United Nations headquarters in Copenhagen 3XN

This is nothing like banning soda.

With the end of his third term squarely in sight, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have finally reached Peak Nanny. Yes, the man who imposed calorie counts on menus, banned smoking in public parks, and failed to ban large sodas, has a new target — stairs. No, not banning them. Rather, trying to make the concept of walking up and down them "cool."

Last week, Bloomberg announced a package of legislative efforts aimed at urging New Yorkers to embrace taking the stairs. One bill would requires new buildings to make stairs more conspicuous and post signs encouraging stair use. A second aims to change building codes to allow access to at least one stairway for non-emergency use at all times. Both bills must still be approved by the City Council, but in the meantime Bloomberg has enacted an executive order that requires city agencies to follow the design guidelines of a new non-profit organization, the Center for Active Design.

The Center’s Active Design Guidelines boast five entire sections of evidence-based design strategies for encouraging stair use: locate stairs near the building’s entrance, make them more grand, inject natural daylight, ventilation, artwork and music into stairwells, add more landing spaces to help the out-of-shape. Although the Center was officially announced last week, these guidelines have been in development by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of Health and Department of Design and Construction since the mid-2000s. The collection of strategies was published in 2010 and has already been informing architects and urban planners worldwide.  

Centralized interior staircases in the New York City Police Academy (Perkins + Will) 

With articles about the health risks of sitting all day popping up daily and the forthcoming impact of the Affordable Care Act weighing heavily on both employees and employers, Bloomberg’s stairs initiative adds a timely thrust to the ongoing healthy design efforts in New York City. And this time, there's potential to make a bigger splash than popularizing stairs alone.

Central stairs in the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 

enclosed in glass for use and interaction. (Michael Moran/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP)

Revitalizing stairs seems like a straightforward concept, but with it comes a whole host of design and lifestyle challenges for architects and employers alike. Expectations about workplace attire might need to evolve in order to support a stair-climbing workforce. And surely workers on the 80th floor can't possibly be expected to climb 80 floors each day.

Joan Blumenfeld, a principal and the Global Interior Design Director at architecture firm Perkins + Will, has worked extensively with New York City agencies on active design and believes we're starting to wrestle with all kinds of health implications arising from current workplace standards. She writes in an email how Perkins + Will has been trying to confront these norms: “It is centralizing services such as printers and copiers so that people have to get up to use them, it is pulling people out of offices into workstations and then providing lots of collaborative space that people have to get up to use (instead of sitting in their offices all day). It is not using toxic materials in buildings and furniture.”

The other difficult part about Bloomberg's stairs initiative as Blumenfeld sees it will be keeping it from being misunderstood and immediately labeled as ineffective or unrealistic. She writes, “If you think it is all about adding expensive stairs, it can get rejected out of hand."

It'd be easy to dismiss this initiative as just another overreach by Bloomberg. But without strong incentives to create smarter, built-in infrastructure that can help spur everyday physical activity, more and more offices might get filled up with treadmill desks. No offense to treadmill desks, but that'd be a lot of wasted opportunity.

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