Sunday, November 11, 2007

Application of readings (Roseland ch. 11 “Housing…” and Beatley Ch. 10 “Building Ecologically…”) to Denver, Colorado.

“Ideally, closeness to other people is mirrored in a closeness to nature and integration of ecology into community living” (Roseland, 156).

During my time working at a transitional housing program for homeless families in Denver, I found myself constantly wondering what type of setting would facilitate community building between the families we were working with – to promote empowerment amongst the people as opposed to continued reliance on government assistance. I found it so unfortunate that the families who had gone through such similar turmoil and hardship in their lives, who could benefit from their empathy to build relationships and self-reliance, would often end up fighting, putting each other in danger, taking no responsibility for their shared housing, and choosing isolation over interaction. From my background in environmental design and architecture, I had a suspicion that much of the issue had to do with the poor design of their housing and surrounding neighborhoods, but I wasn’t sure what would help. (Although I remember thinking maybe they just needed more trees along their streets – but dismissed the thought thinking ‘too simple…but now I’m learning I was on to something!) When I came to the Design and Environmental Analysis program here at Cornell – my main hope was that I would learn about neighborhood-design-interventions that might facilitate the community-building processes that I had seen lacking in the mainly subsidized-housing neighborhoods I worked in. So… my thesis work has ended up focusing on Community Gardens and how they are a sort of “sanctuary” setting in a chaotic urban environment. My hope now is that after I graduate and move back to Denver that I will find a career where I am working with the community to solve the housing crisis as well as the community and social justice crises. So, needless to say, I found the Roseland “Housing and Community Development” chapter to be extremely meaningful and applicable to Denver city planning and policy!

I appreciate Roseland’s suggestion to design neighborhoods where residents can thrive. This statement really resonated for me: “To create a ‘sense of place’ and foster connection among people, the physical characteristics of neighborhoods must draw people together and encourage an atmosphere of peace, security, and pride among residents of a community” (156). Beatley mentions the community of Oikos (the Netherlands) where the physical design is intended to facilitate interaction between residents (297). These ideas from the readings are reminiscent of a statement from Jules Pretty, (professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex) in an article titled “How nature contributes to mental and physical health,” where he suggests that policy makers and planners should focus efforts towards creating “healthy environments in which people can flourish rather than flounder” (Pretty, 2004, p. 69). It is so imperative that planners realize what an opportunity they have to create environments that not only “cause no harm” but go as far as to improve health and wellbeing.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, but I think it’s worth mentioning again, energy efficient housing is extremely important, after seeing some of my former clients public service bills which were near $800.00 – 1,000.00 /month. The chapters of Habitat for Humanity that are building with energy efficiency as a priority are making a very necessary change.

In addition to my obsession with community gardens, I am beginning to become fascinated with other aspect of community-sharing that seem to have beneficial effects on community building. Roseland describes cooperatives and cohousing, where residents share cars, computers, laundry services, meal preparation, and childcare to reduce living expenses. While I believe this could work, I am a little skeptical without seeing the ideas in action. The single-mothers I worked with were extremely distrustful of almost everyone they came into contact with, (justifiably so) and I worry they would have a difficult time with the sharing and especially with the childcare, although it would be extremely helpful to them if it did work, as it seemed to be their biggest obstacle to finding and maintaining employment. If I were a policy-maker, I may be a little more inclined to opt for the Beyond Shelter model, which provides the childcare center (among many other important services) as part of the program services. If I were a citizen activist though I would argue that the problem with this is that it is not a sustainable or empowering as the community members providing their own childcare for themselves.

I thought that an aspect of Beatley’s example of Morra Park (Friesland region of the Netherlands) would probably work well in Denver; homes with 30% of the floor area “devoted to occupants’ primary economic livelihood” (294). Commuting in the Denver-metro area is a nightmare, and if there were a cultural shift towards more facilitation of working from home, I think many people would be thrilled.

I am a big fan of buildings that “learn,” (to refer to Stewart Brand’s book) and so if I were a Denver city planner I would definitely move to implement more buildings designed to adapt to changing needs and uses, by layout and ability to be dismantled and reconstructed, such as the examples Beatley gives of the school houses in Nieuwland, (Amersfoort) or the dismountable police station in Boxmeer, or the Dutch National Building (299-300).

Something that bothers me when I read about the need for density in cities is the fear of how this may reduce the natural light in the majority of spaces in densely built areas. So I was really excited to hear about some of the designs Beatley mentions that bring natural light into all areas of buildings. This is especially significant in the context of implementing these ideas in Denver, where sunlight is so plentiful, it would be detrimental to one’s wellbeing to sit in a windowless office all day – and unfortunately I know! (I tried to find an example of the “sun paintings” – the metal sculptures in the building that help to further bounce sunlight into the interior of the building, but I was unsuccessful. Too bad – I really want to see how it looks – I wonder if there’s a problem with glare?) The Queens Building at De Montfort University in Leicester is another example Beatley gives where bringing in natural light is a priority in the building-design.

I think that while many of these wonderful examples would be possible from a bottom-up approach, it would be so much easier with support or at least influence from the top. As Beatley says, “an important lesson … is the potentially powerful role government can play as a facilitator and catalyst for sustainable building” (318). I hope that the Denver city government will continue to move towards taking on this responsibility!

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