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The Revenge of the Stairs

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 22 September 2010

Often take the stairs in a modern building? Thought not.

If you've ever opted to avoid the lift in a plush pad, you've probably wandered miles of corridor only to be confronted with a fire escape sign giving a sneaking suspicion that the moment you push that door, alarms will scream, firefighters will swoop and you'll be scorned as some Luddite freak.

In a public building it's simpler: stairs stink of stale beer and fresh urine. The lift wins every time.

But now there's a fightback. New York City's bosses have declared stair-climbing as key to their citizens' survival. In fact, they've sent 'Active Design Guidelines' to architects and city planners, pushing them to build more exercise into their grand plans. The logic is obvious but radical.

New York City's early skyscrapers did so much to relegate steps and elevate the elevator. The rationale of our built environment has always been convenience. Yet, the health and design chiefs of NYC want more walking and cycling alongside renewed mastery of the stairs - they want getting around to take more effort, to be harder. The city bosses come equipped with a persuasive historical parallel. In the 19th century, the big city killer was infectious disease like cholera and TB and we 'designed out' the danger through better buildings and clean water systems. The threats now are obesity, diabetes and heart trouble resulting, at least partly, from our slobby lifestyles.

Can we take a lead from New York and re-design our own cities to improve the health of everyone who lives and works there? Tom Heap travels from the Bronx to the Mile End Road to find out.

  • Tom tries out New York's cycle lanes

    Tom tries out New York's cycle lanes

    New provision for cyclists is just one of the reccomendations made in New York's Active Design Guidelines.

    New York's Active Design Guidelines
  • Tom visits the Bronx

    Tom visits the Bronx

    The low income neighbourhood of the Bronx is on the frontline of attempts to change lifestyles and fight obesity. It's the site of a new housing development, Via Verde which will encourage residents to use the stairs and grow their own fruit and vegetables on the green roofs that will top the apartment buildings.

    Jonathan Rose Companies, site developers
  • The Via Verde building site in the Bronx

    The Via Verde building site in the Bronx

  • How Via Verde in the Bronx will look

    How Via Verde in the Bronx will look

    Design courtesy of Phipps Houses, Jonathan Rose Companies, Dattner Architects, and Grimshaw

  • Via Verde street view

    Via Verde street view

  • David Burney, New York Commissioner for Design and Construction

    David Burney, New York Commissioner for Design and Construction

  • The New York Times building

    The New York Times building

    This collaboration between Renzo Piano's Building Workshop and FX Fowle displays one of the principles of the Active Design Guidelines- attractive, accessible staircases.

  • Times Building photos: David Sundberg/Esto

    Times Building photos: David Sundberg/Esto



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