By MONA EL-NAGGAR
Published: July 17, 2013
- Under his watch, New York City has required food chains to post calorie counts, eliminated trans fats from restaurants and fought unsuccessfully to limit the size of a soda. Still, even as his days in office are numbered, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg continues his campaign against obesity, this time by urging New Yorkers to take the stairs.
Mr. Bloomberg said on Wednesday that he had issued an executive order requiring city agencies to promote the use of stairways and use smart design strategies for all new construction and major renovations. Mr. Bloomberg has also proposed two bills that would increase visibility and access to at least one staircase in all new buildings around the city. This would include putting up signs on the walls, especially near elevators, with one central injunction: take the stairs.
“I’m not here to tell you how to live,” Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference, adding that New Yorkers live close to three years more than the national average and three years longer than they did a dozen years ago. “But we must be doing something right.”
The effort to bring attention back to the stairs follows a series of steps by Mr. Bloomberg to improve the general health of New Yorkers, a defining feature of his 12-year tenure. It started as far back as 2003, when Mr. Bloomberg outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, and eventually at parks and public beaches. Then he banned the use of trans fats in restaurants and forced food chains to publish the calorie count for their standard menu items. This was coupled with pushes to lower sodium consumption, reduce the din of the city and encourage alternative forms of transportation like biking.
Now, the mayor is charting a comprehensive approach to city planning and design that could tackle chronic disease and make New York a more livable city.
Mr. Bloomberg said a new nonprofit organization, the Center for Active Design, would promote and advise on strategies that encourage daily physical activity and access to healthy food. One such strategy has to do with making the staircase a more prominent part in the design of a new building or retrofitting an old staircase to ensure that it stays open, clean and well lighted.
“We want people to move, we want people to choose this option,” said Joanna Frank, executive director of the new center. “The elevator is there, but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you meet.”
Open staircases, however, pose problems as well, especially in buildings in which stair doors are kept closed as a safety measure against fires. Mr. Bloomberg is trying to circumvent this legal challenge by passing a bill that would permit the use of “hold-open devices” to keep the doors open while allowing them to shut automatically in the case of fire.
Speaking at the New School, just across from its new landmark building on Fifth Avenue that features an expansive staircase as the centerpiece of its architectural design, Mr. Bloomberg cited health research as the basis for several of the recommendations. Obesity, he said, is the second leading cause of preventable death in New York City — just after smoking. According to the health department, more than half of adult New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and close to 40 percent of New York City’s public school students, from kindergarten to eighth grade, are also overweight or obese. Obesity is estimated to cost the city $4 billion a year in health care costs.
“The economic benefit is you will live longer,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “The whole idea here is not to change what you have to do, but to give you the idea or the impetus to do something that is in your own interest.”
This very notion of guiding New Yorkers’ decision making, however, has generated resentment of many of the mayor’s initiatives.
“It’s a good idea, but he shouldn’t try to impose his rules, and he does that a lot,” said Shawn McCray, 24, while smoking a cigarette outside his office in Midtown. Mr. McCray said he already opted to take the stairs at home most of the time. But, he said, everyone is entitled to make bad choices. “It’s a free country. I smoke. I know it’s not right, but it’s my choice.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Bloomberg shrugged off this line of reasoning with a simple thought. “Exercise is good for you,” he said.