Friday, December 16, 2011

How to balance well-meaning city codes and their side effects

This post isn't about planning per se, but rather urban design. While this can be put into plans, it is more of a focus on the city regulations and the architecture industry, since they have the most control.

There are lots of codes that are crafted and passed that have a specific intention, and accomplish that very well. Yet, they have adverse consequences. There are many and possess different levels of effectiveness, but what I want to get into are staircases.

It is almost unheard of in today's world that people take the stairs. I try to and when I do, I get odd reactions from folks who think I should take the elevator because it is easier. In downtown, when I go into various buildings, it is almost impossible to take the stairs, as the doors are sometimes locked and open only in emergencies.

But why would I take the stairs? The biggest reason is health. There is little else in normal day-to-day activities that burn more calories than taking the stairs. Using Ehow as a reference to figure the number of calories burned, ten minutes of stair climbing would burn almost 100 calories for the average American, more if you weigh higher than the average, less if you are under the average. This compares to the equivalent of downhill skiing or swimming.

So why can't we do this on an everyday basis? As I have said in other posts about other topics, humans (it transcends age, culture, gender, race) will do what is convenient. Often this is thought up in terms of time, but not always. As an example, people are more likely to take transit if they can board close to where they start and the destination is close to the end. Transfers kill ridership more than anything because of uncertainty, not time. This applies to elevators versus stairs.

I live on the third floor of a former department store in downtown. The stairs are faster than the elevator on this and the second floor. The distance to the stair entrance and the elevator call button is about the same. So as soon as you get to the stairs, you enter and are on your way down. With the elevator, you press a button, wait for the car, get in, press your floor, wait for the elevator to shut and descend and finally open up and get out. Add the fact that the stairwell empties out onto the street and the stairs are a clear winner in time to leave. Yet, most people, even just going to the second floor, still go with the elevator.

They choose the elevator because it is generally a more pleasant experience. The walls and floors are fancier, there's more of a finish out and oftentimes there's something to grab the passengers attention, like a news feed, message board or mini-TV. Meanwhile, the staircases are drab, plain and uninviting. Many times, they are neglected by the cleaning staff and management, because after all, who takes the stairs anyway?

Notice the lack of windows, blank walls and utilities within the stairwell. I need a Valium looking at this.

The elevator, meanwhile, has a wood and stainless steel finish, marble-like flooring and something to read while riding.

So what does this have to do with city code? Quite possible all of it. By city code, in case of a fire, the stairwells are the emergency escape. They must be free of flammables, glassless and be clear of obstructions. Often, this is translated by the architects to mean desolate and empty. If there is a consensus of what the post-apocalyptic landscape might be, stairwells would be near the top.

Thing is, they don't have to be that way. My first question is why does fire code trump everything else? Yes, loss of life is tragic, but in the five years I have lived here, most of it on the 7th floor outside the comfort level of using stairs, there has not been a fire. But people have literally, day in and day out, forgone the stairs, and therefore stayed less healthy, in part because of that time when it may be needed for an emergency. I looked into the Dallas Morning News Archives and could not come up with one time when this building needed the stairs for an emergency. It was built in 1929. How many calories could have been burned in that time? How many people would have been healthier just because they seemlessly inserted that into their daily routine? How much electricity could have been saved by folks not making the trip on the elevator? I don't have the answer, nor do I have the percentage of people that would take the stairs over the elevator, but I do know that the number would increase quite a bit.

There are things that can be done. In Dallas, you can put in a window, if it is fireproof. That can mean that glass with little wires in that prevent a violent shattering. It obscures the view, and therefore the effect on the stairwells. We have one in this building similar to that. Sadly it ends on the second floor and then you still have to go near the elevators to get to the first.

Most walls are painted white to increase visibility. Why not allow some designs in there. Stencils, light colors or other design ideas can increase the welcome feeling of the stairwell without sacrificing the safety aspect.

I leave with two videos that rethink the idea of stairwells. The first illustrates a stairwell with a breathtaking view of a city's landscape, the second a concept of introducing a "fun" new idea into the concept of stairs. If this was done on a much larger scale, we would collectively be a little bit healthier.

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