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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.

  Bethesda Row, Bethesda MD (by: MV Jantzen, creative commons license)

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.

  Seattle's High Point does everything right (by: Seattle Housing Authority)

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:

  Metro Square, Sacramento (courtesy of Mogavero Notestine Architects)  Vancouver's Olympic Village (by: Bradley Fehr, via city of Vancouver) 

Left, Sacramento's Metro Square includes 20 single-family homes per acre. Right, Vancouver's Millennium Water (formerly the Olympic Village) will include 148 homes per acre.

  Third Street Cottages, Langley, WA (courtesy of the Cottage Company)  Benedict Commons, Aspen, CO (via US EPA) 

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.

  Twinbrook Station, Rockville, MD (courtesy of JPG)  High Point, Seattle (by: Andrew Geiger/Cottage Living)   

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.)

  Glenwood Park, Atlanta (by: Valerita/Valerie, creative commons license)  ACROS Bldg, Fukuoka, Japan (by: Pontafon, Wikimedia Commons) 

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.

  The Rise, Vancouver, BC (via CoolTown Studios)  Highlands' Garden Village, Denver (via US EPA) 

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.

  Embassy of Finland, Washington, DC (by: Jeff Tabaco, creative commons license)  Sony Center, Berlin (by: Craig Elliott, creative commons license)   

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. 

  Via Verde, Bronx, NYC (courtesy of Jonathan Rose Cos.)  Burien Town Square Park (by: GGLO) 

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.

  Highlands' Garden Village, Denver (courtesy of Calthorpe Associates) 

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. 


Originally posted to Kaid at NRDC on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 05:15 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for giving us an ideal to strive for. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    trashablanca, Dauphin, RosyFinch

    However, as a long-time human being, I predict chaos.

    Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

    by billmosby on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 05:29:21 AM PDT

  •  Oh, and I've found that one key to.. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    trashablanca, Dauphin, RosyFinch

    ..tolerable high density living is reinforced concrete. Such as the construction used in Russian apartment buildings. You can't hear anything from adjoining apartments, nor even from outside if you aren't standing in front of a window. The one thing that gives me the willies about high-density living in this country is never being able to turn down your neighbors' music, etc. Although the advent of ear buds has been something of a savior in this regard. Also, where I live at least, the provision of and rigorous enforcement of effective anti-noise laws also helps greatly on occasion. That makes my not-really-low-density neighborhood (about 5 homes per acre) enjoyable.

    Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

    by billmosby on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 05:36:40 AM PDT

    •  fair points (7+ / 0-)

      We're about 8 houses per acre in my 1920s DC neighborhood, with multifamily a couple of blocks away.  Personally, I'd like to banish leaf blowers and power tools from the face of the earth, but it's a very nice balance of quiet and community otherwise.  And a terrific location for amenities and transportation choices.

      •  Salt Lake City Aves (Federal Hts, really) here. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dauphin, RosyFinch, Neon Vincent

        About 2.5 and 500 feet of elevation via longboard from downtown (if you're under about 23), or bicycle or coasting hybrid otherwise. Or walk a mile to the University stadium TRAX station. 1913 bungalow with lots of mods over the years.

        Personal preferences are funny things. I can ignore major reconstruction sounds coming from across the street all day long, same for leaf blowers, mowers, 200 watt car stereos passing, you name it. But let somebody cut loose with a construction site boom box, or leave their truck door open and sound system going, and they get a visit from SLC's finest, courtesy of me. Gets the job done every time and with much more effectiveness than asking them to turn it down personally. I never used to get much cooperation that way, no matter how nice or how firm I tried to be. Our noise law says I don't have to listen to somebody else's noise at my own property line if I don't want to. It's only a problem 1 or 3 times a year.  Yes, I'm a "music nazi", I guess. Love music, like to be able to turn it on or off as I choose.

        U2 is coming to the U of U stadium in June; I'll be able to listen to them pretty well courtesy of the sound system in the stadium, most likely. I can live with that, lol!

        Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

        by billmosby on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 09:31:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  High density residential (4+ / 0-)

    is great to reduce impacts, but it has to integrate with transportation nodes and with commercial nodes in order to really work. It is common here to throw up an apartment complex at the edge of a small town, where it is impossible to walk or take public transit to stores or places of employment that are many miles away. In that sense, it is even worse than scattered single family low density housing, as it concentrates people away from things requiring many car trips, where the lower number of residents in the single family housing generates fewer car trips. High density residential simply HAS to integrate with public transit, stores and workplaces.

    "Trickle down economics 101: They get the golden parachute, we get the golden shower"

    by NoMoreLies on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 08:39:22 PM PDT

  •  Prairie Crossing, in Libertyville Illinois is (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RosyFinch, Neon Vincent

    lower density, but it is clustered and has two Metra rail stations within walking distance. It also has stores, an on site farm, and an onsite school, all within walking distance. There is also green stormwater infrastructure featuring retention ponds that offer habitat for threatened and endangered fish species and prairie restorations. It works, despite the somewhat lower density than discussed in the diary, because of the variety of land uses nearby and access to public transit. The only criticism I have of it is that it is relatively homogenized in class with its emphasis on upper-middle to wealthy homeowners desiring a single family home.

    "Trickle down economics 101: They get the golden parachute, we get the golden shower"

    by NoMoreLies on Mon Apr 19, 2010 at 08:44:16 PM PDT

  •  I am reading to late to tip or rec..... (0+ / 0-)

    I hope my thank you for your interesting diary will suffice. I especially appreciate the photo's, as they illustrate the points you write about so well.

    Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

    by princesspat on Tue Apr 20, 2010 at 10:45:26 AM PDT

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