researchers found that by age 80, one to two additional years of life were attributable to exercise. Take the stairs, enjoy a longer life.

And it appears designers and architects really can bait people into doing what’s good for them. A 2004 study saw a 9 percent increase in foot traffic when researchers added motivational signs, artwork, carpeting, new paint and music to a CDC building’s stairwells. A similar 2001 study published in the American Journal of Public Health tested two interventions in the University of Minnesota’s public health building and found that while shaming signs—“Take the stairs for your health”—didn’t motivate stair travel, adding artwork and music to them via a compact disc player (aww, 2001) increased stair traffic by nearly 5 percent. “Buildings should be designed with attractive stairwells that are accessible to the general population,” the researchers concluded.

There are more dramatic intervention options, too. ULI, guided by principles from the Center for Active Design, argues that developers should be thinking seriously about stairways even before the construction crew moves in. The groups recommend placing stairs closer to building entrances than elevators and making them more visible. (A 2007 analysis found stairways’ accessibility and visibility explained 53 percent of their use in 10 university buildings.) Using glass panels as walls instead of concrete and cinderblock also gently guides people toward stairways.

Stairs can be an exciting architectural feature as well as a health boon. In contrast, elevators in large buildings don’t present many benefits for health or architecture. The typical lobby of a modern high-rise includes a spacious room with ill-defined sections with banks of elevators somewhere to the side or back. Stairs, if done well, can present an interesting focal point and help define the space. However, I wonder if these findings primarily apply to low-rise buildings where the stairs could be used as the primary means of traveling between floors.

“Milan’s ‘Vertical Forest’ Declared 2014’s Coolest High-Rise”

The winner of an international high-rise award is a “vertical forest” in Milan:

Milan’s “vertical forest” has been named the winner of the 2014 International Highrise Award. Rising above a shortlist of towers by Rem Koolhass, Jean Nouvel, and Steven Holl, Boeri Studio’s Bosco Verticale was selected for being an “expression of the human need for contact with nature.”

“It is a radical and daring idea for the cities of tomorrow, and without a doubt represents a model for the development of densely populated urban areas in other European countries,” continued jury president Christoph Ingenhoven. It’s got like 900 trees on it.

Not exactly pristine nature here but an innovative way to include a lot of trees. Here is more on the benefits of the trees:

Said Boeri Studio in a statement, “this is a kind of biological architecture that refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.” Along with the saplings, some 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 floral plants are planted on the balcony of each apartment, with the aim of creating a microclimate of sorts able to filter out pollutants and oxygenate the area, fed only with the tower’s wastewater.

What if these trees were fruit trees or other kinds of plants? I suppose this could cause problems with falling objects but they could also provide food in addition to providing more nature.

Urban differences: Portland, Oregon has only one doorman

Here is an example of differences between cities: New York City is well known for its doormen but Portland, Oregon has only one.

[Richard] Littledyke, a tall, fair-skinned blonde of 28 years, has held doors open for Burlington residents for eight months. The previous doorman, Auggie Contreras, reluctantly vacated the position for a higher-paying bellhop gig at the Nines Hotel…

The Burlington Tower is Portland’s only residential building with a doorman. Other apartments have concierges and several hotels have bellhops at the front doors, but Littledyke is unique. Visitors to the area often use him as a landmark to find their parked car…

Both men said Portland’s lack of doormen probably comes down to the city’s size, age and housing stock.

In Portland, where far fewer people are cramped into limited space, people with extra money achieve status with a nice house and a well-groomed yard, Bearman says. New York’s cramped real estate requires doormen to serve the same purpose.

“They are tied into how to create elegance and luxury in apartment buildings, where space is limited,” Bearman says. “They also provide a bridge between the outside and the inside of a building that a yard serves to provide in a house.”

The explanation: when you have higher residential densities, more high-rise apartments or condos, and wealthier residents, doormen become more common as residents want to clearly signal their status and keep the outside world beyond the doors of their building. The suggestion here is that certain kinds of buildings lead to having doormen – I wonder if this is necessarily the case. Could there also be regional differences, places where it might be considered gauche to have a doorman? The article suggests several apartment buildings in Portland have concierges – how does this differ in the eyes of residents and others?

