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Return of the Village - An Ecology of Community

There is a type of revolution going on in modern community design. It has evolved over the last twenty years and it is deemed by many to be as important as the Bauhaus architectural movement in Europe. It has been called different names, such as the New Urbanism, Traditional Town Planning, Transit Oriented Development (TOD) or Village Design. At the heart of this movement lies a respect for the ecology of community.

Development since the advent of the automobile, and especially since World War II, has increasingly isolated people and their activities, replacing the street designed for pedestrians to move and gather, with a street dominated by the automobile and its resultant congestion and pollution. Streets now serve to divide us, rather than create the place where people meet and come together in community.

The alternative to the sprawl resulting from auto-centered design is to have neighborhoods comprised of housing, parks and schools, all within walking distance of shops, civic services, jobs and transit. It is a modern version of the traditional town, the planning of which, in America, reached its peak somewhere between 1900 and 1920. After 1920, the invention of the automobile, seen as our great problem-solver, created a new euphoria and false hope. We realize now, in fact, that in many ways it has become our greatest problem.

Two-thirds of the air pollution in Albuquerque, New Mexico is the result of the automobile. Where once was spectacular air, there has been an increase of smog and 'no burn' nights. To quote Peter Calthorpe, "the pedestrian has become the lost measure of the community." Auto-based planning has given birth to large retail centers, based on roads jammed with cars to support them, tending to suck cash out of the community and bring only low-paying jobs to replace it.

The art of designing pedestrian-oriented, walkable communities with a balance of retail, civic and residential uses has been around for a very long time. There are excellent examples of these kinds of communities in Boston, in the Capital Hill area in Seattle, and in Charleston, South Carolina, to name a few. At the heart of a successful community always lies a common pride of place created by shared public areas.

Our challenge now is to develop a regional growth strategy which integrates social diversity, environment protection, and mass transit. This involves creating an architecture that reinforces the public domain without sacrificing the variety and character of individual buildings. The most advanced planning approach is one that establishes the pedestrian in a mixed-use, livable community; it is a design philosophy that is capable of accommodating modern institutions without sacrificing human scale, memorable places, and the resultant quality of life.

Costs of Automobile-Centered Planning

Demographics are changing more than ever, and the patterns of sprawl do not support them in a healthy way. Married couples with children now represent only 26% of the households, down from 40% a generation ago.

Fewer and fewer families are able to afford a first car, let alone a second. We must redesign our communities so that we can have a quality of life that is not held hostage by the automobile. Our nation's sprawl-generated transportation system uses up 69% of the nation's oil, half of which is now imported. A person living in El Dorado (30 miles from Santa Fe) and commuting to work spends over two full weeks per year locked inside their automobile. At $12 per hour, just under $4,000 worth of wages are lost per year, merely in time spent behind a steering wheel. In addition, the average automobile costs just under $4,000 per year when all associated expenses, including maintenance and fuel are factored in. These are personal costs. The environmental costs are staggering as well. The average automobile puts out its own weight in carbon dioxide and other pollutants per year.

There are also hidden impacts, such as storm drains and parking lots which divert water from sinking into the land and concentrate powerful eroding outflows of pollution. Our urban areas are getting hotter because of increased pavement areas. Temperatures in Los Angeles have increased seven degrees in forty years. Flood dangers have increased because of erosion. Complex ecosystems are being destroyed, especially our riparian zones. Massive parking lots are causing buildings to overheat, increasing the burden for more electricity and air conditioning, thus creating more pollution.

Choosing Alternative Transportation

It has been proven that older, tree-shaded towns are typically ten degrees cooler in the summer than new, treeless suburbs. The creation of friendly, tranquil, tree-lined streets is an important factor in seducing people to choose pedestrian and bike transportation over the automobile. In the dry Southwest, one way to grow street trees without wasting water is to put street runoff into a series of French drains or swale depressions every 50 feet along the street. Drought resistant trees are planted near them. These trees are then irrigated by natural runoff, rates of flooding and erosion are reduced, ground water infiltration is increased, and the runoff has a chance to be pre-treated by bacterial action in the soil, reducing ground-water pollution.

A pollution study by Rutgers University comparing compact development to sprawl found that 1.38 billion dollars could be saved in roads, infrastructure and school construction in New Jersey over the next 20 years by moving sprawl into pedestrian scale, small village centers. It also found that auto use and air pollution would be significantly reduced and that 30,000 acres of farmland and urban space could be saved.

A rule of thumb is that about 10 housing units per net acre (after the land for streets and public spaces has been subtracted) is the order of density required to support public transportation. It is often near-sighted no-growth advocates who block transit-oriented development in the name of environmentalism. The unintended result is often that the pressure of development continues, reappearing farther out from urban centers as sprawl, creating a much more devastating impact on our local ecology and quality of life.

Additionally, we must reverse the trend of segregated zoning which was championed even by the genius Frank Lloyd Wright in the early days of the automobile-based euphoria. Future development needs to be guided by these three general principles from Peter Calthorpe:

1. The regional structure of growth should be guided by more compact village and neighborhood forms and the expansion of mass transit.

2. The segregated, single-use zoning practices should be replaced with standards that create mixed-use walking neighborhoods, and respect for corridors of open space.

3. Community design policies should create an architecture oriented toward celebrating the public domain and human dimension, rather than the private domain and the scale of the automobile.

Creating People-friendly Streets

The necessity of the automobile in our lives discriminates especially against the elderly, the poor, and kids. People are alienated in communities of "McMansions," as Duany calls them. In a traditionally planned community, it is possible to move down quiet streets with a gentler traffic flow dissipated by many varied and direct routes to reach civic, retail and work destinations. Travel happens on friendlier streets which make foot and bike travel a real alternative.

In a typical transit-oriented neighborhood, key civic, retail and employment areas are placed within a 2000 foot or 6-minute walking distance from 400 to 1000 residences. No residence is ever more than two blocks from a park.

Once there are neighborhoods designed to be within an easy walk or bike of public transit, each of these neighborhood centers can then become a stop along transit lines linking the complete region, creating a choice for people other than complete dependency on the costly automobile. This also enhances the opportunity to have threads of greenbelts between the communities which can become wildlife corridors.

Several forward-thinking regions of the country have now adopted this style of development as a key element in their development codes. Leading the way are San Diego, Portland, Sacramento and Toronto.

In summary, I quote from Peter Calthorpe a list of Transit-Oriented Development principles:

1. Organize growth on a regional level to be compact and transit supportive.

2. Place commercial, housing, jobs, parks and civic uses within walking distance of transit stops.

3. Create pedestrian friendly street networks which directly connect local destinations.

4. Provide a mix of housing types, densities and costs e.g. an affordable "granny flat" over the garage means service workers don't have to drive long distances.

5. Preserve sensitive habitats, riparian zones and high quality open space.

6. Make public spaces the focus of building orientation and neighborhood activity.

7. Encourage infill and redevelopment along transit corridors within existing neighborhoods.

Robert Althouse has designed and built homes for twenty years using solar energy, greywater systems, composting toilets and alternative bio-benign material systems. He founded the Eco-Logical Design Group which specializes in sustainable community planning and community design and is currently working on "The Frijoles Village," a 500-home mixed-use, mixed-income pedestrian-oriented village located near Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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