Tag Archives: Density

It’s time to redesign our neighborhoods

The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:

After participating recently in the King County Sustainable Cities Roundtable to discuss “Beyond Net Zero: Resilience, Regeneration, and Social Justice” Ron Sims agreed to an interview for the Daily Journal of Commerce’s Green Building Blog.

Q. As the King County Executive, you worked to promote sustainable development through policies, such as the green building and low impact development demonstration ordinances. And, as the Deputy Secretary of HUD, you got to see first-hand how communities across the country are addressing the issue of sustainability. From these vantage points, where do you think we should be focusing our energies?

Ron Sims

A. The neighborhood.  A well designed neighborhood correlates directly to a good quality of life. And that means things like community gathering places and safety, such as from crime, pollution; access to nature, such as street trees; and more transit options, such as walkability, and bike lending stations.  It’s easier to create new neighborhoods with these features than it is to redevelop existing neighborhoods, but we have to incentivize reinvestment that incorporates these design features for truly sustainable communities.

Q. How would you propose going about doing this?

A. I’ve never seen a developer turn down density bonuses in return for more bus stops, low-income housing, etc.  We need to get creative and open the door to more thoughtful mixed development, including residential options. We can tie some of this to demolition in an area. But we need to plan further out.  We need to ask the question: “What should this neighborhood look like in twenty years?”

Q. Sustainability advocates hold that sustainable development incorporates not simply environmental health, but economic vitality, and social equity, as well. Sometimes this gets lost in the development timetable. How can we do a better job of maintaining the prominence of all three legs of the stool as we try to practice what we preach in the field?

A.  I repeat: We need to begin planning long term to take advantage of opportunities as they come up, and to have a roadmap in place.  It’s by redesigning existing neighborhoods to be healthier, safer, greener that we’ll be addressing social equity, and the health of our economy.  Right now, energy efficiency is “hot.” But new technologies and new neighborhoods are still the domain of the well-to-do. It hasn’t gone viral. If we really worked on existing neighborhoods, we’d be addressing issues faced by the poor and culturally diverse.  You know, you can predict health and longevity rates by zip code.  Neighborhoods should and will still have their personalities, their “feel,”  but every neighborhood should have the basic green features I mentioned earlier.

Q. Is there a leverage point that sustainable advocates can focus on to bring about better neighborhoods and a better quality of life for all?

A. There’s actually two.  Most people are unaware, but at HUD we learned that the most significant cause of mortgage defaults in this past recession was the cost of transportation —  it amounted to 42% of income. This was often in excess of the 34-36% of income of the average mortgage. If someone lost a job that required them to have a car, they were still left with a car payment. So better transportation planning (including infrastructure improvements) would help.  Energy costs was another big chunk of the reason for defaults — 28-30%, so the emphasis on energy efficiency is good.

Q. With the specter of climate change-related disasters becoming more real, there has been a greater focus among sustainability advocates on “resilience” in the face of catastrophes. Disasters seem to bring out both the best and worst of us. How do we prepare and use the opportunity to course correct for the greater good?

A. I’m repeating myself, but it’s to plan, plan, and plan again.  We learned a lot from the Nisqually Earthquake; we were able to apply what we learned when 9/11 happened.  After the earthquake we decided we needed to build a structurally and technologically sound center that could function independently.  We learned to plan for the “worst” case — and not the best “reasonable” case.  We had to plan, memorialize in writing, and train.  Going forward, we need to take climate change and related disasters into consideration when we are re-designing our neighborhoods — particularly the infrastructure side of things.

Q. Last question: What advice would you give young green building professionals and public sector advocates who are looking to be leaders in the kind of sustainable transformation  you are talking about?

A. People think change is easy. I like to say, we are running a marathon, but because we’ve run out of a lot of chances, we need to do it at a sprinter’s pace.  Will this be rewarding every day? No it won’t be. Will it be a long path? Yes it will be.  If you believe that what you are doing serves the greater good, some day (not now) you will be able to take a deep breath, reflect on what you’ve been able to accomplish, and say WOW.

Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development since before it was “cool.” She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. She continues to provide consulting on special projects for O’Brien & Company, the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project.


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Is this building ugly or not?

