AIA|LA Collaborates on Model Design Manual for Living Streets!
by Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA - Director, Government & Public Affairs – AIA Los Angeles
November 4, 2011 – Both nationally and in cities across the country, the American Institute of Architects is taking an active role in shaping the conversation connecting design and health. Joining the library of premier health-design resources, which includes AIA New York’s Fit City conferences and Active Design Guidelines, is The Model Design Manual for Living Streets.
Released on October 6, 2011, the Design Manual was an effort funded by The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. Through the leadership efforts of Ryan Snyder, Jean Armbruster, Margot Ocañas, J.R. DeShazo and Madeline Brozen, a diverse constituency of complete streets advocates and experts was brought together to share implementation strategies, best practices and ideas for further progressions.
Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA, Director, Government & Public Affairs for AIA Los Angeles, was one of those voices. In addition to contributing to the planning process, Wright and AIA|LA have taken a leading role in leveraging the manual to a greater audience, hosting the Designing Healthier Lifestyles symposium and more. America’s Design and Health Initiative asked Wright about the process, scope and implication of the Design Manual for AIA architects.
ADHI: There were a large number of collaborators affiliated with the project—the AIA|LA, LA Department of Health, architects, artists, etc.—how were these parties selected and how did they work together to produce the deliverable?
Wright: From my understanding, the collaborators were primarily selected by Ryan Snyder and Madeline Brozen. It was an open call. Urban Design and Public Health experts with passion and interest to establishing a better strategy for street-classifications found an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. How did teams prepare? Primarily by bringing to the table an open mind and extensive set of case-studies, plans and working examples of how communities can all enjoy safer, more vibrant streets. During a two-day charrette, many of the ideas you see in the manual were hashed together in various working groups. But the editing process and the fact-checking, and the consolidation of ideas was an endeavor coordinated by Ryan Snyder Associates.
What is the importance of having architects discussing these issues at the outset with planners, politicians, health professionals, etc.?
Architects are essential to the process. The more that they can cross-pollenate their visions with the planners, the more enriched our planning manuals and design guidelines become. Here in Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have the architect William Roschen, FAIA as the President of the Planning Commission. With Roschen’s leadership and with architects like John Kaliski, AIA, Li Wen, AIA, Paul Danna, AIA, Jim Favaro, AIA, Roger Sherman, AIA and Angie Brooks, AIA, an emphasis on design excellence is becoming a more dominant part of the planning process.
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning is actually calling on us more and more often, asking the AIA|LA to contribute our perspective early on in the planning process. Lately, it seems, I’m actually at City Hall more often than I am at my desk.
The Design Manual supports walking and biking as ways “living streets” affect health; how else can these outcomes address issues including diabetes, cancers, obesity, asthma and depression that are of concern to ADHI?
If our built environment affords more opportunities to become physically active, then as a consequence to that incremental increase in one’s day-to-day ‘exercise’ the benefits are magnified exponentially. The safer and more accessible we make our bicycle infrastructure, or the more civically attractive and compelling we make it to walk that half-mile or two, then that is also time not spent in a car, sedentary and stressed. Not to mention the added-aggravation caused by operating a machine, instead of time spent bumping to neighbors. When was the last time stranded in traffic felt good? Compare that with the last time you happened across an old friend that you haven’t seen for ages who you just happen to bump into walking to the bus. Building strong networks of “Living Streets” are incremental necessities to creating healthier lifestyles.
What is the importance of establishing these benchmarks, metrics and other measures of health, especially as far as promoting the agenda to cities and decision makers?
Data is key. It enables confidence in the investments needed. It provides re-assurance and broadens support. Certain policy makers are only concerned with the economics of it all. If we can make a compelling argument, supported by comprehensive analysis, that designing a healthier built environment will not only save us money on healthcare costs, but will also make us more productive and civil, then maybe policy makers will see that the most effective way to reach a desired outcome is to hire a design professional in advance rather than a heart surgeon after-the-fact. I’m not naïve, just optimistic. Architecture can be preventive care and ought to be invested in accordingly.
The Design Manual refers to “visual quality” and “aesthetic” often to justify decisions or suggest unity. How did the team consider visual experience’s express relationship with health, i.e. signs promoting good way finding relates to stress; biophilic design encourages exposure to nature, especially fruitful projects; and unobstructed vistas relate to general wellness?
In my mind, the most direct way to connect aesthetic values to health and well-being is to simply ask the question what is more important: performance or looks? Both, right. Equally so. Visual and sensual values facilitate healthier minds, and systems performance and vibrancy facilitate healthier bodies. I can see I have a tendency to grow a bit abstract and pontiferous on a question like this, but all I am really trying to say is that aesthetically, we have a much larger responsibility than ever before: your design doesn't only have to look good, but it has to do whatever is within its power to mediate all of the already existing visual clutter. That’s a tremendous job unto itself.
But I’m not done. Your design also has to compel the utility of your system. To attract the user. To inspire one to adapt their lifestyle so that they are selecting a healthier path as opposed to the complacency of what they already know. Visual quality is the only way to achieve this. A built environment that supports healthier lifestyles needs to not only perform more efficiently, it has to look much, much better. Tall order, I know.
The Design Manual encourages communities to evaluate “strengths, needs and aspirations.” “Aspirations” are hugely powerful and can connect product to social capital. What is the importance of collaboration in establishing and achieving these visions?
Collaboration is the cornerstone of vision-making. Much in the way it may require two eyes to accurately measure depth, you need a diverse constituency sharing an often competitive set of social values in order to access the most pliant and accessible way forward. Communities aspire to become healthier, and one of the most effective ways to enhance this aspiration is simply to motivate more of the population to take ownership of the process. We are all in this together, and if we don’t act collectively, the obesity epidemic we face as a nation will limit our ability to compete globally for the resources we need to nurture tomorrow’s needs (whatever they progress to become).
The Design Manual doesn’t assign responsibility to any one party; these decisions belong to the whole community. How can an architect step into a leadership role, and what unique skills and value does the architect offer in these conversations?
From my perspective, architects can serve as a prime leadership resource by simply helping to shape and broadcast the vision a community has for its future. Since, we are increasingly becoming an image-based society, architects are in a strong position to assist in this process. Led by an architect’s systems-wide perspective and image-making proficiency, communities can benefit from seeing the perspective of what all of this might look like and how it all might fit together to accommodate the lifestyles of tomorrow today.
How can architects and decision makers use the Design Manual in their communities?
First and foremost, I encourage AIA architects to advocate heavily that the definition of ‘traffic’ needs to change. Traffic isn’t just cars, trucks and other machines. Traffic is people. Same for the definition of a street’s purpose: A street isn’t simply an expeditious way to get machines from one place to another. In urban areas, a street is a community’s most accessible open space. The sooner we can implement “complete streets” guidelines into our municipal transportation elements, the sooner our streets will begin to facilitate healthier lifestyles for generations to come.
What projects can members look to see in the future coming from AIA|LA in the realm of health?
At present, I am working with Bill Roschen, FAIA, Sioban Burke, AIA, Jean Armbruster and Margot Ocañas to organize an ongoing series of discussions about “Designing Healthier Lifestyles” and to hopefully adapt to Los Angeles the terrific Active Design Guidelines that AIA|NY and the NYC Department of Design & Construction created for New York City.