Friday, February 18, 2011

Sustainable Communities

Sweco's Proposed City Center Airport Land Design
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With the release of the five stunning Edmonton City Center Airport designs, it seems fitting to discuss some of the ways that new communities could be made more sustainable. 

Yes it is fine that everyone doesn't want to live downtown, but lets at least get the residential design right.  You will often find that roads will abruptly come to an end in the form of cul-de-sacs in suburban communities.  Developers will completely encircle the cul-de-sac with private residential properties, and don't have enough foresight to leave a measly 1-2 meters for a pedestrian link.  Also since the majority of suburban properties are enclosed with fences this means pedestrians need to go 10 times the distance just to get from point A to B.  Communities should be built in grid systems, which allow commutes to be direct as possible.  Grid systems create the shortest commute possible since you know you only have to head in one of two directions (North-South, East-West) in order to arrive at your destination. Since more people are walking to get their groceries or to visit their dentist, this means that fewer cars need to pass by in front of your house. Residential roadways do not need to be built as wide, creating safer environments for children and neighbourhoods are not segregated by a mile of pavement.  Grid systems also make it easier for transit planners to provide frequent bus routes through the area, since they do not have to follow meandering roadways.  Transit travel times can be slashed and transfers are easier.

 Bird's Eye View of Perkins and Will Airport Lands Design
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Is it coincidence that all five of the designs submitted for the redevelopment of the airport lands show separate blocks of residential properties with enclosed communal green spaces? With this type of design you still get your privacy, but you don't impede travel or set up barriers with fences.  Through innovative space designs you can create access points for the communal backyards between buildings without fences, yet you can still create a sense that it is private property.  With communal green spaces residents can still plant vegetable gardens if desired.

Perkins and Will Example of a Communal Garden
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One of the biggest blunders of suburban communities is that developers never integrate all of the necessary amenities.  Most suburban amenities are usually located 2-3 km away, and are not clustered in one area making it next to impossible for commutes by walking.  If you reduce communities into smaller, more compact developments, each centered around a cluster of the basic amenities such as grocery stores, and employment you reduce the reliance on cars.  If you create smaller communities that are at most 800 m from the necessary amenities, it only takes 10 minutes to walk where you need to be.  Since residents are not driving to their destination, the businesses can eliminate the vast sea of  parking stalls that usually accompany suburban businesses.  Communities should also be well connected to neighbouring communities to maximize the number of amenities available. 

If you can eliminate the need for citizens to own cars, this also means that you don't have to provide as much land to store vehicles.  Residential properties can be smaller since they do not have to incorporate garages and driveways, reducing the cost of mortgages.  If you locate employment nodes nearby and provide direct and frequent bus routes you make this possible.  Employment is usually the cause of a majority of vehicle commutes, and often the commutes consist of driving more than 30 minutes only to park the cars for eight hours before you have to drive home.  Move the employment closer to the employees, and make it easier for cars to be left at home.

Foster and Partners Example of Public Park
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Each community should also be built with local public parks or water features.  Suburban developments some times provide artificial storm water lakes or parks, however they also allow privileged property owners border-side property rights.  This again exponentially increases commuting distances for the majority of the community members for the sake of a few.  The borders of parks and lands should remain public, and acquisition of the border rights to the land should be prohibited. This will only serve to ensure that the natural amenities can be accessed by the maximum population, and will encourage healthier lifestyles as the quick access allows greater a chance of leisurely walks, and sports.

Example of Solar Panel Communities
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Regulations should also make it mandatory for developers to install sustainable sources of energy for property owners.  Developers have the capital capabilities to invest in larger quantities of solar panels, a wind turbine, or a deep thermal well.  If a developer were to install solar panels on every property, significant savings could be seen from a larger order from manufacturers.  These savings could be then realized by the property owners when the developer adds the reduced solar system price to the purchase price.  Not only that but savings would be realized through the renewable solar power generation, as you don't have to pay for your utilities.  Developers could also install a single wind turbine for each community to serve the same purpose. 

Example of Urban Wind Turbine
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Developers also have the opportunity to install thermal wells to provide a renewable heating source, reducing the need for each home to have an independent gas-fired furnace or water boiler. Large underground rain water tanks could also be installed in every community.  These rainwater tanks would be able to provide the water for toilets or gardening.  The water that people use to water lawns or flush toilets is drinking water, and the city uses large amounts of energy to ensure that it is safe to drink.

All of these sustainable resource investments can eliminate or reduce the strain on municipal utility structures.  Most modern cities are built with most suburban communities being on the far outskirts of town.  Large quantities of energy are required to drive pumps, more electricity is lost delivering through longer transmission lines, and more resources and materials are needed to build infrastructure.

Lower capital costs are overrated, and most people do not look at the larger picture.  Most often initial costs are lower because they skimp out on simple features and causes inefficiencies and high operating costs.  If developers would invest just a little more to create more compact and sustainable communities, utility and commuting costs would be minimal.  You would create communities where chances interactions with your neighbours, and healthier lifestyles are high.

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