This week, Dan Bertolet published a great post titled simply ‘McNeighborhood,’ over at Publicola. The post discusses a project called The Corydon Apartments/Merril Gardens, located a few blocks north of University Village. Bertolet characterizes the project (which is pretty giant at two city blocks long) as a McNeighborhood and has this to say about its design:

“The overall effect is, well, just fine, I guess. Pleasant, though not inspiring. Sort of like the Pottery Barn aesthetic writ large—it looks good on a superficial level, but the soul is missing.”

I read the post with interest, then I read the comments. Many are quite positive. Commenter Cook says: “The building is actually quite nice compared to what could have gone in there.” Commenter Gomez said the design criticism has weight but the project is better than what was on site before — nothing.

Commenter giffy says: “I’d say this is exactly the kind of development we need more of in this city. And

Image courtesy Dan Bertolet, Publicola
really, much of the “lack of soul” is simply because it’s new. Wait fifty years and people will be bitching when they knock it down to put in support columns for our Jetson houses.”

Taken together, I think the post and comments pose an interesting question: just how much should we require of design? Should this project be commended for being better than what previously existed or should it be penalized (in our opinion) for not being as good as it could be?

In the interest of total disclosure, I’ll tell you that I grew up in this neighborhood and now live in it, so I’ve watched this site change and develop over a period of many, many years. Yes, the Corydon/Merrill Gardens is a big, big development for the area. But at street level, it is less jarring than a number of other nearby projects. Additionally, the storefronts are filling up with (mostly) local, user friendly shops. A liquor store, a clothing boutique, a Peet’s Coffee and a Japanese restaurant.

The new project is also a lot better than the burned out husk of an Italian restaurant that used to be there (Ciao Bella, though in all fairness, the space wasn’t a husk for too long and was renovated following the fire in 2003).

So here’s my question: just how ugly is this building? Is it an example of poor design? Or is it pretty darn good for the area it is in. What do you think? To see more pictures, click on the link to Bertolet’s post above or click on the link to Corydon.

Image courtesy The Corydon
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Neighborhood density in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. What can we learn from each other?

I’ve been writing a lot about Vancouver’s density recently, in comparison to Seattle’s so I know I should move onto another topic. And I promise I will next time. But I just can’t resist posting these pictures of my sister’s neighborhood, Kerrisdale.

Kerrisdale is about a 15-minute drive away from downtown and a 10-minute drive away from the University of British Columbia. It is a sweet neighborhood, filled with restaurants and shops (but only one bar that I could find). However, what’s unique about it isn’t the composition of retail. It’s the composition of housing types within a two-block radius. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Interesting looking row houses

Mid-rise apartment buildings


More retail

A large single family home

This neighborhood has nearly every type of housing within two blocks, all mish-mashed up together. That McMansion above? It’s located across the street from the first picture of row-houses. The mixing of housing types doesn’t feel crowded; it feels like a nice, traditional neighborhood. It’s a real urban village.

Seattle has neighborhoods that exemplify this mixed-use concept just as well. Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, Ballard to some degree. But for some reason, the way Kerrisdale did it just felt smoother. Maybe it’s primarily an architectural issue? But it feels to an outsider like the apartment building is meant to be located next to a large, single-family house.

To all my density nerds out there, what do you think is Seattle’s best example of density that meshes well? It is Capitol Hill or Lower Queen Anne? Any particular street or corridor that really stands out? A really good  recent example, I find, is NK Architect’s latest project on Lower Queen Anne called Fourth and Roy. The DJC wrote about it last month here. Basically, the team designed it to consciously fit in with the neighborhood.

In our story, Brandon Nicholson, a principal at NK, said he tries to picture a four-plex craftsman knockoff on the parcel and does not think it would fit in with the neighborhood’s character. “In a neighborhood filled with old brick buildings, it might be much more modern in aesthetics but in materials and scale, it’s appropriate for the context of Lower Queen Anne.”

Fourth and Roy townhouses in Lower Queen Anne
What do you think? What’s Seattle’s best example?

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Where Vancouver, B.C. trounces Seattle: density

I’m back in Seattle and the haziness of the Globe Conference (so many conference sessions on giant, world changing ideas!) is finally lifting from my head.

However, I must return to a theme I explored last week in this post about whether Vancouver or Seattle is greener. In that post’s comments, Mhays said Seattle needs to encourage density to really be the greenest it can be. “We’re doing a good job in many ways, but way behind Vancouver,” he said.

