It’s a tough time to build homes or develop new communities—a far cry from the runaway 1990s, when any box with a floor, a roof, and an occupancy permit could start a bidding war. The shelter business has become much, much more complicated.
“A lot of things that worked in the old system just are not coming back,” says Marianne Cusato, the Miami-based designer of the well-known Katrina Cottage. “We’re facing a perfect storm with the potential for a complete collapse of our current way of life. It could be led by any one of the big issues: global warming, peak oil, financial disaster. At this point it looks like the trigger was economic collapse. We’ve been thrown into a tailspin. Yet very few people will publicly acknowledge how bad the situation really is.”
“Developers need to change the formula,” she adds, “to build smaller homes at a higher specification. I’m talking about mixed-use communities. You should be able to meet all of your daily needs close to home—with schools nearby and local food. We need to reduce our impact and cut back our consumption. The suburban dream has failed. We thought being spread out and driving everywhere would make us safe, but we’ve lost our quality of life.”
That triple whammy of climate change, recession, and the end of cheap oil could convince builder/developers to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass, says John Norquist, president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism, based in Chicago.
“A recession is not a time to lay back and wait,” he says. “It’s the time when future fortunes are made. It’s a time to assess what’s really going on and seize opportunities. The days of the 600-unit McMansion development are gone. And they’re not coming back. City governments are going to look for developments to happen more organically. Those are going to be the baby steps coming out of this recession.”
Closing the Circle
Norquist notes that fuel costs and municipal zoning are pushing back on greenfield developments—bringing populations into denser urban areas. But that doesn’t mean we’re devolving as a society. We’re simply returning to normal development patterns.
“We’ve had an overreaction to the automobile over the last few decades that shook us out of a normal way of living,” he says. “Already you’re seeing urban shopping coming back, replacing the inner-facing mall. The developers are really leading this thing—they know that Target, for example, would rather put its new stores in a real city or town center, not out in suburbia.
“I think there’s a real hunger here for cities like you find in Europe—cities that are walkable, with good architecture,” he adds.
But what about the thousands of existing suburbs? Are residents there doomed to occupy ghost towns? Not necessarily, says Norquist, if key factors such as transportation are addressed. At WaterLights, a new, 150-acre development 11 miles from Houston, CEO and lead architect Steve Biegel of Matrix Spencer Architects in Arlington, Va., has included transit since early planning sessions.
“We’re six miles from Texas Medical,” he says, “Five miles from Rice University, and these will be a lot of our clientele. Parking on site is substantial, and there’s a rail extension planned within about half a mile. One of the ideas is an elevated rail.” Biegel notes that this project “goes way beyond” its LEED-certified commercial and residential buildings. Many of the mixed-use buildings will have green roofs, primarily reflective surfaces, and shading systems. The parking garage will include photovoltaic panels that power its lighting system. Gravity-fed rainwater will irrigate lawns. The same system will feed fountains that blast LED-lit water jets 15 feet into the air. Bridges across manmade waterways will be lit with off-grid PV-powered LED globes suspended from polycarbonate netting.
If all of these artistic bells and whistles sound a bit decadent for the lean times, keep in mind the black gold that built this part of Texas. Ironically, it’s fossil fuel that’s fueling that region’s buoyant economy.
“They’re having a renaissance in that area,” Biegel says. “When oil went up, speculation went up with it. Now that oil is down, they’re still speculating, so they obviously expect prices to rise again. It’s probably the most economically effective area we’re working in right now.”
Along with the oil wealth, WaterLights taps into two of the most recession-hardy sectors of the economy—education and health care. Its residents are not likely to feel the hard times for a long time. But in other, less insulated parts of the country, localism plays a far greater part of future planning. Local commerce and local food production are on the table. Developers as farm planners? You bet.
Growing a Movement
Remember a few years ago when Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, tried to sell off 115 of the city’s community gardens? A couple of lawsuits and public outrage forced him to back down. Inventive urban planners have begun to link agriculture with sustainable development as a fundamental principle. Cusato has been working with architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk of Miami, examining the feasibility of adding local food production to every new development project.
It’s tough to point at any one cause for the sudden interest in localizing food, but the core issue is one of dependency. Consumers, shocked by high costs, are waking up to the connection between food, oil, and climate change. At the most extreme is the so-called Transition Town movement popularized in England, where true believers prepare for a post-oil, barter-based society. But the issue is also creeping into the mainstream.
“What’s fascinating is the number of parallels between agriculture and cities,” Cusato says. “It’s shocking to learn that like cities, our food supply is also completely dependent on foreign oil—because we have a monolithic centralized system. It borders on the absurd. For example I was reading that we import shortbread from Denmark, and they import it from us.”
