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

Atlanta, AARP, DPZ Attack Challenges of Aging in Place

The New Urbanist mantra for neighborhood planning is to go for compact, connected, and complete. Well, one critical component of completeness, that of making communities comfortable – and practical – for residents of all ages, has been sort of assumed by NU planners. Yet it’s taken an effort by the nation’s primary advocacy group for seniors, AARP, to make the idea of “Livable Communities” for aging in place a planning priority.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Can community design impact one's ability to age in place? The ARC is examining how.

Integrating that priority into master planning for real places is getting its first major test with a Lifelong Communities Charrette in Atlanta, Feb. 9-17. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which coordinates planning for the 10-county metro region, is behind the project, with AARP as one of its partners. Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), led by Andres Duany, will provide the design and planning expertise. Together they hope to make solid headway on an issue that will only loom larger moving forward.

The charrette targets five sites in the region, selected for their potential to represent typical challenges to aging in place and for communities’ willingness to embrace walkable, mixed-use, mixed-generational solutions to those challenges. How DPZ approaches the project and the plans that emerge from it are likely to provide models for similar efforts in other places. Lots of other places. Here’s why:

In 2008, the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation became eligible for Social Security. The whole generation, 76 million strong, will have turned 70 by 2034. And if we’re not able to reverse the dominant trend of suburban sprawl and its near exclusive reliance on automobiles for mobility, we will make aging gracefully at home in America difficult for even well-off seniors and all but impossible for the majority of older people.

Flunking the aging-in-place test not only means an increased burden for family care-givers and public programs (and therefore tax-payers); it also means the loss of good neighbors and productive citizens who could live independently longer in their own homes and neighborhoods if their communities planned for walkability, diverse housing choices, and mixed-use.

In addition to AARP, healthcare and public safety experts have been connecting the housing issue with aging in place challenges for most of the last decade. You can read working papers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies here. Included among those papers is one on “Aging in Place: Coordinating Housing and Health Care Provision for America’s Growing Elderly Population” by Kathryn Lawler, who’s one of the planners of the Atlanta Regional Commission project.

We’ll follow the ARC/DPZ charrette in blog posts to follow. In the meantime, care to shake this story up a little?  Then share your comments below.

- Ben Brown

Will Economic Woes Stall the Green Movement?

When we got a note from colleagues in Chattanooga, Tennessee, letting us know that that their city had not only crafted a Climate Action Plan but was also set to create a new office of sustainability, it got us to thinking: Is the competition for funding in the deepening recession going to kill momentum for this sort of focused effort for green planning and building?

Not in Chattanooga, obviously. City forester Gene Hyde, who chaired the 14-person committee that crafted the Climate Action Plan, says momentum was easy to sustain, thanks to the participation of folks “representing a cross-section of viewpoints from the business, industrial, environmental, and academic communities. In addition, the opinions of more than 500 citizens and 100 subject-matter experts were factored into the final plan.”

When the Chattanooga mayor signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, committing to planning for lower carbon emissions, there were 235 signatories to the Agreement. Now there are more than 800. That’s good news for keeping the green going, right?

So this would be a good place for a “Not so fast” interjection and a bulleted list of all the reasons we’re doomed anyway. And there will be room for a little of that in future posts. The sustainability of sustainability is going to be a recurring theme for us all. In the meantime, let’s give Chattanooga and other cities moving forward on green initiatives the bows they deserve. And let’s indulge ourselves with news with a positive green spin. To wit:

  • Designer/Planner Doug Farr’s Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature has gone into multiple printings and is already used as a guiding text for design seminars. Doug has also developed a sustainability module for the form-based SmartCode.
  • Global Green Building Trends: Market Growth and Perspectives from Around the World,” a 2008 survey by McGraw-Hill Construction Analytics, reported high expectations for green from worldwide construction pros. A majority predicted that at least 60 percent of their projects over the next five years would focus on green building. Eighty-five percent of the firms said they expected rapid or steady growth in sales and profit levels associated with green building. Solar power, already in use by 52 percent of the firms, is expected to be used by more than 75 percent in five years, Wind power is expected to be in use by 57 percent of the firms by 2013, compared to 20 percent in 2008. And geothermal power is expected to double in use from 2008 levels to 45 percent in 2013.
  • Across the Atlantic, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted a November, 2008, summit that “brought together a cross section of industries that see ‘smart growth’ as the way to a sustainable future. A line up of leading figures from property investment, insurance and sustainable development industries guided the debate.” Their presentations have just been posted here.

- Ben Brown 

“Just Building Sprawl” is Over, But How?

When President Obama declared, before an audience in Ft. Myers, Florida, on Feb. 10, an end to “just building sprawl forever” (fast-forward to around 58:58 for the money quote), it may have signaled a change of venue in the battle over how the stimulus package is interpreted and applied.

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

President Obama addresses residents of Ft. Myers, Florida, declaring "The days where we're just building sprawl forever, those days are over."

