Center for Active Design: Excellence awards illuminate diverse local contexts prioritizing holistic health

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By Symphony Chau, Senior Analyst – Communications, Center for Active Design

This year’s Center for Active Design: Excellence awards winners represent the best national and international projects that support public health through innovative active design strategies. While the Active Design movement began with a focus on how the built environment impacted health through physical activity, there has been a recognizable effort over the past 5 years to incorporate mental, social, and civic wellbeing as crucial pillars in health-promoting design.

Most recently, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Center for Active Design (CfAD) released findings from the “Assembly Civic Engagement Survey,” the first survey of its kind to examine how community design features influence multiple measures of civic engagement. Through the annual Excellence awards, CfAD recognizes winners’ leadership as they use buildings, streets, and neighborhoods to support healthy and engaged communities. The following projects are three out of the eight outstanding winners.

Pop-up bike lane brings the community together in Macon, Georgia

Macon Connects is an innovative community driven pop-up bike network that eventually led Macon, Georgia to start installing permanent bike lanes across the city. Macon Connects, a collaborative project led by NewTown Macon in partnership with Macon-Bibb County, 8 80 Cities, and the Better Block Foundation was the winner of the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge in 2016. In September 2016, Macon Connects installed five miles worth of pop-up bike lanes in Macon for a week-long period to transform residents’ means of transportation around town. During the duration of the pop-up, the number of residents commuting to work or school via bicycle increased 9.5 fold.

The Macon Connects pop-up bike lane network was an idea that grew out of the Macon Connects Ideas Festival, a community event to explore the possibilities for improving mobility and connections in Macon. What distinguishes a pop-up bike network from permanent infrastructure is that the pop-up network is temporary and constructed primarily by ordinary citizens. This provided an educational tool for Macon’s citizens and generated public support for investing in the permanent bike infrastructure. By engaging with the community and asking for feedback throughout the process, Macon Connects brought together an entire community to promote active living.

Volunteers constructing bike network. Courtesy of 8 80 Cities.
Bikers. Courtesy of NewTown Macon.

Small towns in Veneto, Italy use active design to revive physical activity and social interaction for residents

Halfway across the world, similar efforts are emerging in the region of Veneto, Italy through Veneto Active City. The project, led by urban planners at Corti Urbane (Urban Courtyards) and public partners in towns and cities with less than 250,000 inhabitants across the region of Veneto, aimed to implement active design strategies to promote a healthier and more active lifestyle for residents by creating infrastructure designed to encourage active transportation. Through a long-term, pragmatic approach, the region is working to shift current transportation trends from car-centric to more active modes of transportation including cycling, walking, and others. Through improvements in road safety measures, expansion of community gathering spaces, and developments in the bicycle infrastructure, Veneto Active City has already hit several key milestones, including a 40 percent annual increase in cycling and pedestrian traffic.

Veneto Active City Mock Up. Courtesy of Corti Urbane.
Cyclists. Courtesy of Corti Urbane.

Through this effort, Corti Urbane hopes to influence how planners think of small urban centers, where more than 60 percent of Europeans reside, and help show how improved pedestrian zones, cycling lanes, and public transportation can improve resident health. Corti Urbane sees that building permanent infrastructure to create active living options for residents and community members not only benefits physical health of Veneto residents, but also social and civic health.

An urban library fosters social and civic connections in Queens, New York

The Elmhurst Public Library in Queens, New York is another exemplary project where the design of a public space actively promotes health. Located in one of the fastest growing and most ethnically diverse residential neighborhoods of Queens, the Elmhurst Library draws approximately 1.2 million annual visitors, who speak over 57 languages. The brand-new space, which opened in December 2016, was designed by Marpillero Pollak Architects, the Queens Borough Public Library, and the NYC Department of Design and Construction to embrace its identity as a community institution. The building reflects choices made by the design team that provide residents with a unique space that meets a wide range of needs, with features including a location across the street from the subway station, improved outdoor spaces, a 24/7 entry plaza with constant WiFi access for library cardholders, active walking paths, a Historic Community Park, and a learning garden.

In addition, the library’s design provides after-hours access to an adult learning center and multipurpose room, increasing opportunities for community programs, such as Tai Chi classes, dance workshops, and discussions of relevant civic issues. Through a focus on integrating the indoor and outdoor spaces, the library offers its patrons an active and vibrant environment, animated by views, art, displays, resources, and events. The reading rooms, also known as cubes, glow in the nighttime, announcing the library’s presence as a safe and welcoming space for community members. Elmhurst Library is a groundbreaking example that serves as a model for how libraries can be transformed into safe and healthy community centers as designers and planners integrate sustainability, health, and design.

Elmhurst Public Library. Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.
Elmhurst Public Library. Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.

Interested in learning about all of the Center for Active Design: Excellence award winners? You can read about the seven winning projects here: awards.centerforactivedesign.org.

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