Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Humanism exploring concepts of sustainable architecture


In my last post I provided a board overview of how, in my opinion, the future of architecture and sustainable development will look like. The impact of the Great Recession will cause us to re-think how architecture responds to social and economic needs in addition to employing building materials and technologies that reduce negative impact that development has on the environment.

Today I would like to focus on one of the very first questions asked during the development process – WHERE to build. In the past decades the answer to that question often was – anywhere, as long as the land is cheap. We are now learning that we no longer can afford ‘cheap’. And the cheap that we already have will be very expensive to maintain and fix.

There have been many articles and books written about irresponsible development practices that lead to sprawl. Some call them ‘the biggest misallocation of resources’ others talk about ‘retrofitting suburbia’. One thing we can all agree on is that in the coming decades we will not see much of ‘cul-de-sac’ developments and business parks build on virgin or farm land.

At the same time the demographers are telling us that the trend of people moving to the large cities will continue and possibly accelerate leading to 80% of the population living in urban areas by the year 2050. And so the growth of metropolitan cities is the reality that needs to be addressed. What kind of development will accommodate this growth without continuing the mistakes that we have made in the past?

The only responsible alternative to sprawling developments is urban infill. The benefits of developing within existing urban fabric are numerous and so are the opportunities. There is land that is undeveloped such as public right of ways (that have previously been preserved for possible roadway construction) and old industrial properties as well as underdeveloped residential properties that can accommodate multifamily housing. We can already see eyes of developers turning towards these options.

Environmental benefits of urban infill are obvious and can be summarized in one simple statement – it prevents sprawl. Compact development reduces the need for driving and thus improves air quality. It also promotes the use of public transit even further diminishing the use of private vehicles. It preserves natural land and wildlife habitat as well as natural resources.

There are also social benefits of urban infill. People who live in compact developments are more likely to walk or bike as a daily means of transportation and therefore they are healthier. New development near urban core attracts new population to aging neighborhoods and improves quality of schools and vitality of community life. Compact developments allow for more diversity of housing choices allowing integration of different population groups (seniors, low income families, first time homebuyers, renters and market rate buyers) into vibrant communities. Mixed use urban infill developments often act as catalysts for community life and social interaction.

And as we all deal with impacts the Great Recession has on our lives it is impossible not to mention economic benefits of urban infill. Development within existing urban fabric utilizes existing public infrastructure (roads, water and sewer lines, power lines etc.) as well as public services (trash removal, snow removal, mail delivery etc). When local municipalities struggle to balance their budget keeping infrastructure and services costs down is critical.

Compact development also supports local small businesses. We all want to see local business owners to continue to be the engine of our economy. But corner stores and ‘mom-and-pop’ establishments located in older neighborhoods struggle as the population in these areas ages and decreases. Their business model based on friendly customer service cannot withstand competition of large retailers and chain restaurants that are based on high volume of sales. Urban infill brings in much needed customers for local businesses and thus supports local economy.

In the coming decades continued migration to metropolitan areas and diminishing natural resources will force us to rethink development. We will also have to change the way we think about housing and transit. All those changes will lead to creative and sustainable use of land called urban infill.


  1. I couldn't agree more that urban infill is highly desirable. With decaying infrastructure and the high cost of its replacement, it makes more and more economic and practical sense to redevelop toward the urban core rather to continue to develop on greenfields.

    As population increases rather dramatically over the next decades, I'm hoping we see most of those new residents gravitate toward a vibrant center of town or city.

    But to keep that viable, we must address key social problems--the permanent underclass, a lifestyle that is too stressful and speeded up, too many folks having to rely on prescription or illegal drugs to cope, and too few jobs matching the skill sets and geographic locations of the people needing them.

    Let's get going, friends; there's community work to do.

  2. Nancy,
    Thank you for your comment. I'm hoping that in next decades we will see more and more Transit Oriented Developments (or as I like to call them People Oriented Developments). With more of this product on the market the price will go down and the affordability will increase.