After spending some time there and paying particular attention to the density issue, I couldn’t agree more. Sure, Vancouver has its problems. In one session at Globe, Peter Busby explored one of these saying people in Vancouver that live near the center of the city have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those who live further out. To counter this, he proposes creating density nodes throughout the rest of the city that would allow people to live, work and play in their neighborhoods rather than having to go downtown. (More on Vancouver’s stance on density here).

But when you look at the variety of housing types in Vancouver’s downtown, it just blows Seattle out of the park. Basically, in Seattle, you can live downtown if you want to – or can afford – a condo. In Vancouver however, you don’t have to be confined to a condo to live downtown. They have – gasp! – row houses!

Here are a few images of downtown housing types. They are just a small tidbit of the many varieties of styles I saw:

Row homes
Downtown Vancouver
Photo by Payton Chung

Photo by Payton Chung

The pictures don’t show the difference as clearly as you would see with your own eyes. But basically, in parts of Vancouver’s downtown, you can live in units that are much more like townhouses than they are condos. This row-housing type is shown in the first image and last image. If you look closely, you can also see this type of housing at the base of the second image.

The variety of housing types is sure to attract different kind of people. Not everyone wants to live downtown in a condo… but if you could live downtown in something resembling a townhouse with a bit more private space, suddenly you attract a whole other market.

So… why can’t Seattle do this? Why can’t we bring other housing types downtown? What stops us from having that variety? And is there anything we could do now to encourage it?

Busby had an interesting observation. As cities grow, he said, many new inhabitants will be immigrants from Africa and other areas that are already used to living densely. Generally, he said they are used to small living areas and to lots of walking. We can take advantage of this influx, he said, to “change the pattern of organization” in cities.

Now, I don’t mean to knock Seattle. We have a great city that is moving forward on a number of fronts. But as far as diversifying housing use in downtown… it seems like the same old same old. (And by diversifying, by the way, I mean doing so for different price points as well as in unit styles).

Even in Vancouver, these things aren’t easy. But the important thing is to keep improving. Mayor Gregor Robertson said, “There’s angst about the transition here and potential political disaster associated with that but in Vancouver, we see huge opportunities for change.”

P.S. Nick Christensen of OregonLive.com has an interesting article from January on a similar topic here.

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What’s greener: high-rises or LEED buildings?

Last week, I attended a Town Hall lecture by David Owen, a columnist at the New Yorker and author of the book ‘Green Metropolis.’

Owen spoke about his own experience of living in both Manhattan and in the countryside, and about which is greener (cities because people have everything they need at their fingertips).

But he also said something striking: that big, tall buildings in cities are actually the greenest projects we

Inherently green?
have, not projects that are LEED certified. High-rises get lots of people working in one space. That gets lots of people living nearby and walking between the two. The effects of this and the concentration of people, he said, is far, far greener than a LEED certified project in the middle of nowhere (though he didn’t mention if it were greener than a LEED certified high-rise in the city). The premise touches on one of the main problems of LEED: that it only looks at pieces instead of the whole.

For example, Owen discussed Sprint’s (now Sprint Nextel) headquarters outside of Kansas City, Mo. The corporate campus, he said, consists of 15,000 employees spread among a 50 building low-rise campus. The space also has 15 parking lots and an underground parking garage, providing one parking space per worker because everyone has to drive to the headquarters in the middle of nowhere. Though the campus was planned before LEED came out, one of the buildings at the site ended up receiving LEED certification. The space also preserves 200 acres of property as open space.  How is this a greener situation, he asked, then simply letting the farmland be that had previously existed?

He argued that setting up a business in a location that requires car travel is not green, even if the buildings are certified as such.

Should buildings in the middle of nowhere receive LEED certification? And should organizations that are about sustainability – like the Rocky Mountain Institute and its headquarters in Snowmass, Colo. – be held to a higher level of accountability and locate in a dense area? Or is there value to having great environmentally friendly buildings in the wilderness?

I suppose it comes down to what you prioritize and what you think the future of cities and urban planning is.

In this economy as well, it’s worth noting that cities across the nation have vacant high-rise buildings that currently are not at capacity, and are likely wasting large amounts of energy.

What do you think? Is Owen right on or way off base? If Owen is right – and the greenest project is in a city be it LEED certified or not is a high-rise – than should LEED reflect this in its rating system and how so?

Incidentally, his book also argues that New York City is the greenest city in the world. That seemed to touch an interesting nerve at Portland’s The Environmental Blog here.

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