FitCityPHL 2: The Backstory

October 7, 2016 | DesignPhiladelphia, 2016 Festival

FitCityPHL 2
Thursday, October 13th | 8:30AM - 4:00PM
Center for Architecture & Design | 1218 Arch St. Philadelphia, PA 19106
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FitCityPHL 2 will be a full-day symposium which invites attendees to explore design strategies in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and cities that improve health by promoting physical activity and healthy eating. The concept for the FitCity conference was developed in New York City 11 years ago and made its way to Philadelphia last year for the first time. We spoke with Keith Davis, AICP, LEED GA, a City Planner III at City Planning Commission (and one of the organizers of the FitCityPHL 2 Conference), about the reasoning and history behind this multidisciplinary active design conference.

Where did the need to design healthier cities begin?

Imagine urban life at the dawn of the 20th Century, the end of the Victorian Era. Life was physically taxing for everyone except the wealthiest citizens. Most people walked to work and to run errands, used their muscles to earn their salaries, and even labored at home to wash clothing and prepare all meals by hand.

Now fast forward through the 100 years which followed - through the evolution of the automobile, the rise of the suburbs, the decline in manufacturing, and giant leaps in communication and technology.  Before this technological revolution, the leading causes of death were infectious disease (especially tuberculosis and cholera), childbirth, and accidental injury. Today, the leading causes of death are mostly chronic diseases: heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases (asthma, emphysema, etc.), and diabetes. 

We have been quick to blame our increasingly sedentary lifestyles on our collective auto-dependency, multi-purpose cell phones, and access to fast food.  But it has become evident that the community standards and zoning regulations we developed to cull infectious disease and reduce accidental injury are perhaps the main reason our lifestyles have changed so much and have had the unanticipated consequence of encouraging new types of health epidemics.

By separating residential neighborhoods from factory and office neighborhoods in an attempt to keep pollution further from our homes, we’ve discouraged people from walking to work. By mandating spread-out developments in suburbs, we’ve decreased the likelihood of transmitting tuberculosis but increased our collective use of automobiles. By giving over so much of our cities’ physical space to cars and related infrastructure (roadways, parking spaces, etc.), we have deprived ourselves of spaces that could be filled with health-giving trees and public parks. In fact, a 2015 study out of Toronto, Canada found that having 11 additional trees on your block improves your cardio-metabolic health as much as earning an additional $20,000 or being nearly two years younger.

Where are we now? How does the design of today’s cities and suburbs affect health?

To the benefit of our public health from today’s killer – sedentary lifestyle - today’s zoning trends have shifted towards denser, mixed use communities and multi-modal streets.  This kind of urban design can support gyms and fresh food options.  And shorter driving commutes free up time which could be spent engaging in physical activities. 

But, perhaps the greatest health benefit of the density trend is the opportunity to get our exercise incidentally, as a means to an end: by walking and biking between destinations.  It’s such a simple concept, yet so impactful.  New York City’s FitCity initiative has been promoting this reunion of Public Health and the built environment through its annual FitCity Conference.  In this same vein, FitCityPHL 2 aims to rebrand our City as a health node where active design and active transportation are the standard and healthy living is the norm.

It’s time to stop kicking the can.  Borrowing a phrase from the Philadelphia Health Department’s Get Healthy Philly program, our city’s physical form should aim to “make the healthy choice the easy choice”.

FitCityPHL 2 is a collaboration between: Health Promotion Council & Public Health Management Corporation, Ballinger, Community Design Collaborative, AIA Philadelphia, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Philadelphia Dept. of Public Health, Center for Architecture and Design, Drexel University, American Diabetes Association, and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

FitCityPHL 2 is Sponsored by Ballinger, Health Promotion Council, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and [email protected]

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