Stairs: An Obvious Answer to the Obesity Epidemic

Last week, the internet erupted with the news that 42 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030. That’s up from the already-appaling 36 percent obesity rate that we currently have. A lot of people will see those numbers and want to talk about healthy eating and exercise, but according to many experts this problem also stems from our cities’ physical make-up.

The so-called obesity epidemic will take a lot of work to solve, but as a I look around I’m also struck by how often we squander opportunities for basic exercise. Case in point: stairs.

Climbing a few flights of stairs can be a good way to get some exercise in an average day, but most multi-story commercial and government buildings emphasize elevators instead. When visitors walk into these buildings, they see the elevators first, while the stairs are often tucked out sight — and out of mind — in a corner. Worse still, doors to stairwells often look like emergency exits and the stairwells themselves are austere and uninviting concrete closets.

The main entrance to Provo’s 4th District Court in downtown. After coming through the metal detector, visitors are immediately directed to the right, where they see elevators. The stairs are around a corner in a small nook that isn’t even visible in this picture.

Provo court patrons who do find the stairs discover this scene: an ugly, dimly-lit concrete stairwell (it’s darker in real life, hence the blurry-ness) that’s currently being used as a storage facility. This is hardly the kind of stairwell that invites usage.

With these kinds of architectural failings, it’s no wonder people don’t take the stairs. I don’t think most visitors to Provo’s 4th District Courthouse ever even learn where the stairs are located, despite the fact that the stairs are always the faster option for reaching any of the building’s four floors.

But while putting stairs in inconspicuous places is common, it’s by no means necessary. For example, the new convention center puts stairs front and center (though they do play second fiddle to the escalators).

Unlike many buildings, the stairs in the new Utah Valley Convention Center are visible, easy to access, and aesthetically pleasing.

Another interesting example of making stairs visible comes from the library at Utah Valley University. In that building, the stairs are located in a cordoned-off stairwell, but visitors are alerted to their presence by big windows facing the elevators.

Stairs and elevators in UVU’s library.

Windows looking in on a stairwell.

With those big windows, I suspect people don’t wait very long for the elevator before they just give up and opt to take the stairs. And indeed, while I was at the library the stairs saw a steady stream of users.

Both of these buildings are good examples of architecture and design encouraging people to take the stairs. In Provo, there’s also no reason that these sorts of strategies aren’t more common; with the possible exceptions of the main Nu Skin building and BYU’s Kimball Tower, there are no buildings in the city that are too tall for able-bodied people to take the stairs to any floor. (I’ve climbed the stairs to the top of the Zion’s Bank building. It wasn’t hard.)

In the end, getting more people to use stairs more often won’t solve the obesity epidemic. But it will help, while also cutting down on electricity consumption. And if we can start taking the stairs more often, it may also help create a pattern of more active behavior.

The Nu Skin expansion in downtown Provo. At least for now, it appears that the stairs in this structure are pushed off to the left side of the building in an emergency exit-style stairwell. Click on the image to see that stairwell immediately above the yellow excavator.

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2 Comments

Filed under building, construction, Downtown

2 responses to “Stairs: An Obvious Answer to the Obesity Epidemic

  1. Pingback: Good Architecture Actually Matters | (pro(vo)cation)

  2. Pingback: How to do Stairs Right | (pro(vo)cation)

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