The Not-Quite Lecture Notes of Fit-City 4

There is always some sort of free lecture or conference going on in the city.  Monday was Fit-City 4, an annual conference open to the public (meant more for NYC-ers, but not necessarily – I mean, I’m from NJ and I was there…) about how design influences public health.  There were a lot of fairly short lectures – some were a bit repetitive, but most were interesting.

By far my favorite speaker was Professor Pucher of Rutgers University.  It was mostly about the benefits of cycling, and ways urban planning should focus on accommodating bikes.  The stats are staggering … and sort of disturbing (obesity rates, etc. – I can’t put it into words; just look at the charts).  A lot of his presentation can be found in this pdf.

So sad...

Liam recently brought up biking on the blog,  and Matt wrote about Pittsburgh.  Unfortunately, I’m still stuck in suburbia, where sprawl makes it difficult to use cycling and public transportation effectively.  That said, I bike most of my shorter trips, and ride a lot recreationally.  On Sunday, I was hit by a car (I’m fine and my bike is fine, just a little paint on my pedal – the jerk in the SUV has a huge scratch in his car door, though).  And you guys already know about my other experiences with biking.  But I don’t intend to stop riding any time soon, and encourage everyone living ANYWHERE to ditch your car for a while.  As for perception of your city / town, it’s a lot different when you’re not driving.  You have to be a lot more aware of what’s going on when you’re perched on the top of two wheels and cars are flying by you.  Personally, I think driving alongside cyclists needs to become a standard in driver’s ed.  But annnnyway…

Back to the lectures.

Most of the presentations were about urban planning and transportation, but the two case-studies were designed by architects: Cooper Union’s new academic building by Morphosis, and DS+R’s High Line (which just opened Tuesday).

High Line Day One (a photo, not a rendering! whoo!)

The High Line seems like a no-brainer: it’s all about walking, and stairs (nice dose of cardio there), plus, it has plants, and plants are healthy.  Yay green!

Morphosis's Cooper Union - stairs

But I didn’t know much about the Morphosis design, so I learned a lot about ways architecture can manipulate circulation and physical movement.  A lot of the presentations were about stairs (making stairs prettier and obvious and tempting – someone suggested putting food at the top of the stairs as incentive; I found this hilarious), but Morphosis is putting in elevators to make people use the stairs.  Seems counterproductive at first (and I’m not sure how well it works in practice), but the skip-stop elevators only go to certain floors, encouraging people to get off and walk the extra flight or two to get to where they actually need to go.  Pretty neat stuff.  Plus, the stairs are gorgeous.  Check out the link I included before for some pictures.

Govs Island - DS+R rendering, of course

Other interesting things: There was a presentation by…someone (name escapes me) about how different materials can be used to encourage people to go somewhere they might otherwise avoid (i.e. stairs), and act as signs (something mentioned about embedding light tubes in concrete? not sure what exactly he was talking about). Presentation on Governors Island (no cars allowed! walking / biking paradise!).  A lot of bitter audience members (cyclists without a safe place to park their bike, citizens who hate big ugly stores, citizens who love them, architects and designers trying to plug their firms), and some that brought up interesting points (someone asked if there was a way we could design better sidewalks to avoid massive puddles, and someone else asked if there was a better way to design bikes so that we didn’t have to worry so much about parking).

I was glad we went, even though I don’t actually live in NYC.  The range of people in the discussion, from city planners to public health officials to architects to transportation organizations, brought a lot of different approaches to the table and they do seem to be making progress.  As a whole, I think it was a good example of how things do change when people start to work together and actually take action.

On a side note, I was probably the youngest person in that room, and I think they need more students, etc. to get involved to actually implement all these ideas.  See you there next year?


7 Responses to “The Not-Quite Lecture Notes of Fit-City 4”

  1. 1 Liam
    2009/06/12 at 10:48 pm

    Talia, sorry to hear you were hit. That’s crazy. I’ve found drivers really have no idea what they’re doing and I have to fend me for myself on the road.