But is localized agriculture a realistic possibility for existing towns and cities? What about New York City? Is there a realistic prospect of feeding millions of people without Monsanto and Phillip Morris (a.k.a. Altria, a.k.a. Kraft) foods?
“Places like New York could actually do quite well,” Cusato says. “Because it’s easy to turn those structures back into multifamily housing. Then, at every level you can incorporate local food sources: large farms and small farms outside the city, house lot gardens, community gardens, roof gardens. We also need to look at doing a lot more vertical farming [green walls].”
Norquist sees the local food movement playing out more slowly, part of a natural market evolution. “People will pay a premium for local food, but I think the big transition is a few years away,” he says. “It’s like the antismoking campaigns of recent years. It will take time, but [local agriculture] is going to take root. Under Obama the CDC will probably make a big deal about walkability and the connection to obesity, things the Bush Administration laughed at.” Is it the responsibility of developers to include agriculture as part of their green planning? Not necessarily. Cusato says politicians may have to do the heavy lifting.
Bringing Back Beauty
Of course, not every green development can easily include agricultural amenities. Some brownfield urban sites may be poorly set up for agriculture, but they play a part in the transitional future, by providing dense, energy-efficient housing that reduces auto dependency.
For example, Craig Dunham, a real estate developer with the Rubinoff Co. in Pittsburgh, is working on a 240-acre infill site in the city called Summerset at Frick Park.“
The industry that was in here processed the slag left over from steel production,"Dunham explains. “They effectively filled up a valley with a stream with the stuff. That stream became part of one of the largest urban reclamation projects in history—now known as Nine Mile Run.
The Summerset site, he says, abuts that revitalized stream area. Making the parcel acceptable for human occupation was a Herculean task, however. It required adding 36” of clean top soil to living areas, along with maximizing water absorption to reduce water infiltration that might lead to acidic runoff.
Summerset gets high marks for other green attributes, most notably the reduced carbon footprint that results when you add 700 walkable residences (225 are complete), to an urban neighborhood. All of the homes are built to Somerset’s own strict energy-saving standards and are blower-door tested.
“We’re trying to figure how to quantify the footprint of this community, so I can say, ‘Here’s the environmental benefit to you living here versus a greenfield development,’” Dunham says. “We have our own Somerset standards that every builder has to follow on the homes.”
Beating the System
What if environmentalists such as George Monbiot (see book review, page 61) are right about the pace of climate change. Can a gradual change in our development and housing patterns save us from a climate meltdown? Or will current events—however bleak in the short run—save us from ourselves?
“I think that the economic collapse we’re undergoing will save the planet,” says Cusato, “not because there will be no oil, but because oil will just be too expensive to pull out of the earth. The consumer lifestyle is vapor. Our nation is bankrupt, and there’s only so long you can shuffle stuff around and play numbers games.”
Sustainable ways of designing homes and communities are right in front of us, Cusato says, but will be resisted at every turn.
She cites a book called Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, where a small farmer wanted to bring children to his farm and teach them how to grow food. “He was shut down because he didn’t have a permit to run a theme park,” she scoffs.
“There are lots of zoning issues in some areas that make things harder,” she adds. “But it’s also about priorities. If you look at what we spend on lawn care in this country and you just allocated that toward local farming, you could make huge strides. The key is that the system has to be bottom up, so, for example, you have fewer regulations on localized farming than you do on large-scale for-profit agriculture. Right now it’s the other way around.”
Gale Tedham, director of Sustainable Communities and Green Products for Owens Corning, says big companies are also looking ahead. They plan to be part of any future move toward local codependence. “We see a lot of opportunities for district heating systems, with combined heat and hot water generators,” she says. “We’re already on it. Working with a company out of Mannheim, Germany, we can provide utilities and hot water for a whole community.”
Norquist warns that tough times still lie ahead. The Obama Administration, he says, can’t instantly change development and agriculture patterns. There will be pressure to simply continue the status quo—to keep building the cities of the past.
“The traditional porkers are still out there, asking for more money for the same old projects—like superhighways. But you know, what I tell developers is that when you do a progressive plan with a lot of small streets in it, you close a lot more contracts. Developers should be more agnostic—more willing to change—but they know what they’ve always done, and some will resist.”
“Things will change,” he adds, “but false steps will be made. There’s a lot happening out there. Developers are building around nature instead of over it. There’s a lot of discussion of turning golf courses into local agriculture—and I don’t mean growing corn for ethanol. I mean local food like you’d see at your grocery store. That helps real estate values, to look out your window and see tomatoes and broccoli and real food growing out there.” GB
RELATED WEB LINKS
> Congress for the New Urbanism
> Marianne Cusato
> Summerset at Frick Park
> Waterlights (Matrix Spencer Architects)