Up until Obama left Washington for town meetings in Florida and Indiana, the debate seemed paralyzed by partisan politics at the national level. Democrats and Republicans retreated to familiar corners, debating the effectiveness of tax cuts vs. spending initiatives as if the issues were purely academic. The national media, as usual, were captivated by the food fight. By changing the stage for the debate from the floors of Congress to communities already hard-hit by the recession, Obama was able to bring back into focus the sense of urgency for action and likely targets for effective stimulus funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers had already done some of the homework for Obama, giving a grade of “D” to the nation’s infrastructure and calling for $2.2 trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next five years. And even if Obama had not taken to the road, bottom-up politics was likely to overwhelm Congress before long.  See this February 8 Chicago Tribune story suggesting a growing tension between conservative elected leaders and their constituents over the need for immediate investment in communities.

City, county, and state governments were not likely to sit on the sidelines for long, either (note Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist standing on the dais next to Obama in the Ft. Myers video). In the short term, government spending at all levels is likely to be the source of most new investment. So the faster funds begin moving out of Washington, the better.

A recent conference hosted by Governing magazine on the “Outlook in the States and Localities” was full of sobering presentations about spending cuts and lay-offs. According to a survey by the National Association of Counties, 91 percent of those polled said they were cutting spending, and 64 percent predicted lay-offs. A similar survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested 40 states have budget gaps in the current fiscal year and 24 are already predicting shortfalls in 2010.

The signal Obama sent with his end-of-sprawl message in Ft. Meyers is likely to be welcomed by counties and municipalities, many of which have Smart Growth vision plans in place and have a pretty good idea how to use economic stimulus money. With transportation planning at the center of the infrastructure debate, here’s a good place to watch how the process plays out: www.t4america.org. Also, The Alliance for Innovation, a public-sector collaboration that includes the International City/County Management Association, is monitoring 11 municipalities and how they’re coping with the current economic environment. The group is producing a wiki report called Navigating the Fiscal Crisis: Strategies for Local Leaders. Much of the advice, taken from lessons learned in other downturns, is about resisting the temptation to sacrifice long-term strategic goals for short-term savings.

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development

It probably won’t surprise most folks that the pursuit of more traditional (and sustainable) urban patterns is often thwarted by…  lawyers! But here’s a refreshing change: Two of them – Dan Slone and Doris Goldstein, with Andy Gowder – have just released A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers and Architects, a wellspring of practical solutions for beating them at their own game.

Put the power of lawyers to work for <em>you</em>.

Put the power of lawyers to work for you.

From planning and zoning to development and operations, this richly illustrated resource lays down the law on all aspects of smart growth and development: incorporating good urban design into local land regulations, overcoming impediments in subdivision and platting, structuring community associations for mixed-use projects, maneuvering the politics and, yes, surviving litigation.

In a solid nod of approval, it’s perhaps equally unsurprising that the book’s foreword is provided by Andres Duany, who’s spent a career running the gamut of these legal and political hurdles – some successfully, others not.

And in a not-too-shabby September 2008 review, The New Urban News says, “Immensely practical, this guidebook is loaded with techniques that can enable New Urbanism to jump hurdles erected by the legal system, the political apparatus, and the day-to-day difficulties of community life.” Finally, Law of the Land, in an October 2008 post, summarizes, “Justice Brennan: ‘If a policeman must know the Constitution, then why not a planner?’ is a perfect lead-in to a wonderful new book.”

We agree. Get your own copy here.

- Scott Doyon

Preservation Through Beauty

A recent New York Times article, examining struggling efforts to preserve the architecture of the New Deal, raises an interesting question: Why do some attempts at preservation capture broad-based attention and support while others wither away as fringe acts of desperation?

The answer might have a lot to do with beauty. Because, while we’ve come to accept as truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it really doesn’t.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

The dimensions and proportions of "beauty" reflect far more agreement than we'd like to admit.

In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.

Either way, the result has been buildings and places that often lack the one thing most likely to ensure their preservation – the ability to be loved and valued by the everyman. As architect Steve Mouzon says often, “Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.”

We can agree on what’s beautiful. We have met the beholder and it is us. The big question moving forward, especially as the financial floodgates of the stimulus package begin to open, is what are we going to do about it?

- Scott Doyon

Report from the Real Estate Front Lines

Vince Graham, the New Urbanist developer of the award-winning I’On TND in the Charleston metro area, has a “get real” message for home owners and realtors. Like other established New Urbanist properties, I’On has weathered the current housing slowdown better than conventional suburban projects nearby. Yet owners determined to sell their homes in I’On have had to face the reality that the era of double-digit annual appreciation is over. In fact, recent sales even in I’On have been at prices closer to those of four years ago, as opposed to the record levels of 2006. “Let’s face it,” says Vince, “2006 was an anomaly. Forget about it. A good pricing rule of thumb this year is to consider what homes were selling for at the end of 2004.”

Other experts have echoed Vince’s analysis. Measured over decades, home values nationally have appreciated at annual averages close to the average inflation rate — roughly three percent per year. Which suggests that average home prices nationally, after teasing investors for years at unsustainable appreciation levels, still have room to fall.

- Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: Retrofitting Suburbia

retrofittingConsiderable attention has been paid to development in urban cores and new neighborhoods on the exurban periphery. But in between, the out-of-date and unsustainable developments in existing suburbs also provide enormous opportunities for regeneration. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, is a comprehensive guidebook that illustrates how existing suburban developments can be redesigned into more urban and more sustainable places. Beyond simply re-skinning buildings or changing use, the best suburban retrofits systemically transform their neighborhoods, increasing connectivity and walkability, while contributing to affordability, transit, and sustainability.

- Hazel Borys