To build or not to build a 20-story high-rise in Oak Park

While a proposed 20-story high-rise in Oak Park is unique in that it would be built just outside the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district, the conversation about whether the building should be constructed or not is one that may be facing more suburbs in the coming years:

She said the building’s size has been the primary complaint, but there has also been grumbling over the modern design looming over the historic Wright district.

“I think, in the end, a lot of people could live with the aesthetics if it weren’t for the height and the density,” she said.

Officials have been trying to attract new business and tourists by making the village more “walkable.” About $15 million in streetscaping improvements has been proposed, with $5 million already approved by the board.

Village Manager Tom Barwin says the building would help visually draw the downtown district together while creating a “Hey, what’s that?” mentality.

In built-out communities like Oak Park that have little or no open space, projects like this are going to become more commonplace. It sounds like the typical criticisms are being raised: the building is too tall, there are too many housing units (is this tied to the type of people who live in apartments or the strain on city services?), and it doesn’t fit with the character of the community. But the city suggests it has a plan to be more “walkable,” a buzzword among many designers (and perhaps started by New Urbanists), which is supposed to reduce congestion and improve neighborhood and community life.

On one hand, it might be easy to look at the criticisms of the project and suggest that some residents would resist almost any kind of change to their community. They know the Oak Park that they like and they will do a lot to try to maintain that. On the other hand, if land-challenged suburbs are going to experience any growth or change, redevelopment is going to be necessary. Of course, communities don’t want too many projects that are completely out of place but they don’t want to remain stagnant either. The trick is going to be how to balance the character of the community with change that is going to happen. Perhaps it doesn’t have to come in the form of 20-story buildings but I suspect more large Chicago suburbs, including places like Naperville, are going to seriously consider high-rise projects in the next few decades.

Summing up Mayor Daley’s mixed “public housing legacy”

There wasn’t much talk about public housing before the election earlier this year to replace Mayor Daley in Chicago. (Frankly, there isn’t much talk about this at the federal level either.) But one journalist suggests that Mayor Daley left a “complex public housing legacy” for the new Mayor Emanuel:

Last month, as Richard M. Daley approached retirement, the Chicago Housing Authority released a first-of-its-kind report on residents who were forced to leave the high-rises. It concluded that the changes made life safer, more stable and more hopeful for thousands of families.

But while Daley was praised by some for abandoning the high-rise system, housing advocates say the changes have done little to break the grip of poverty.

“As an urban-development strategy, the transformation is an A. It gets a far poorer grade if it is approached as a strategy to help low-income populations to achieve social and economic stability in their lives,” said Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who spent 18 months living in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

Some observers, like author Alex Kotlowitz, fear the disappearance of the high-rises means Chicago’s poverty has passed out of sight and out of mind.

Some of the media talk about public housing in Chicago has been positive: the once notorious high-rises, particularly those at the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side and the Cabrini-Green complex on the north side (see thoughts about the demolition of the last high-rise here, here, here, and here), are now gone. (It was a bit strange last week to ride the Brown Line north out of the Loop and not see any Cabrini-Green high-rises.) In the eyes of the media, the problems of concentrated poverty and crime have been reduced. The land can be put to other uses, particularly at Cabrini-Green as it is very valuable land between Lincoln Park and the Loop.

On the other hand, the concerns of people like Venkatesh and Kotlowitz will not go away. Simply destroying public housing high-rises does not deal with the larger issues: there are still large parts of Chicago where residents have reduced life chances compared to better-off parts of the city. In the article, new Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cited as saying that the goal of reducing the isolation of the public housing residents (the goal that was “short of ending poverty”) has been successful.

I can’t imagine the new mayor will or perhaps even can devote much time to this issue as the persistent problems of budgets, crime, jobs, and education need to be addressed. Still, it will be interesting to see how Emanuel addresses public housing moving forward.

