June 9, 2010

Federal design effort influencing our health. ~ Bryan Bowen

Whether we like it or not, the federal government and it’s many shades has a profound effect on how we house ourselves and the manner in which we live out our days.  Choices are made that have drastic impact on our lives and how our cities function (rural areas too in less conspicuous ways).  Knowing that their hand is at work, it’s worth thinking about what their motivations are and how their intentions will form the choices of the next 50 years.
What have they done for us so far?
Highway systems, utility frameworks, affordable housing, equaling sprawl?  Giant failures like Cabrini-Green ?  A sense of isolation even when we’re living in stone’s throw of dozen’s of others people?  Oh, there’s good stuff in there too, don’t get me wrong.
The point is that with each  project built, there are dynamics set in motion.  The result of the past 60 years of federal design effort is a fabric of human occupation that’s astoundingly wasteful and not all that pleasant to live in.  It’s also expensive to maintain, meaning high taxes and ever looming decay, putting cities in need of constant growth to fund old infrastructure.  When the most favored housing option available is to wrap your immediate family in a tall fence enclosing as much land as you can afford, we’re not going to call that success.  It’s only a positive choice in the context of lousy alternatives.
Surely, some of it is out of their control and to think that they are operating from a single perspective, with a single master plan to overlook the incredibly huge bureaucracy that now circles the country, eating it’s own tail.  That said, the power they wield should result in the best possible outcome.  Right?
The physical design of our communities (rural or urban) has an awful lot to do with their ongoing health and happiness.
The myth that consumers drove housing design is past us, discredited.  Financial drivers and poor land use planning are largely to blame, not simple market forces.  People are far more diverse than the housing choices they were offered in the past.  The idea that we’d offer one house type: a garage facing the street with an enclosed back yard, and then scale it up or down in size to hit different price points really misses the richness that we crave.  We crave richness collectively and the favorite choice is very different depending on who you ask.  The point is to offer an array of really good choices, rather than one cobbled together house plan.
Nobody wants to be sustainable.  Nobody enjoys being efficient.  No one experiences the delight of a small carbon footprint.  So there are some of us who feel pretty smug about some of this stuff, but mostly we want a cold beer and a warm shower.  We want safety.  We want reasonable control of what impacts them.  We want fun, ease, delight, pleasure. We also want a sense of purpose and strong, resilient community.  We really dig comfort.  We want to thrive.  We want our kids to thrive.
Various movements have sprung up around these observations.
On the grassroots side, the Cohousing Movement has been offering strong and flexible solutions for several decades. People got together and rethought how they wanted to live, what their neighborhoods might be like, and then acted on it.  Now, there are well over a hundred of these communities in the U.S. and hundreds more on the boards.  Economic and happiness factors show that these projects are a success to be built upon and brought to scale.  There is even a national conference, the next one is coming up soon in Boulder, CO.  The 2010 National Cohousing Conference  will feature the state of the art in healthy community design.  Professionals will be sharing their methods and experiences residents will be sharing their stories and best practices.
From the professional side, we see the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) emerging as a major force.  Based on sound development pro-formas, this group has found purchase in the hearts and minds of real estate developers, planners, and politicians.  And now, they’ve ganged up with the USGBC and the NRDC to convince HUD to change it’s ways.
HUD announced that “It’s time the federal government stopped encouraging sprawl.”It’s a very big statement and it’s backed up by quite a large check book.  Many of us would say that it’s about time, but nonetheless the news is welcome, especially from the trenches where the realization that
How they implement this intent will be the crux.  Will they follow a LEED – ND pattern-book approach?  Will they adopt guiding principles like the Charter of the New Urbanism?  Whatever they do, it’d better be good.  A transformation in the practices of an organization this large would have a profound effect, and I think it’s about time.

Bryan Bowen Architects, pc is a multidisciplinary design collaborative, that explores how we may live more lightly upon our earth in beautiful, healthy environments.

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