    Also, I think Field Operations should get credit for the High Line, as the primary firm in design of the High Line. Also check out their plan for Freshkills Park, the reuse of a gigantic landfill in Staten Island.


    (Nice website, yo)

  2. 2 Liza
    2009/06/12 at 11:11 pm

    Liam: I wanted to learn more about the High Line, but the “work” section of the website was way too confusing, everything was spinning, nothing was staying still- I felt like I had vertigo.

  3. 2009/06/13 at 12:07 am

    Liza: Hahaha. Soooo true. Bad Flash navigation can be painful sometimes. I found it, but it was kind of like fishing, just waiting for it to cross my screen. Then I realized you could just click on “alphabetize”…oops. You aren’t missing too much – most of the images have already been reposted elsewhere.

    The text reads: “Inspired by the melancholic, found beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure, the design team aims to re-fit this industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure. By changing the rules of engagement between plant life and pedestrians, our strategy of agri-tecture combines organic and building materials into a blend of changing proportions that accommodates the wild, the cultivated, the intimate, and the hyper-social. In stark contrast to the speed of Hudson River Park, the singular linear experience of the new High Line landscape is marked by slowness, distraction and an other-worldliness that preserves the strange, wild character of the High Line, yet doesn’t underestimate its intended use and popularity as a new public space. This notion underpins the overall strategy the invention of a new paving and planting system that allows for varying ratios of hard to soft surface that transition from high use areas (100% hard) to richly vegetated biotopes (100% soft), with a variety of experimental gradients in between.”

    Liam: Agreed. The biggest problem is that drivers just don’t know HOW to share the road. (Also, some don’t want to.) I contacted the professor from Rutgers to ask if he knew what NJ is doing about the situation…and, predictably, but disappointingly, they aren’t doing much. Ugh.

  4. 4 Bohdan A. Oryshkevich, MD, MPH
    2009/06/19 at 12:26 pm

    I was at the Fit-City 4 presentation. I agree with much that is written here.

    Professor Pucher’s presentation was about both walking and cycling. He is clearly a cycling enthusiast. But his tables corroborated the fact that walking still is the main form of ambulation even in cycle oriented countries like the Netherlands.

    Design is indeed important. But it will take well over a hundred years for stairs in buildings to become a public health influence on walking. The Cooper Union building stairs will serve only the select few who attend or work at Cooper Union. There are no plans to retool the vast majority of buildings with unattractive stairs.

    The problems of obesity and diabetes are primarily a burden on the poor and the poorly educated. There was some talk of that. But the system is not about to provide them with enough education and money for proper nutrition and physical activity in the South Bronx or in Harlem where upto 20 percent of the population is diabetic.

    I have bicycled across the USA and have also done California from Reno NV to Los Angeles. New York City is very far from using bicycling as a fitness tool for the masses. People who are already active are the ones who are cycling. So the impact of cycling on our public health parameters is nil and will be nil for the foreseeable future.

    Bohdan A. Oryshkevich, MD, MPH
    New York City

  5. 5 mzhuber
    2009/06/20 at 5:21 pm

    I think that one of the conceptual links shared by the work of morphosis and field operations is important to the discussion. Thom mayne often stresses the idea of linking architecture with urbanism. While the grand stairs of an academic building encourage walking for the previously mentioned “select few,” it’s the broader scales and the public realms where architecture can have the greatest social influence. Mayne creates architecture that acts as “connective tissue,” or urban infrastructure. Perhaps extended public space and pedestrian connection can encourage foot traffic and unforeseen connection.

    Likewise, James Corner advances a theory known as Landscape Urbanism, where the entire city is seen as one large, thoroughly connected, ecological system. When I visited the Landscape Architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania where James Corner teaches, I heard at least five students and professors say that they abhor the “object building.” They even became suspicious when learning that I study architecture and not landscape or urbanism. Perhaps architects must expand beyond the traditional hermetic seal of the building envelope to affect change in the urban environment and work towards healthier cities. How our buildings are connected to each other, transportation networks, and the landscape is as important as the buildings themselves.

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