Best Practices:
Healthy Urban Planning in New York City

February 2014

Cover of the NYC Active Design Guidelines

Well-planned cities can offer unique opportunities to positively influence people’s health. Through decisions about appropriate mixes of land use, strategic density, and the various policies, design and review processes, cities can arrange for health-promoting environments in all neighbourhoods. By considering everyday opportunities for being physically active in buildings and public urban areas, providing access to environmentally sustainable and safe modes of transportation, and making healthy food accessible to everyone, cities can play a critical role in shaping the long term health of communities.

New York is one of the few cities in the world that has been successful in implementing healthy urban planning measures and in documenting its achievements in order to spread the strategies and lessons learned. Since 2006, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has partnered with the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY) to organize an annual Fit City Conference. The conference brings together architects, planners, designers, landscape architects, developers, transportation professionals, public health professionals, and others from the public and private sectors to discuss how design, policy, and practice decisions can address obesity and related noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancers and asthma. With support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York City also mentored other U.S. jurisdictions through the Fit Nation work with AIA.

Fit City 8 Conference Postcard

As a result of the ideas brainstormed at the second Fit City conference, New York City released the Active Design Guidelines in 2010. The Guidelines “provides architects and urban designers with a manual of strategies for creating healthier buildings, streets, and urban spaces, based on the latest academic research and best practices in the field”. The Active Design Guidelines is also a fruitful example of intersectoral action for health, since it was developed through a partnership of 12 different city departments, leading architectural and planning academics, and the AIANY, to mention a few partners. Since its publication, the Active Design Guidelines has been incorporated into city contracting procedures for construction as well as policies for making stairwells accessible, and over 25,000 copies have been distributed globally. The City Department of Transportation is also promoting pedestrian and age-friendly streets, traffic calming, increasing bicycle lanes and increasing transit access through bus rapid transit, that has resulted in increased commuter cycling and transit ridership while decreasing traffic fatalities and traffic volumes. As part of the Fit Nation mentoring work, the Department of City Planning drew on fieldwork conducted in cities across the U.S. to create Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience, presenting key considerations, tools and references for designing sidewalks, a key amenity for walkability.