There is no question that environmental sustainability requires, among other things, more efficient use of land. Indeed, I have basically staked my career on the proposition that we must increase the average density of our new (and, in some cases, existing) built environment in the US if we are to achieve anything near sustainability as we absorb more growth. Nothing has been worse for our environment than sprawl. Smart growth based on walkable neighborhoods, transportation choices, nearby amenities and the accommodation of an increasingly diverse society – more urbanism, if you will – is the only way we can limit per-capita impacts, and thus total impacts, to a manageable level.
There is simply no valid solution to global warming, to food security, to ecological conservation – to say nothing about redressing urban disinvestment – without using smart, compact growth to replace sprawl. I happen to think it also creates better environments for people to live in, but I suppose that is to an extent a matter of taste.
While I am advocating that we build, and rebuild with opportunities, neighborhood densities that are more compact than sprawl, I should hasten to add that I am not talking about extremes here. I am not advocating that Middle America adopt the density of Hong Kong, or even most downtowns. (At the risk of getting technical, most experts agree that minimum average residential densities -- some large lots are fine if the average is within range -- to support walkability and viable transit service begin with moderately sized single-family neighborhoods of 7-8 homes per acre, and can go upwards of that number in appropriate contexts. Smart commercial densities begin at around a floor-area ratio of 0.75, or a two-story building with a parking footprint no larger than that of the building.)
But we also must be honest with ourselves about something, if we are to get this right: Environmental impacts will occur with development; to limit them, we must concentrate them, and this can mean increasing them in some places. This is what I call the environmental paradox of smart growth. (I explain this at some length in a post on my NRDC blog site).
Only if we understand the paradox can we address it. Only if we address it can we really create better places in which to live, work, and play – and surely that, not just lowering pollution numbers, must be our real goal.
To mitigate and compensate for the environmental and community impacts that can accompany compact development if we do not plan carefully - such as increased local emissions and traffic congestion, local stormwater runoff, and limited green space, among others - I believe we must aspire to not just good places but great ones. As I have written before, we should build to appropriate scale, in many cases with moderation; we should include green infrastructure to mitigate stormwater runoff and bring nature into our communities; we should provide an array of transportation choices; and we should provide parks and civic amenities as we develop.
I may not be able to sell a high-rise canyon to the public as an example of smart growth, but fortunately there are models that we can hold up as good ambassadors for our cause and that we can emulate in future development. Indeed, I think it is important that we settle for no less. For Earth Day's 40th anniversary, here are images of 14 such places, all with smart densities and all beautiful, for which I thank their developers and architects as I congratulate them on their excellent work. Enjoy, and spread the word:
Left, the small-town infill project Third Street Cottages in Langley, Washington, comprises 12 homes per acre. Right, Benedict Commons, workforce housing in Aspen, Colorado, looks like a collection of two- and three-story buildings; it's actually a single building containing a surprising 78 homes per acre.
Left, Rockville, Maryland's transit-oriented Twinbrook Station has earned a LEED-ND gold level certification; it includes a central green square and still provides 61 homes per acre gross.* Right, Seattle's award-winning, mixed-income High Point sports the country's most advanced green stormwater management while still providing 12.5 homes per acre gross.* (High Point is also shown in the aerial photo near the beginning of this post.)
Left, Atlanta's Glenwood Park provides approximately 14 homes per acre gross.* Right, Fukuoka, Japan's amazingly green ACROS building provides distinction, beauty, and vegetation to its city despite offering 1.4 million square feet of floor space.
Left, this green-roofed, four-story building in Vancouver includes 39 homes per acre along with 212,000 square feet of retail space underneath the green. Right, Denver's acclaimed Highlands' Garden Village clocks in at 22 homes per acre.
Left, the 50,212-square-foot embassy of Finland in Washington, DC, is the world's first LEED-certified embassy; everything about the building's beautiful facade says "green." Right, Berlin's wonderful Sony Center provides a dense floor-area ratio of 5.0 along with 1.4 million square feet of downtown space, while also contributing wonderful public amenities.
Left, Via Verde in the South Bronx provides an impressive amount of urban green to its community while housing 45 homes per acre gross.* Right, Burien, Washington's Burien Town Square includes a common green beside condos that come in at 83 homes per acre.
Finally, a reprise of sorts with another view of Denver's Highlands' Garden Village, showing its urban garden in the foreground. As noted, HGV provides 22 homes per acre. It also provides a commercial area, civic buildings, lots of green space, homes for seniors, and affordable housing, and is one of our cause's better ambassadors.
*Gross -- In several cases, I did not have convenient access to precise measurement of residential units per buildable acre, excluding commercially dedicated land. For these I simply took the total number of homes and divided by the development's total number of acres, for a quick calculation of gross density. These numbers are inherently conservative, since excluding commercial or non-buildable land from the calculation would yield higher density results.
Kaid Benfield writes occasional ‘Village Green’ commentary on DailyKos and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC’s Switchboard. For more posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.