New Urbanist Cohousing: Another Arrow in Developers’ Quivers?

CNU 17, DENVER, CO – New Urbanists attending the 17th annual Congress of New Urbanism gathering in Denver will spend the next four days talking about alls sorts of overlapping , interconnected challenges: The uncertain economy, the implications of climate change, the impact of an aging society on land use planning, to name a few. About an hour away in Boulder are intriguing examples of how designers, developers, and a forward-thinking housing authority might tackle some of those issues.

The Holiday community on Broadway, about 10 minutes from Boulder’s downtown, is a ten-year-old New Urbanist development built on an old drive-in movie site. The local housing authority, Boulder Housing Partners, acquired the property in 1997, and invited five local developers to provide 300-plus units, 40 percent of which had to hit affordability benchmarks.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The general plan – retail and offices fronting Broadway, live-works, town houses, duplexes, and single family units of different scales deeper within the project – would be familiar to most New Urbanists. What sets it apart are two embedded cohousing neighborhoods – Wild Sage, a 34-unit multi-generational neighborhood, and Silver Sage Village, a 16-unit elder cohousing cluster.

Cohousing is an imported-from-Denmark approach to community building that reverses the usual relationship between resident and developer by encouraging the formation of a virtual neighborhood of people who work out how they intend to live with one another before they move in, or even choose the setting in which they’ll live. They maintain separate living units but share maintenance chores and a  common house where they dine together at least a couple times a week. It’s part commune, part condo, all community. For a more complete explanation and list of cohousing communities in the US, go here.

Before the economy went into the dumps, cohousing was attracting more and more interest, particularly elder cohousing, which seems a far more attractive way to age in place than in a car-centric suburb.  Last month, USA TODAY’s Haya el Nasser profiled life at Silver Sage. And the movement is still big enough to stage its own national get-together, June 24-28, in Seattle.

That appeal to community makes cohousing a natural ally, a potential nesting component, in New Urbanist projects all over the country.  Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Development Company credits the fast start of the whole Holiday project to the enthusiasm Wild Sage’s residents brought to the project.  And demand for units in Silver Sage Village boosted market-rate prices over the $500,000 mark for some units.

Is this something developers, who could use all the jump starts they can find in the current environment, should be paying more attention to?

Certainly Jim Leach and architect Bryan Bowen, who designed the two Holiday cohousing clusters, think so. 

– Ben Brown

Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

- Ben Brown

Prince of Wales Argues (Again) for ‘Bottom Up’ Design

Addresses British Architects Who Aren’t Always Big Fans

Twenty-five years after he prodded the Royal Institute of British Architects on the group’s 150th anniversary to consider making a little room for traditional approaches to architecture and planning, HRH The Prince of Wales appeared before the group on another anniversary to clarify the message. Though it’s not likely unrepentant modernists in the group saw it as a reframing of the issue.

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

“To my mind,” said the Prince, “that earlier speech also addressed a much more fundamental division than that between Classicism and Modernism: namely the one between “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to architecture. Today, I’m sorry to say, there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms (and Classicists can be as guilty of this as Modernists, Post-Modernists, or Post-Post-Modernists), and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning.”

Maybe “organic” would be a less controversial way to express his vision than “traditional,” he allowed. “I know that the term ‘organic architecture’ acquired a certain specific meaning in the twentieth century . . , but perhaps it is time to recover its older meaning and use it to describe traditional architecture that emerges from a particular environment or community – an architecture bound to place, not to time. In this way we might defuse the too-easy accusation that such an approach is ‘old-fashioned,’ or not sufficiently attuned to the zeitgeist.”

Since The Prince of Wales has been the most ardent advocate of the New Urbanism in Europe, practitioners in the States will be interested in his current take on this continuing debate about form. See an edited video of his speech before the Royal Institute and a transcript here.

- Ben Brown

“Best Practices Guide” Debuts to Glowing Reviews

4th Edition of New Urban News Book Just Issued

Here’s what got our attention: Miami architect/author/New Urbanist provocateur Steve Mouzon says the 2009 “Best Practices Guide“ from the New Urban News “just might be the most useful single book on the New Urbanism I have ever seen.” (Read Steve’s complete review here). That’s hefty praise coming from Mouzon, who is famously cranky about architectural details and planning practices.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The latest edition of the "New Urbanism Best Practices Guide" reflects the movement's ever increasing, and ever-improving, body of knowledge.

The book, by NUN editors Robert Steuteville and Philip Langdon and “special contributors,” runs more than 400 pages and utilizes some 800 illustrations and tables. Which bolsters the claim that this is indeed “the definitive reference on new urban ideas, practices, and projects.”

