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Should Architects Design 'Fit' Cities?

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In a fortnight's time the doors will open on the Olympic Park to staff and volunteers. Feeding them will be five separate McDonalds restaurants, including the world's largest, with space for 1,500 diners at a time. Providing one fifth of all meals consumed during the games will undoubtedly help the fast-food chain fatten up its profits, but its the same effect on the waistlines of the visitors that has provoked some tricky questions to the Game's organisers.

Whilst LOCOG might have no problem with fast-food, some of our politicians do. The cost of obesity to the UK economy is estimated to be in excess of £3.5bn with 62% of UK adults estimated to be overweight and 15% of children obese. The borough of Haringey in north London is the latest council to propose the prohibition of food outlets deemed "unhealthy" within a certain distance of schools, the hope being that today's youth will not walk the extra 500m for a box of nuggets.

And herein lies the problem. Many of the well-meaning, interventionist policies being proposed in the UK, or implemented in Mayor Bloomberg's New York City (a recently passed law bans the sale of high carb drinks over 500ml), aim to 'nudge' the citizen into making a positive choice towards a better diet. But this may not be the easiest route to a healthy lifestyle.

The evolution of transport and technology has meant an increasingly sedentary lifestyle for many of us; it is inactivity that is our pandemic, with obesity the most obvious symptom, more obvious and divisive than non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

Physical exercise seems to be the complete solution: increasingly it has more positive results on overall well-being than just improving one's diet and body-shape. There is a mental health benefit as well, as plenty of studies link physical activity to combatting stress.

So should architects be urged to 'design' more active lifestyles? Policy makers and planners in the United States have acted on this quicker than those in the UK. Two years ago, New York's Departments of Health, Transport & Design collaborated with the American Institute of Architects to produce the Active Design Guidelines, a substantial document for architects and designers. David Burney, Commissioner for the Dept of Design & Construction, hopes that the buildings and streets that take on these principles will contribute to a walkable and livable City.

The 'Fit Buildings' that the Guidelines espouse and encourage, such as Thom Mayne's Cooper Union building, or Shard architect Renzo Piano's New York Times Building, feature steep stairs in vast atriums, intended as 'spaces for interaction' as much as a threshold between storeys, and 'skip-stop' elevators, forcing you to walk that last flight of stairs to your desired floor.

Fit buildings favour a certain group of users. This can cause difficulties for others. Some of their features presuppose an adequately trainable body. Although the stimulation is intended to prevent the loss of muscle-mass due to aging, creating these barriers demands the direct participation of the less-able, both physically, and mentally in the initial decision process.

A recent exhibition at the Canadian Centre of Architecture and subsequent book edited by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi explored this theme, arguing that this 'medicalization of architecture' should shift from an obsessive search for a cure, to a built environment that cares for its inhabitants.

As the collective focus shifts from Olympic to Legacy London, questions will arise about how investment - or lack thereof - in the infrastructures of cities affect the fitness of the residents.

Should we let the planners set the agenda for how our buildings force us to move, making decisions that have been premeditated and designed in to give us the impression of free choice? Or will commercial considerations remain king? "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us" will hopefully provide a more lasting mantra than "I'm loving it".

The issue of 'fit cities' and obesity is a truly global issue, so the British Council, as a partner of the London Festival of Architechture, has invited speakers to give an international perspective. This Wednesday in London, Burney and Zardini will debate these questions. Hosted by Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, and with Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet and Teva Hess, a director at CF Moller Architects, this will be a public event hosted by the Wellcome Collection.