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stairs-NYC New York-Untapped Cities-Lara ElmayanThis open, sculptural, naturally-lit staircase at Poets House in Battery Park City is exactly the type that Mayor Bloomberg hopes to see in new buildings.

Mayor Bloomberg is doing what many naysayers call “nannying” again–but this time, the legislation he hopes to enact involves involves more encouragement and good design than a straight up ban on a behavior. This time, the mayor is putting his focus on making stairs cool, as reported by The Atlantic Cities. With better stair design in new buildings and signage encouraging people to use them, Bloomberg hopes to create a healthier, stair-climbing culture in New York.

One of Bloomberg’s recently proposed bills targets buildings codes. It would require at least one stairway in each building in New York to be accessible for non-emergency use at all times. Another bill would, if approved, require that new buildings make stairs more conspicuous, with posted signs encouraging stair use. 

The bills have to wait for approval by City Council, but in the meantime, Bloomberg isn’t sitting still. He’s already enacted an executive order requiring city agencies to follow the design guidelines of the Center for Active Design, a non-profit that was created recently to combat obesity through architectural and urban design. The organization’s 135-page Active Design Guidelines, published in 2010, encourage architects to “focus on stairs rather than elevators as the principle means of vertical travel.” Architects have apparently been “obesity enablers,” “making it easier for people to be sedentary,” according to Department of Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney. The Active Design Guidelines aims to keep people moving constantly in their indoor and outdoor urban environments.

The Guidelines feature multiple design strategies for encouraging stair use. This includes placing stairs close to building entrances, making them more prominent than elevators, and eliminating locks between staircases and floor areas. It also advises providing integrated vertical circulation systems, or skip-stop elevators, in high-rises to get people to scale one or two staircases after an elevator ride. For those who are new to stair-climbing and general exercise, the guidelines suggest putting comfortable landings along staircases where people can catch their breath on the way up.

The guidelines also place a large emphasis on aesthetics; they stress that grander, more sculptural stairs with “articulate and unique compositions” will promote and generate greater traffic than plain ones, and suggests artwork and attractive, contrasting finishes on stairwells. A suggestion to add music to stairwells (not an adaptation of elevator music, hopefully) aims to make stair-climbing a complete sensual experience. Other suggestions are technical; they include the optimal measurements for the risers and treads on stairs.

Less substantial sections in the guidelines detail the best ways to design and put up stair-promoting signs, and how to de-emphasize and discourage elevator use. How? Interestingly, they essentially advise making elevators less efficient by reducing elevator travel speed and limiting elevator capacity, among other things.

The Atlantic Cities has called Bloomberg’s initiative “genius” (even while acknowledging that the high-heeled would have to adapt), but there’s a little more to the issue than whether healthy lifestyle changes are worth the extra costs of heating and cooling stairwells. Even if all staircases were beautifully and efficiently designed, pressuring people to use them raises possible questions about discrimination against the mobility impaired and the elderly. If public mentality is changed by the pro-stair campaign, will those with unseen disabilities be shamed or looked down upon when they continue to take the elevator?

Bloomberg isn’t new to these types of criticisms, however. He’s has already been called out by bloggers for cultivating a fat-shaming culture. His proposed large drink ban was a little too anti-capitalistic for public taste, the smoking ban in public parks resisted (but passed), and his battle to ban the sale of cigarettes to New Yorkers under the age of 21, and place cigarettes out of view in stores, is still raging. Today, the NY Supreme Court ruled the soda ban unconstitutional, but the city is appealing the decision.

To be politically correct, Bloomberg’s targeted demographic would be people who can climb stairs and lose weight by doing so, but chose not to. And losing weight does seem the Bloomberg administration’s simplistic definition of getting healthy; his website calls obesity “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.” And maybe the numbers support his concern; the health department estimates that the majority of New York City adults are overweight or obese, and that obesity costs the city approximately four billion dollars a year in health care costs.

All of Bloomberg’s public health efforts have been met with significant opposition by libertarians and business owners. Because making staircases more available for use seems less aggressive than than an outright ban, we can only hope that it receives more support than Bloomberg’s other public health measures, and that it can be implemented with a thought to potential discrimination, both socially and mobility-wise.

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