Among the new chapters are ones on architectural styles and building types, land development, parking, and health and aging. And the editors have revised and updated chapters that have to do with revitalizing cities and towns, retail, the workplace, civic spaces, marketing, finance, transit, and affordability.

The price: $129, plus shipping and handling; $99, plus shipping and handling for New Urban New subscribers and members of CNU. Student price is $79, plus shipping and handling. Download the order form from the NUN website.

- Ben Brown 

Next Step in Reforming Transportation Policy: T4 America’s “Blueprint”

Advocates for a different approach to transportation planning haven’t been delirious about the reluctance of the feds and DOTs to depart from business as usual when it comes to investing stimulus money. But there’s another chance.

All aboard. It's time to depart from business as usual.

All aboard. It's time to depart from business as usual.

Transportation for America, a coalition of SmartGrowth-oriented organizations, is proposing a forward-looking agenda for the upcoming debate on reauthorizing the Transportation Act. T4 America’s “Blueprint” calls for Congress to:

  • Articulate a National Vision, Objectives, and Performance Targets for the national transportation program and hold state and local transportation agencies accountable for demonstrable progress toward goals including safety, efficiency, environment, health and equity.
  • Restructure and consolidate federal programs for greater modal integration, with a focus on completing the second half of the national transportation system, providing more transportation options for all Americans and creating seamless transportation systems that meet the unique needs and connect metropolitan regions, small towns, and rural areas.
  • Empower states, regions, and cities with direct transportation funding and greater flexibility to select projects, using carrots and sticks to incentivize wise transportation investments and in return require demonstrated performance on meeting national objectives.
  • Reform how we pay for the transportation system and create a Unified Transportation Trust Fund that would achieve balanced allocations of federal funds in a portfolio of rail, freight, highway, public transportation, and non-motorized transportation investments.

For an overview of the full report, go here. And for the executive summary, click here.

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: Leon Krier’s “Architecture of Community”

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone Magazine that he had albums of unreleased songs and that one day he would “put those out because there was good material in there.” In 1998, he did just that, releasing a beautiful 4-disc set of unreleased songs. Being a long-time devotee, I was more than a little impressed that, though it took fifteen years, I could still count on Springsteen to keep his word.

A "handy publication" indeed.

A "handy publication" indeed.

During a 2003 charrette, as I asked Mr. Leon Krier to sign my well-worn copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis Publisher, 1998), he noted that he hadn’t seen too many of his books in the States. In my lame attempt to impress Mr. Krier (no, I didn’t tell him I was a Springsteen fan) I told him that my copy had been found at Powell’s Book Store in Portland and I then began to recite my complete collection of Leon Krier books–L.K. Houses, Palaces, Cities (Academy, 1984) and Rational Architecture (AAM, 1978)–and where I had found them. Mr. Krier gently interrupted me to say something about the need for a “handy publication of my architectural and planning ideas.”

As quoted from the book’s Author’s Note above, Mr. Krier has kept to his word and done just that. The Architecture of Community is a seamless read and a comprehensive publication of his architectural and planning ideas crafted over 40 years. The 443 pages read quickly, as more than half of the book is filled with his poignant cartoons, vignettes, and parti. Eagerly, I read the book over the weekend, trying to not bend the corners or dint the dust jacket.

However, the book’s pristine condition will not last, as I have already begun to use the book as my primary reference guide for architecture and urban composition and theory. I tend to view my daily professional life as tilting at windmills of conventional architecture and urban design, and Mr. Krier’s pithy cartoons lighten this perception, both literally and figuratively. This book contains well-known images from past books as well as new images, photographs, projects, observations and captions.

A missed opportunity in the book is any direct reference to his polemic and inspirational debates with Peter Eisenmann in 1983, which were summed up with this barb, “You can’t, but I can,” in response to Peter stating, “Leon, come on, you cannot build this way anymore today!” Understanding that Mr. Krier’s theoretical position is detailed throughout the book, those series of debates, in my opinion, helped to shape what design means to the United States of America.

As discussed in his chapter, The Modernity of Traditional Architecture, “Traditional architectural forms derive from and are conditioned by the use of natural materials.” Today, with sustainability having moved from long-time trend status (such as Watershed Planning and Livable Communities) to radical movement (such as Modernism and New Urbanism), Mr. Krier’s long-time focus on ecological planning and humane buildings is rising up to meet our contemporary needs.

The book is published by Island Press (ISBN-13:978-1-59726-578-2). Through simple, matter-of-fact, black and white text and graphics, it comprehensively illustrates how Mr. Krier’s work has consistently delved deeper into the timelessness of building “good and elegant human settlements” with new chapters (The Architectural Tuning of Settlements) assembled upon the old (Aspects of Modernity). And, his steady, reliable, dependable and honest focus on shaping our buildings, neighborhoods and towns towards an architecture and urbanism that are simply beautiful is to be celebrated with the reading of Leon Krier’s new book.

