Tuesday, January 18, 2005

 

Building Community

Is the American real estate market finally becoming sick of building and selling cookie-cutter suburban development? With communities like Centreville, Utah recently choosing a new Wal-Mart over a pedestrian friendly mixed-use village, its still hard to tell. Nevertheless, over the past week I have been encouraged by three project related articles that prove "America the amnesiac" is finally remembering what creates real communities. If nothing else, the following projects prove that though changing America's patterns of land use is a perpetual uphill battle, our half-century old suburban pendulum is starting to sway in the other direction. People want more choice regarding how and where they live, and the following three projects do just that. (Note: The following are only overviews of the projects, which are intended to reinforce the emergence of a few development trends. For in depth info please read the articles in their entirety and please share your opinions).

COHOUSING

According to a recent article from the Akron Beacon Journal, (http://www.planetizen.com/news/item.php?id=15531), "cohousing" is making its way to Ohio. For those of you who are unaware of this concept, cohousing is a movement that started in Denmark during the 1960's that emphasizes communal life in residential neighborhoods by including shared spaces within the design of the actual development. Thus, housing lots are clustered, houses orient to the shared public space of the street, paths and sidewalks link neighbors together, and community buildings are used for public dinners, meetings, and activities. The simple design of the community fosters neighborliness and places value on the overall community, not the individual. According to the article referenced above, American cohousing developments first appeared in the 1980's. Today there are more than 100 cohousing developments in the United States, and more are on the way. Though cohousing communities have primarily been located in more progressive areas of the country like Colorado and California, the demand for communal living is growing. Hence the new cohousing development outside of Cincinnati- the first of its kind in Ohio - mentioned in the article.

Cohousing communities seem to present a plethora of benefits to its residents. I certainly respect the emphasis on community and support its mission of changing the American pattern of suburban housing development through eco-friendly design. However, I am still learning about the details of cohousing, and should hold off on any real critique until I have a better understanding of how these developments are integrated into the contexts of their larger towns or cities. However, I will say that much like new urbanism, cohousing faces the problem of supply and demand. In other words, the supply of communities that actually foster civic involvement is much too small for the demand. On the positive side, the shortage of supply proves that Americans are looking for change. The negative side is that living in a cohousing community is expensive and currently out of reach for the average home buyer. Let's be honest, cohousing communities do not even try house people of various incomes. If you care about social equity, like I do, this is a major shortcoming. Nevertheless, the American real estate market proves that people want more options in how they live, and movements like cohousing are finally starting to provide choice.

Prairie Crossing

"Prairie Crossing is a 'conservation community' located 40 miles northwest of Chicago, and an hour south of Milwaukee, in the town of Grayslake, Illinois. Based on a set of ten guiding principles, the community strikes a balance between preserving the natural landscape, providing energy efficient homes of Midwestern vernacular, and presenting a variety of opportunities for resident involvement. While most development to date has concentrated on relatively low-density housing, higher-density homes are being built near the Metra train station, and plans are in the works for a mixed-use 'Main Street.' Additionally, an onsite regional branch of Lake Forest Hospital is under construction." -
http://www.terrain.org/unsprawl/9/

In my opinion, the Prairie Crossing development and its goal of fostering "lifelong learning" present a great alternative to the traditional suburban subdivision. I have yet to see the actual plan, but the article makes it seem like the developer of the project, George Ranney Jr, understands the importance, and long term marketability of producing communities that are sustainable. Though the built portion of the project is low density thus far, the developer has real plans for a more dense TOD town center, which will be adjacent to a Metra train stop. This village center will include a school and services that will allow this development to actually develop into a real town - a major malfunction of most suburban development. What's more, Prairie Crossing is the first community scaled project for the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Program. What this means is that all of the houses and commercial buildings within the development will become a model for developing context sensitive and energy efficient homes. Thus, Prairie Crossing has already demonstrated that it is not only serious about learning, but also about teaching others.

Village Homes

The "Village Homes" development in Davis, California, prides itself on changing, er, reverting to a better pattern of suburban development. Architecture Week online, http://www.architectureweek.com/2005/0119/building_1-1.html even states that it uses some new urbanist principles in its design. This includes narrow streets and bike paths that don't cater to the automobile, an emphasis on open space, a small mix of retail (a dance studio, a restaurant, and a community daycare center), and sustainable context sensitive house design. These factors along make it better than most suburban development.

Though I agree that the open space, narrow streets, and "eco-friendly" design of the development contribute to a more convivial atmoshphere, the overall design and function of the neighborhood does not seem all that different from most vapid suburban cul-de-sac "community" developments. But in an effort to keep this part of the article short, I will only pick on one aspectof Village Homes.

All of the streets within the development are cul-de-sacs so there is no real connectivity within the development, or to the outside. This would be more reasonable if the entire town of Davis were based on meandering bike paths and sidewalks. But the truth of the matter is that people still use their cars for most, if not all of their daily needs. Thus, the paths are great for moving within the neighborhood, but as the article mentions, most people still drive to the grocery store, even though it is just minutes away via bike. What this says to me is that the collector road that the Village Home cul-de-sacs force cars onto is not pedestrian or bike friendly. Therefore Village Homes acts like any other development in that it really limits the ability for those without a car to explore, make communal connections outside of the development, or to obtain the necessities of daily life.

Though Cohousing, Prairie Creek, and Village Homes all have their weaknesses, all three offer proof that that the paradigms of suburban development are slowly starting to change. This is a good thing.



Comments:
You wrote:

>Let's be honest, cohousing communities do not even try
>to house people of various incomes

Actually, the communities I'm familiar with do try very hard to do exactly this, and succeed in lots of different ways. Whether it's first-time homebuyer assistance from the city (Swan's Market, Oakland, CA), a "blitz build" with Habitat for Humanity and below-market units (Wild Sage, Boulder, CO), "silent second" mortgages for needy members (Pleasant Hill Cohousing, CA), or "limited-equity condo" caps on price appreciation that have led to current prices being 50% under market (Berkeley Cohousing, CA), as well as internal loans, profit-sharing with developers and other forms of mutual support, diversity and affordability are core values for most groups and they go out of their way to find creative solutions to help increase these attributes.

Yes, the basic mechanism of cohousing development is member participation and investment in creating market-rate condominiums. But so many groups have done so much more to build in affordability.

Raines Cohen
boardmember
Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US)
linking back to this article from:
http://www.cohousing.org/magazine/news.html#Ohio
 
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