Green Communities, Part 1: New Urbanism

February 21, 2008

[There are a number of different approaches to communities and building that serve to support sustainability (and often other aims at the same time; sustainable strategies are almost invariably diverse and multi-faceted in the benefits they offer). Over the next few weeks, I intend to take a look at a number of th

ese types of communities and the ways each of them contribute to improving overall sustainability.]

New Urbanism (sometimes referred to as Traditional Neighborhood Design) is a movement spearheaded by the The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Its goals are “promoting walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. CNU takes a proactive, multi-disciplinary approach to restoring our communities.” Improving sustainability is one of the Principles of New Urbanism (see below),additionally, New Urbanism advocates a number of benefits. Although there are broad overlaps between using historical, traditional housing forms (or, unfortunately more often, faux-historical looking buildings) and New Urbanist principles, there is nothing magical about gabled roofs and wood siding, and New Urbanism does not require retro-styled throwbacks (although many examples of it do combine visual historical revivalism with the good community principles it supports).

Much of the attention we pay to green building deals with the parts and pieces and how our buildings work. Greener buildings use less energy for thermal comfort (heating and cooling) and less energy for lighting and draw on fewer resources (and less impact from the materials that are used) in their construction. All of these are good and useful steps to take. However, all of this just takes into account the building itself, and perhaps the site it rests upon. With this kind of focus (or lack thereof) one could envision a community of dispersed “green” buildings all individually well designed and well made, but, in the aggregate, contributing hugely to the destruction of habitat, the depletion of resources, and the net degradation of the environment.

The best-intentioned and highest-rated building could, in fact, be less green in its overall effect if its location is responsible for adverse effects. A building that is located close to an urban center does not need new roads built, unlike a greenfield development. New utility connections require less materials and labor when the building is close to existing services. A new condominium development could be designed with stringent water use and reclamation standards, for example, but the adverse impact of the extra roads needed to reach it could more than outweigh all the positive steps undertaken for the project. A building may significantly reduce the amount of energy it requires to operate, but if it takes more energy to get to and from that building, how much of a benefit does that improvement really represent?

Looking at the forest, rather than concentrating on the individual trees (to mangle a metaphor) means considering sustainability from a number of scales. In addition to looking at the sustainability of the building as a self-contained unit, it also needs to be considered in terms of how it interrelates with the other buildings and the broader community it belongs to. Just as trying to sell more soap (or T-shirts, or whatever) simply because they are organic and sustainably produced overlooks the more basic question of whether or not that product is even needed in the first place. Similarly, building green buildings out in the exurbs encourages sprawl and contributes as much (or more) to environmental degradation. A modest building built on a vacant lot in the city will be more sustainable in a number of important ways, though it won’t get the acclaim that a LEED Protactinium Level building might get, though it may be the more environmentally responsible of the the two.

New Urbanist neighborhoods are in place across the country. People who live in these communities find the vitality and liveability afforded by having their neighborhoods designed with people in mind, rather than cars, to be a great benefit. At Bradburn Village in Westminster, Colorado, neighbors are holding weekly group gatherings because the configuration and proximity of their homes makes such things possible.

Every home in Bradburn includes a large front porch,not just a token two-foot, concrete stoop. Garages are all in the back, and homes here also have very small setbacks (the distance between the house and the sidewalk or front yard), meaning the porches sit right above the sidewalks. This means that people sitting on their front porches easily see neighbors walking by and they stop to talk, creating a community bond that is so elusive in most traditional suburban neighborhoods.Other community features that encourage social interaction among neighbors include public spaces such as the many pocket parks—every home in the development is a 5 minute walk from one of these green spaces—wide sidewalks, and an interconnected street grid (no cul-de-sacs) that makes the community very pedestrian-friendly. As a result of these design features, Bradburn’s residents all know each other, and many have become close, meaning that if you want to socialize with your friends over a few drinks, you just wander on down to the park or walk 5 minutes to your buddy’s home. (via: Fermentarium)

When the Audubon society built its new headquarters in the early 1990s it chose to renovate an existing 19th century office building in downtown New York City, rather than building a new building in a bucolic setting. Although that might reflect some people’s expectations, it would carry with it a number of adverse impacts. Choosing a walkable, transit-networked, well-supported site was more in line with the organization’s goals than the simple image of a new building set in a sylvan glade. New Urbanist guidelines help steer the wider community toward more livable and sustainable goals, and can compound and amplify the benefits of good sustainable building design, rather than letting those effects be diluted but impacts caused outside the immediate bounds of the property line.

Principles of New Urbanism
1. Walkability -Most things within a 10-minute walk of home and work. Pedestrian friendly street design
2. Connectivity -Interconnected street grid network disperses traffic & eases walking
3. Mixed-Use & Diversity -A mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes on site. Mixed-use within neighborhoods, within blocks, and within buildings. Diversity of people – of ages, income levels, cultures, and races
4. Mixed Housing – A range of types, sizes and prices in closer proximity
5. Quality Architecture & Urban Design – Emphasis on beauty, aesthetics, human comfort, and creating a sense of place
6. Traditional Neighborhood Structure -Transect planning: Highest densities at town center; progressively less dense towards the edge.
7. Increased Density -More buildings, residences, shops, and services closer together for ease of walking, to enable a more efficient use of services and resources, and to create a more convenient, enjoyable place to live.
8. Smart Transportation -Pedestrian-friendly design that encourages a greater use of bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and walking as daily transportation
9. Sustainability -Minimal environmental impact of development and its operations. More local production. More walking, less driving
10. Quality of Life – Taken together these add up to a high quality of life well worth living, and create places that enrich, uplift, and inspire the human spirit.

Image Source: Fermentarium