- Howard Blackson

Mouzon Green Home Design Featured in WSJ

Contrasts “Original Green” vs. “Gadget Green”

Even before green building gathered momentum, Miami architect Steve Mouzon was determined to change the focus of the discussion. Green shouldn’t be just about the individual house in the here and now, he argued; it has to be about the broader community over time. Design and construction should build on lessons from the past and lay the groundwork for a sustainable future.

That perspective led him to an award-winning book, A Living Tradition: Architecture of the Bahamas, and to the continuing refinement of the idea of “Original Green.” “Original Green,” as opposed to “Gadget Green,” focuses on vernacular practices honed over time to shape highly efficient and much loved structures that adapt and endure over generations.

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

This past January in Miami, a design group founded by Mouzon, the New Urban Guild, convened in Miami to talk about producing a series of ideas for dwellings for a new era in America. The discussion was about efficiencies of space and about Original Green-style sustainability. Now, one of the first products of that 2008 discussion, a Mouzon design for a neighborhood-friendly green home, was among four ideas featured in a special section of the April 27, 2009, Wall Street Journal.

Mouzon’s concept shares at least one approach with the work of the other four architects. Its scale is relatively small, especially compared with McMansion-style mega-houses. Everybody, it seems, is coming to understand that reducing volume is one sure route to greater energy efficiency. Mouzon’s design fits easily on a standard 50 X 100 urban lot. Its 1,200-square-feet of air-conditioned space utilizes less than half the site. The highly detailed outside rooms encourage living a great part of the time in the outdoors, even in the sub-tropical climate of the South Atlantic coast, where Mouzon chose to locate his theoretical lot. (Original Green, Mouzon will point out, is not a one-size-fits-all approach; designs have to be customized to regional climate to take advantage of time-honored vernacular for conserving energy and achieving creature comfort.)

While Mouzon doesn’t shy away from the latest advancements in solar and wind technologies, he avoids expensive, high-maintenance gadgetry in order to focus on much older – even ancient techniques – to achieve sustainability: Shading eaves, sleeping porches,  cross ventilation, and “sails” to direct cooling breezes in the gardens. In this design, homeowners can live 100 percent off the energy grid. Enough food can be grown in the gardens or harvested from the chicken coop or tilapia pool to sustain a small family. Yet nothing about the house prevents it from nesting comfortably in a neighborhood.

You can read more about the design for the WSJ story on Mouzon’s website here

Katrina Cottages Finding Traction on Gulf Coast

Neighborhood Sites in the Works

Finally, after more than three and a half years, one of the key New Urbanist efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is beginning to grow legs. And perhaps more importantly, the models being created have implications for affordable housing everywhere. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a consultant on various Katrina Cottage projects, including the Cottage Square effort covered below. Also: Fellow PlaceMaker Scott Doyon and I revisited lessons-learned since the Mississippi Renewal Forum with our 2008 update of the official charrette website).

The Katrina Cottage movement, born during the Renewal Forum in Biloxi in October of 2005, put forward a series of designs for affordable, storm-worthy structures small in scale but beautifully proportioned and in keeping with the Mississippi coastal vernacular. The idea was to offer emergency housing designed and built so well that they could transition to permanent dwellings, as opposed to FEMA trailers that often ended up in landfills. Read about the history of the KC effort here.

Because of its mandate to focus on emergency management issues and not permanent housing, FEMA resisted investing directly in Katrina Cottages but was nudged into an alternative housing experiment because of pressure from the politically influential Mississippi Congressional delegation. Louisiana, which lost even more homes during the flooding aftermath of Katrina than Mississippi lost in the storm surge, got part of the appropriation, as well. And the two states pursued separate tracks for creating cottages inspired by the work of the Forum architects.

Mississippi designed its own Mississippi Cottages and contracted manufactured housing companies to build them. And while the designs didn’t measure up to the standards set by the Forum architectural team, they came close enough to be embraced by folks desperate to escape from FEMA trailers and to appear capable of taking the next step envisioned by New Urbanist designers in 2005: Transitioning to permanent dwellings in existing neighborhoods and serving as building blocks for cottage clusters in new projects.

What stalled the transition was resistance from citizens who were stuck in the perception that anything made in a factory was a mobile home. So they pressured planning commissions and local officials to keep the cottages out, even, ironically, out of neighborhoods zoned for mobile home parks. In its April 2009 issue, Governing magazine lays out the debate and features one of the reasons the tide is changing: Bruce Tolar’s Cottage Square.

