By Michaela Kramer and Anya Patterson
The Karp Strategies team recently attended the Hindsight Conference, an annual event organized by the APA NYM Diversity Committee that explores urban planning through an equity lens. This year’s theme, “Our Health, Our Future”, was an effort to shine a light on the important intersection between health and planning, and pressingly, grapple with 2020’s unprecedented public health crisis. By the start of the November 11 conference, 292,000 people had contracted COVID-19 in New York City, a number starkly higher in majority Black and brown communities.
Over the course of the two-day virtual event, participants heard from and engaged with cross-sector leaders about the need to decenter whiteness in planning, pathways for healing and trust-building, and new models for economic development. In each session, emphasis was given to centering Black and brown existence in health, joy, and creativity.
While the event provided many lessons and resources that the Karp Strategies team looks forward to incorporating into our work, we are focusing our reflection here on the session: Active Design 2.0: A Playbook for Health Equity. The session brought together Kizzy Charles-Guzman of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Nupur Chaudhury of the New York State Health Foundation, Josh Langham of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Suzanne Nienaber of the Center for Active Design, and Delma Palma of the New York City Housing Authority in a conversation about bridging the gap between health research and design practices. Much of the conversation centered around the forthcoming Active Design Guidelines 2.0, which will be updated from the original 2010 Guidelines. The manual provides architects, urban designers, and planners with strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets, and public spaces, based on the latest academic research and best practices in the field. Given how widely used the Guidelines are and how anticipated this update is, we are eager to share this recap and reflection for any colleagues who were not able to attend this dynamic session.
A virtual conversation about active design from cross-sector experts
A New Definition of Health and Design
The session began with an explanation of how key ideas have changed since the Active Design Guidelines were published in 2010. For example, experts in the field have moved away from a definition of health that only considers the physical to an emphasis on pursuing a more holistic view. The new definition recognizes the importance of mental and community wellbeing, in addition to physical wellbeing. Panelists explained that a similar shift has taken place for the definition of design -- a move away from a narrow view that focuses solely on material changes to a perspective that considers the implications of participatory processes, maintenance, and operations. The new Guidelines will integrate this holistic approach, emphasizing the full context of health and design to improve neighborhood outcomes.
The Importance of Social Infrastructure The panelists discussed the importance of social infrastructure. While the practice of active design has traditionally focused on the physical spaces we inhabit, designers, planners, researchers, and advocates have pushed the conversation to consider the significant impact that social ties have on people’s health. Delma and Nupur emphasized that active design should promote social connections and community support as much as it promotes physical movement or airflow. This emphasis is that much more important when considering these designs through a racial equity lens. During times of crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus have had to adapt to maintain social connections and provide community support with limited access to resources. The pandemic has exposed the negative impacts of past efforts that may have focused solely on physical infrastructure. Dramatic changes in the way we live have meant that people without supportive social infrastructure have suffered far more than those with care networks, accessible open spaces, and strong neighborhood connections already in place.
Planning for a Hotter, Wetter Future
As the conversation progressed, the panel looked toward the future and the ways in which the field must be proactive in addressing our changing climate reality. These leaders suggest that the time is now for designers and policymakers to make active design changes in the places that are most likely to bear the burden of climate change. Panelists affirmed the need to correct design and policies doing harm to vulnerable communities -- and find new ways to improve neighborhood conditions in the future. Kizzy Charles-Guzman summed up the spirit of the conversation when she proclaimed, “health equity should be a foundation, not a co-benefit, of urban design.”
Answering The Call -Looking Forward
The session offered a nuanced discussion of the forthcoming changes to the Active Design Guidelines, and guidance for anyone seeking to perform projects that utilize the Guidelines. It called on the attendees to look inward. As planners, architects, and urban designers, it’s critical to approach our work through a racial equity lens. Addressing social and physical infrastructure simultaneously is the best way to ensure that the work we produce is accessible and resourceful to all. We look forward to the Guidelines release, anticipated for early 2022, and expected to be available at centerforactivedesign.org.