Thursday, December 1, 2011

Community Design

 In the information age we are living in, there is no excuse to keep repeating building communities that satisfy only man's basic needs, a shelter for a homeowner and of course, a profit for the developer. It is time again to design communities for the human body, soul and spirit!

Painting by Auguste Renoir - Community living at its best!
1. The need to be part of the whole.
All of us need to feel that we belong to a tangible cause bigger than us. Millions switch on weekly to watch their favorite sports team perform. Communities too, should satisfy the need to belong. The ancient Italian city of Siena is made up of fiercely competitive districts or "contrade", each with its distinctive character.

The districts or "contrade" of Siena, each with its own colors.
Affiliation to a team supported on television is satisfying but not deeply enough. Good design should aim at creating a distinct sense of community or belonging for each inhabitant. Give your communities a brand name that in time will be associated with distinctive and subliminal qualities that will just draw people to them.

2. Communal Purpose
Another example of a community with a purpose is Harley Street in London. In years gone by, an English gentleman of means would only consult a Harley Street specialist. Today, there are more than a thousand doctors who practice there. That community attracts a large ever-growing number of top medical practitioners, dentists, psychiatrists and surgeons providing first class care. Before we pick up a pencil to design a community, let us try and define a few binding communal purposes beyond that of mere shelter and profit. Let me continue by suggesting a few.

3. Energy Independence
Advances in technology is making it possible for communities to become energy independent. Call to mind the yearly electrical blackouts leave millions in metropolitan areas in the dark and in the cold! Small scale electricity production has become a viable option for an individual homeowner and additionally a source of revenue. Energy companies now send money to the family who feeds power into the grid instead of just drawing from it. Solar panels and wind turbines although initially expensive will in the long run not only pay their own way but create a sense of pride in a family and in a community.
Solar panels deck the roof
Small community plants running on used cooking oil that produce biodiesel that in turn run generators that can supply power to everyone in the development should be imperative. 

Even a small plant can generate a lot of biodiesel!
They are quiet and odorless and what is more, can generate a good income to a few who are willing to take it on. 

4. Sustainable Food Production
New communities should strive to become self supporting at least in the area of vegetables and fruit. Havana and countless other urban communities have taken to growing food in containers, raised beds and through hydroponics on almost every piece of available land. Rooftop gardens too, deserve a separate study. I am not suggesting that every person is a farmer at heart, but get a group of people together an a few with a heart for the soil will step forward. In this day and age when people and communities are increasingly dependent on food from the nearby supermarket, and therefore vulnerable to disruptions in the in the global and national economy.
I love the story that I read about a Vietnamese immigrant who is producing vegetables for fifty families on a one acre parcel in a Seattle residential neighborhood. Once a week, each family stops at his lot to pick up their box of fresh produce. What a model for every new or old community!

I have studied and produced papers on what and when and how much to plant to feed a family of four. A dedicated person can produce fresh produce an area the size of a double garage!

5. True Mixed-Use

A person should not have to leave his community to practice his or her craft. A doctor should be able to work from his nearby office within the same development. That is how things used to be and should again. The same goes for every other occupation. Live, work, eat, buy, sell, meet, etc. Let the designer accommodate the small neighborhood farmer too, the energy generator, small shopkeepers, businessmen with offices and restaurants that you can walk to, linking them creatively trough a network of pedestrian walkways.

"Meet you at the cafe", mon ami!
The best neighborhoods are the ones where you can get to know people and make some friends while walking along the pedestrian paths, saying hi to neighbors on porches or meeting a loved one on the village square. I have written exhaustively on the subject in my treatise called, "Back to the Village".
The developer and designer should consider all the legal occupations that people have and see if he has catered for them in his or her new development. Variety will broaden the base of potential buyers and create a rich diversity that will only improve the quality of life of everyone living there.

6. Spaces for Body, soul and Spirit!

Many communities do provide a clubhouse where people can meet, eat and socialize. Often there is a exercise room and a swimming pool where people can relax and also have an opportunity to stay physically fit.

Carefully designed and inviting walking and cycling paths are essential elements in a good community.
Pedestrian oriented living should be as high a priority as road access to every functional space. Spiritual needs too, are all too often just ignored by community planners.

A small non-denominational chapel should be present at the heart of every community where people of different persuasions can gather and meet on a rotational basis.

7. In Balance with the World Outside

Although some communities exist with the specific purpose to provide shelter or retreat from the world outside, most have to be carefully linked to the greater community. A Commercial center that form the heart of a community should normally be located where people from outside can also easily reach them.

Some gated communities such as Island Walk in my home town of Naples, Florida have a commercial center inside the gates, thereby severely limiting the profitability of the shops and restaurants inside. One such restaurant owner told me that she was the fifth owner in three years! Too much exposure on the other hand, simply recreates the monotonous sameness that we see all too often. A fine balance needs to be at work in the planning process, creating functional spaces with the right mix or gradient of openness and seclusion. Residences require exclusivity while commercial areas more openness.

8. Celebration!

Every new community should develop regular communal events that celebrate life! Art, music, sporting events, gastronomic festivals purposefully planned will stimulate community life and cause it to grow and become a sought after place to live.
Yes, play it again Sam!

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