Obesity and America go together like a quarter-pounder and cheese.
More than one-third of all American adults are obese, according to the CDC. There’s no one cause for America’s portly predicament, and many organizations and programs have begun to draw focus on various aspects of our lifestyle in order to improve health nationally.
Design for Healthy Living, a new exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) through August 9, demonstrates that our collective health is affected by where and how we live. For example, the incidence of obesity in car-centric Atlanta jibes with the national average, compared to only 22 percent in walkable New York City.
Walkability is a key theme in Design for Healthy Living. Large panels with images and text line the long central hall and depict the various facets of making Atlanta more pedestrian-oriented, using both executed and proposed projects to bring concepts to life.
One focuses the development of urban corridors for pedestrian movement. A proposal by Lord Aeck Sargent and Midtown Alliance for reconfiguring Juniper Street highlights the transformative power of rethinking the assumption that urban streets are solely domains of vehicles. The large visuals show how reducing the thoroughfare by one travel lane to accommodate a dedicated bikeway and upgraded sidewalks could create a “complete street.”
Curated in-house by Katie Simms, MODA’s exhibitions manager, with design by Susan Sanders and Hannah Horrom, the exhibit is well tailored to Atlanta, and the experience is bolstered by familiarity with many of the profiled projects.
The rear gallery presents case studies of buildings that encourage healthy living. The examples offer a glimpse at the important role architects play in shaping a building’s effect on its occupants. Some architectural interventions encourage users to actively engage in health-promoting elements of the building (making stairwells easily accessible and inviting, adding walking trails), while others are passively healthful (providing natural light, placing vegetable gardens to promote healthy eating).
Simultaneously ungainly and engaging, Formations Studio’s Metropoly, a large interactive metal sculpture, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Intended to abstractly represent a city, it features translucent yellow-green Plexiglass blocks etched with terms for various desirable neighborhood components that viewers can manipulate and place shelves to render their vision of an ideal city.
The piece suggests that success is the aggregate of multiple interventions and that there is no one way to healthy design. The sculpture offers a chaotic foil to the wall-board displays which neatly package each profiled project.
The third gallery holds information on the Atlanta Beltline and its history, and explanations of its success. There is also a chance for visitors to try their hand at designing healthy urban renewal on the Turner Field site, with blank maps and drawing implements.
This last would be especially appealing to children; the arrangement of the displays, with pictures hung low and simple vocabulary, suggest as much. While not all of the concepts would be understood, the majority of the content in the main corridor addresses the topic at a primary school level. Educating the youngest generation is imperative to moving society toward a healthier approach to design: the first step to correcting a problem is making people aware that there is an issue in the first place.
While visually stimulating, the exhibition is more a platform for advocacy than a realistic reckoning of the needs and the complexities of realizing such projects. For example, the panel on walkability does not include the highly divisive issues of cost and political tensions that arise when Atlantans are threatened with a loss of lane space. Likewise, the panel on transit touts the Atlanta Streetcar, highlighting solely the merits of the system while omitting mention of cost overruns and the protracted construction timeline.
Without acknowledgement of the effort, planning and politics that are part of the process, urban planning seems effortless. This makes the show appear naïve or overly idealistic. Misaligned installations, spelling errors and missing words further undermine its efficacy.
Yet, it does succeed in many ways, especially in building awareness of the impact the designed environment has on our wellbeing. Elevating urban planning strategy to museum-worthy art form allows people to perceive the everyday environment in a different, thought-provoking context, and the focus on Atlanta projects helps visitors relate.
America’s health problems won’t be solved purely by design, but Design for Healthy Living shows a path to creating environment that will help.