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Tolar, an Ocean Springs, MS, architect, was on the original MRF architectural team and took to heart Andres Duany’s admonition to create model Katrina Cottage neighborhoods. The Cottage Square, created by a development team Tolar assembled, is a transit-oriented, mixed-use infill project on two acres a half-mile from Ocean Springs’ historic downtown. The site is home to six Katrina Cottages, including the first one, Marianne Cusato’s “little yellow house” that was such a big hit at the 2006 International Builders Show. And now it also has eight of the state’s Mississippi Cottages permanently set on foundations, massaged into neighborhood friendliness by Tolar’s building crews, and rented to locals displaced by Katrina. Go here to see how the Mississippi Cottages were wedged into Cottage Square in time for the third anniversary of the storm last year.

As more and more citizens and elected officials get the chance to tour the Square, official resistance to the cottages, including the manufactured Mississippi Cottages, is shrinking. “Most people don’t get this place,” Tolar told Governing, “until they come here.”

Increasingly, they’re getting it. The architect is now working with non-profits, local governments, and private developers to place as many as 200 cottage units in site-planned neighborhoods over the next six months. Some of the sites are likely to contain three or four times the number of units as Cottage Square and may inspire, at long last, an acceleration in the manufacture and on-site construction of safe, affordable housing in neighborhoods built back better than they were before the storm.

Tolar is also getting attention beyond the storm zone. A visiting group from MIT was by recently, and the affordable housing non-profits like Enterprise are spreading the word about potential adaptations of the Cottage Square model for other communities. In the area of the New Austerity, living small and smart could catch on in a big way.

The Katrina Cottage example may provide “recovery housing for the new economy,” Tolar told Governing. “Maybe it’s the home we can all afford. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these cottages, I say it’s because I may be living in one.”

– Ben Brown

On this Earth Day Anniversary: Hints of Convergence

Green meets Smart Growth meets Healthy Communities 

earthdayAs 21st century crises and concerns began stacking up, it had begun to look as if Smart Growth priorities were going to have to compete for attention and resources with other burning issues. Such as: Climate change, peak oil, community affordability, health care costs, and now the struggling global economy. But on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, it was impossible not to notice how these apparently parallel concerns are beginning to overlap. Which is good news for a movement like New Urbanism that assumes the interdependence of challenges and opportunities and promotes comprehensive solutions.

Thanks to the work of organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the T4America initiative from Smart Growth America and its partners, connections between transportation planning, community affordability, and healthy communities were already getting more attention. Now, as the frenzy for all things green increases, coupled with the reawakening of the Environmental Protection Agency under a new presidential administration and a similar invigoration of public health policy, we’re seeing a dramatic convergence of strategies with broad implications for community planning. Here are three key components of that convergence:

The increasing interest among environmental scientists in the advantages of compact, walkable, communities. For instance: Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies recently included on its website an analysis by Bruce Stutz called “The New Urbanists: Tackling Europe’s Sprawl”. Here’s the blurb associated with the post: “In the last few decades, urban sprawl, once regarded as largely a U.S. phenomenon, has spread across Europe. Now an emerging group of planners is promoting a new kind of development — mixed-use, low-carbon communities that are pedestrian-friendly and mass-transit-oriented.”

The explosion of green building interest in the private sector. Best example: The ever-multiplying territory of Greener World Media, Inc., which operates www.greenbiz.com and other sites linking business with green building, climate change,  and other environmental issues once considered the domain of environmental wonks. Because they’re aimed at the ROI crowd, the company’s websites, surveys, research, and newsletters have a no nonsense feel that is likely to significantly advance the green discussion with economic development types and others who aren’t sympathetic to warm and fuzzy arguments for environmental responsibility.

The intersection of public health policy, environmental concerns, and urban planning. The overlap was always clear to many professionals working in the field,  but now it’s beginning to feel embedded in the thinking of policy makers. By far the biggest stride towards connecting the dots is the EPA’s just-announced intention to consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions because of their threat to public health. The move is considered a nudge to Congress to act before the Executive Branch writes the regs. So the battle is joined.

Also: Consider this video of Dr. Howard Frumkin, national director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Dr. Frumkin appeared before architects and planners at the National Building Museum, using part of his time to caution them against making scientific-like claims for community design without the backing of sound scientific research. Yet most of the presentation feels like a New Urbanist guide to creating and sustaining compact, walkable communities.

For more specific references to community design and public health, take a look at:

A recent study from the University of British Columbia on a correlation between riding transit and fitness. (Thanks to Laurence Aurbach for this tip.)

A source for research into opportunities for addressing obesity with neighborhood design.

And a recent New York Times column on social netwoks and community health.

– Ben Brown