CHA reports on families displaced by the Plan for Transformation

After the recent removal of the final public housing high-rise residents in Chicago, the Chicago Housing Authority released figures Wednesday about what has happened to the displaced high-rise residents:

In the 12 years since the CHA began its Plan for Transformation, an ambitious effort to overhaul public housing, the number of families receiving CHA housing subsidies has been cut in half, with only 56 percent — or 9,388 households, excluding senior citizens — in the system, according to a study prepared by the CHA.

Only 60 of those families have rented or purchased homes in the suburbs, a finding that challenges long-held beliefs that crime had followed former residents from the high-rises into their communities…

The CHA, however, acknowledged that it has lost track of 2,202 families that once lived in CHA housing, and another 1,307 households found housing without CHA assistance.

Former residents now live in 71 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, according to the report. However, the majority of them moved to neighborhoods such as Englewood, Woodlawn, Auburn Gresham, Roseland and Greater Grand Crossing, communities that already were burdened with high crime and poverty. Others moved into working-class African-American communities such as Chatham and South Shore, saturating formerly stable neighborhoods of single-family homes with renters.

Overall, this article seems to shy away from asking this question: has the removal of these high-rises led to better lives for their former residents or improved conditions for poorer neighborhoods in the city? This article doesn’t offer much positive evidence: very few have moved to the suburbs, the CHA has lost track of some families while others have dropped out of the system, and former high-rise residents encounter stereotypes when moving to new neighborhoods. The high-rises may be gone but the deeper issues are still present.

Linking crime rates to poor urban design

The possible effects that urban design has on human behavior is an interesting, cross-disciplinary field of study. In the pages of the Jerusalem Post, an architect and town planner calls for better urban design in order to reduce crime rates:

But the crime problem will not be resolved through increased police forces alone. The function of police is to apprehend criminals, but they can in no major way create or foster security by eliminating the conditions in which most crime breeds.
Also obvious to all is that a panicky response to the problem – clearly evident in the government’s actions in the case of Lod – is unsuitable and sure to prove wasteful. Needed is a far deeper understanding of the roots of the problem, including its social, economic and moral aspects, such as inequality. One important factor, not well enough understood, is simply the physical environment.

Architecture can encourage encounter or help prevent it. Certain kinds of buildings and spatial layouts favor criminal activity. Knowing how to identify problem areas in existing environments, understanding why they have become dangerous, then prescribing corrective measures is essential. Knowing how to create safe new environments, at least avoiding the many pitfalls leading to the creation of dangerous spaces, is the other side of the coin. While architecture admittedly operates more in the area of influence than control, it can be an important step toward preventing crime…

With our rapidly expanding population and limited land reserves, urban renewal and the creation of new medium- to high-density, large-scale housing developments, most difficult challenges have become an urgent necessity. The time has come for the existing professional literature on environmental sociology and psychology – practically unknown or systematically ignored here for so many years – to be given the serious attention and respect it deserves.

These are interesting claims: a certain kind of urban design will reduce crime rates and is a better response (or more measured approach) than panicked crack-downs on crime. This sort of argument is not uncommon: New Urbanists make claims about community life based on their planning principles. Several full communities as well as a number of smaller developments have been built with these particular principles that are intended to counter the sterile life of suburban sprawl. Similar claims have also been made in the United States. Not too long ago, in the era of public housing high-rises, it could often be heard that such buildings prompted more crime. The counter-argument was that plenty of wealthy people live in high-rises without much crime, a contrast that could clearly be drawn in cities like Chicago where public housing high-rises and wealthy high-rises were within sight of each other.

In American discussions of this topic, the conversation often turns to Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book, Jacob makes an argument for “eyes on the street” in order to ensure a vibrant and safe community. By this, she meant that a certain number of people, resident, shop owners, walkers, and others are on the street throughout the day, signaling to people that the neighborhood is watching.

I would be curious to know: how many urban sociologists today would suggest that particular urban designs or principles are key factors in reducing crime or anti-social behaviors? While architects and planners make this argument (perhaps to illustrate the important social consequences of their work), how much research supports this claim?