Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Conservation Neighborhoods by Randall Arendt

One concept jumps out at me when I study Randall Arendt’s ideas for neighborhood design – balance.

Amid a bulls-rush of conventional thinking by real estate developers telling us that every square inch of raw land must be actively developed and sold off to support the “economic viability” of a project, Arendt has tirelessly advocated leaving significant swaths of common natural space as part of the overall development.

Here’s the idea.

Start by taking the conventionally zoned density of a proposed neighborhood - let’s say it happens to be one acre per home site. Instead of carving out a series of one-acre plots stacked boundary to boundary, consolidate the building site to some percentage of that one acre. For the sake of this discussion, each home site becomes a half acre.

A couple of dynamics result.

By downsizing the individual lots, a cluster rather than a linear pattern takes form resulting in less required infrastructure (roads, walks, water, sewer, site grading, etc.) thereby reducing the cost and effort involved in infrastructure development.

And instead of each homeowner having his one acre, half the land in the development is open for all to enjoy. So in a 100 acre development, each homeowner now has access to 50 acres of natural open space instead of just one acre minus the building footprint and drives.

Arendt brilliantly refers to conventionally designed lots as “too big to mow, to small to plow.” But in a conservation neighborhood, “enough” land is allocated to accommodate a reasonable dwelling, and large contiguous areas of the natural landscape are preserved as a community asset. What manifests is the same building density with lower costs to the developer (translated to the homeowner) along with a more sensitive treatment of the natural environment.

This design approach has been called “twice green.” Simultaneously, conservation neighborhoods save money and preserve large areas of the natural environment.

How do you choose the land that should be conserved?

Identify the unbuildable acreage (wetlands and natural drainage areas), woodlands, and unique and beautiful natural amenities presented by the site.

Wetlands and lowlands, for eons, controlled the storm water runoff naturally and free of charge. Filling them in, as many developers are inclined to want to do, brings about new expensive problems handling the storm water and dramatically increases the cost of site preparation. And, the development process generally bogs down with the jurisdiction’s Department of Environmental Quality which frowns (for good reason) on filling in wetlands.

Preserved woodlands help mitigate carbon produced by development and should always be part of an urban clean air strategy.

And have you ever noticed that many developments are named after the natural amenity the developer just destroyed to build the neighborhood, as in Turtle Creek (that only now exists underground in a pipe!)?

Why not keep the wonderful natural beauty that already exists? Designers, no matter how talented, are hard pressed to match the beauty Mother Nature gives us for free.

Back to the concept of “balance.” Conservation neighborhoods create intrinsic balance between developed areas and the natural landscape. Arendt, over the years, has codified the monetary benefit (for the sake of accountants), but the true balance is recognized by the human spirit. Conservation neighborhoods, by experience, prove that beauty is important for the soul.

Here’s a brief clip of Randall Arendt talking about the economic benefits of conservation neighborhoods.

And read more about conservation neighborhoods in one of Randall Arendt’s many books including “Growing Greener” and “Conservation Design for Subdivisions: A Practical Guide to Creating Open Space Networks”.

A note to readers: I'll be away from blogging for a little while to catch up on some things. Viruses and the flu seem to be swirling around excessively as of late and I have not been perfectly immune, if you know what I mean, so I've got lots of stacked up design work before me. Keep checking in; be back soon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pringle Creek Community, Salem Oregon

A holistically planned sustainable development is taking shape in Salem, Oregon – the Pringle Creek Community.

This community features a walkable design, dedicated green space, community gardens, a village commercial center, super-green construction, and environmentally friendly paving on 32 acres of natural woodland.

True to the spirit of sustainable design, the Pringle Creek Community is expressly non-stylistic, instead making design decisions based on a set of over-riding principles.

1. Build efficiencies by building green
2. Celebrate the natural environment
3. Encourage social diversity
4. Activate the local economy
5. Conserve and reuse natural materials
6. Smart transportation and movement

As an extension of these principles, Pringle Creek has established a set of 35 sustainable design goals further articulating and codifying the design ethic. From the community’s website:

Comprehensive sustainability plans like this do not happen by accident. Sustainable Development Inc., headed by Don Myers, has been engaged in a conscious effort to build green since buying the 32 acres in 2004. The developer brought in Opsis Architecture, a Portland firm specializing in green design, to articulate the vision.

A couple of high points.

Roads in the community, all flanked by 5 foot sidewalks, are constructed of “porous” or “pervious” paving, a technology designed to allow the passage of water through the paving and back into the soil. Almost all paving used today is impervious to water, thus creating stormwater run-off problems typically managed by expensive, intrusive (and always un-natural) engineering efforts. This, according to the developer, is the largest residential project in the US to utilize porous paving.

Recently, a model home was constructed embodying the neighborhood’s design goals. This home, amazingly, graded out as the highest rated LEED Platinum home in the United States. The home incorporates solar energy, geothermal heating and cooling, as well as a comprehensive array of passive environmental elements.

The rub? A $432,000 price tag for this 1460 square foot home - that's almost $300 per square foot. Not exactly what I would call "affordable" but give credit for the herculean effort.

For more on the community, visit their website at:

This Week: Green Communities

The NAV blog highlights new communities in the United States that incorporate green building ethics into the overall planning and design.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spring Break

OK, here we are on Wednesday and I’ve just picked myself up from an unexpected flu bug. Being considerate, I did not want to infect any blog readers with a contagious post. Truthfully, my mind has been mush for the past few days and formulating coherent thoughts was way off my radar. So with a full week of design work ahead of me (and half a week to do it) I’m taking a break from the blog – but only for this week.

Meanwhile, please feel free to dig through some of the older posts. One of my all-time favorites is an essay on strip malls entitled ‘Strip Tease.’

And even though a so-called stimulus package has already passed into law, I opened the floor to alternative ideas to stimulate the economy in more directional ways, like provide federal tax credits for the design, manufacture, and installation of alternative energy systems. The post: Stimulating Proposition. Add your idea.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

Top 100 Walkable Cities

Prevention Magazine has a wealth of information on walkability, including a walkability ranking of the ten largest cities in each state and the top 100 walkable in the United States.

The top 10:

1. Cambridge, MA
2. New York City, NY
3. Ann Arbor, MI
4. Chicago, IL
5. Washington, DC
6. San Francisco, CA
7. Honolulu, HI
8. Trenton, NJ
9. Boston, MA
10. Cicinnati, OH

Take a look and see where your city ranks. You will find the criteria used by Prevention on the bottom left of the article front page. And, of course, the article has links to some helpful health-related tips for walkers.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Post Haste Makes Waste

This morning (Friday), Hillary Clinton is visiting Hattiesburg (in an interesting turn, she will be standing in for Bill who was initially scheduled to be here) in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary election.

My friend and client Ronnie Shows (former Mississippi Congressman) will be introducing her. Ronnie is developing a passive green affordable neighborhood here in Mississippi; I’ll highlight that project in a month or so when our first home is complete.

I will be attending the event in lieu of making a hasty post. Check back this weekend for the final post on Walkable Neighborhoods.

When Good Neighborhoods Go Bad

Contiguous sidewalks are the lifeblood of a walkable neighborhood.

Any mode of transportation, including walking, must be thought of as a “system” and planned as such. Otherwise, viability and practicality is compromised.

According to, “system” is defined as an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.

Think about other systems and how they work.

If the electrician does not connect the fixture to the switch, would you expect light?

If the carpenter decides to omit an exterior wall, would you expect your house to stay warm in winter?

If the plumber installs pipes randomly here and there with few connections, would you expect water to appear when you turned the faucet? Forget about flushing.

So why should it be different with sidewalks.

I took the first photo (above) in my neighborhood, 3 blocks from the university. Notice the conspicuous absence of sidewalks; walkers are forced by default to share the road with cars or walk on the occasional boggy lawn.

There is actually one sidewalk up ahead in between sidewalk-less blocks. A very good thing, but without being plugged into the system, it is rendered practically useless. A couple of weeks ago, a contractor parked his van right in the middle of that one lonely pedestrian consideration and left it there for the day. When I asked him if he had ever considered that he might be blocking pedestrian traffic, he told me to “walk around” and “nobody walks here anyway.”

“Who could?” I asked pointing to the van. Could have used a laugh track. Tough crowd.

The second photo is of a neighborhood in Baton Rouge. Again, here is a sidewalk - very nice. But wait! It ends abruptly as it “dies” into a brick pier. The same density of housing is just beyond this terminated sidewalk. Another disconnection.

This on again-off again patchwork frustrates and discourages walking even in very dense areas. The contractor was very observant when he indicated that nobody walks here.

And really, how could they?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Walk On The Wild Side

In the abstract, my neighborhood is perfect for walking.

A major university is 5 blocks away. A grocery store is 4 blocks in the other direction; a park and zoo just beyond that. Restaurants, a pharmacy, an elementary school, retail shops, churches, bars, and liquor stores – a veritable smorgasbord of life’s basic necessities.

But there’s one big problem.

Its completely unwalkable.

According to my neighborhood’s walkscore (see previous post), the area around my house should be moderately walkable. The density sets the stage. Approximately 30,000 people occupy the real estate (during the day) within a mile of my home. But with very few sidewalks, and even fewer crosswalks, getting from here to there on foot becomes entirely impractical.

Over the past 50 years, neighborhoods have been planned as if pedestrians do not exist. Planners and politicians, aided and abetted by architects and engineers I might add, have orchestrated land development with the assumption that the car is the only viable means of transportation, the silver bullet, the one-size-fits-all solution.

That predisposition brings us to where we are today: Sprawl - even in the midst of dense urban development. And walking, as a means of transportation, has been forgotten.

The university chronically complains about a lack of parking. Yet my neighbors (and in fact my Dutch roommate who is accustomed to walking) drive the 5 blocks to campus and park there instead of taking a 10 minute stroll.

Why? Because lack of any planning for pedestrians has created an urban frontier. Walking in this environment means taking your life in your own hands. Pedestrians must share the road with zooming cars (driven by distracted cell-phone yappers) and race across major thoroughfares without the benefit of crosswalks or overpasses.

In fact, in a current “improvement” project on Hardy Street at the edge of campus, crosswalks have been removed with none added. The local Department of Transportation came up with a design that widened the roadway and removed a couple of intersections effectively channeling the traffic and increasing the average speed noticeably. With restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, campus parking, and even a dormitory across the street, pedestrians now have to run for their lives with no crosswalks in sight. The photo above is of just that.

A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with a couple of women on the university track team. I suggested that the team be housed in the dorm across the street. Those who survive the semester without being hit by a car keep their scholarships. “Yeah,” one girl replied laughing, “that’s how we can hold tryouts!” They knew what I was talking about.

The real consequence of America’s addiction to the automobile (my friend Doug Michels of Ant Farm fame called it “autonationalism”) is that we create problems that did not exist before.

Sprawl related traffic jams and long commutes suck up time, energy, and money. Same applies in a densely developed area when you are forced to drive to your next destination just around the block.

Urban space is eaten up (and heated up) by too many parking lots. Modern car-centered zoning regulations result in stretching out the space between buildings to accommodate parking making the surrounding area even less walkable.

Public transportation of any kind is not viable when the metro stop is inaccessible by foot traffic. Lack of bus or train service adds inconvenience on top of inconvenience to the traffic weary commuter and would-be walker alike.

Studies have shown that people living in non-walkable neighborhoods are on average more obese, causing or exacerbating many health problems.

Maybe one of the most tragic aspects of an unwalkable neighborhood is its negative impact on our culture. When driving, there are only two ways to communicate to your neighbor – wave or flip them off! Walkable neighborhoods, by design, offer unlimited opportunities to meet and get to know your neighbors on a more personal level. In an unwalkable neighborhood, people generally know each other by their cars. Not much of a cultural exchange there.

As the trend of sprawl plays out, many are coming to a greater awareness of the inherent problems. The benefits of walking are many – I’ve just outlined a few. Here's a site for more info on walking (and biking) in neighborhoods:

Monday, March 3, 2008

What Is Your Neighborhood's Walk Score?

With the price of gas above $3 a gallon, people are starting to think about living and working in a walkable neighborhood.

Over the past 50 years, with low gas prices and abundant undeveloped land, our neighborhoods have increasingly become unwalkable. We fell in love with the car, and in the process, we may have lost our way.

Unwalkable neighborhoods have given us traffic jams, increased rates of obesity, and have disconnected us from a sense of "community."

On the other hand, walkable communities promote good health, convenience, rich cultural interaction, multiple transportation options, and economic advantages for individuals and the business community.

Over the next few days we will explore different facets of neighborhoods, why they respond to the human condition, and why unwalkable neighborhoods do not. We will also entertain suggestions and list resources that help bring about a more walkable built environment.

But today, here is a fun site – - where you can get a sense of the walkability of your neighborhood. Enter your address, and this site generates a number between 0 and 100 depending on proximity to various essential destinations like schools, grocery stores, parks, restaurants, etc. It also maps out the location of those services.

What this site does not indicate is how well the area is planned for pedestrians - whether there are sidewalks or crosswalks or not, for example. classifies the rating system as such:

90 - 100 = Walkers' Paradise: Most errands can be accomplished on foot and many people get by without owning a car.

70 - 90 = Very Walkable: It's possible to get by without owning a car.

50 - 70 = Some Walkable Locations: Some stores and amenities are within walking distance, but many everyday trips still require a bike, public transportation, or car.

25 - 50 = Not Walkable: Only a few destinations are within easy walking range. For most errands, driving or public transportation is a must.

0 - 25 = Driving Only: Virtually no neighborhood destinations within walking range. You can walk from your house to your car!

Type in your address or find out how other neighborhoods ranks:

My home - in a neighborhood near the University of Southern Mississippi and a block from the main east-west thoroughfare in town – is 60. No mention of the mad dash across the highway to get to the university just 5 blocks away or the sprint across Hardy Street to get to the grocery store. Very few pedestrian crosswalks or overpasses exist in the middle if this, the most densely populated area within a 60 mile radius, but I’ll talk about that later on in the week. My office in downtown Hattiesburg comes in at 92.

What is your neighborhood's walk score? Post a comment and let us know how your neighborhood rates.

This Week: Walkable Neighborhoods

Why walkable neighborhoods respond to the human condition, and why walkless neighborhoods do not.