The Most Innovative Design Strategy by Patricia Birch, AIA, LEED AP

If a client were to ask me, “What is the most innovative design strategy that could make my affordable housing project more sustainable?” What would be my answer? Deciding on ONE thing is like trying to pick my favorite food—can’t do it. But site design is where a sustainable approach begins, so I would start there. Sustainable neighborhoods are built upon connectivity, density, diversity, and an “eyes on the street” approach to architectural design.

I live in a 1908 house in an old neighborhood of Lincoln. It’s a traditional gridded street pattern with alleys. It’s dense, it has a mixture of large historic homes, modest single family and multifamily homes. There’s a lot of shade, there are plenty-big backyards, shallow front yards and because the garage is detached from the house, when I come home after work I see my neighbor when he’s tending his lawn (which is always unless it’s covered in snow). Because of the density, cars park on both sides of the street. This means traffic can’t zoom through the neighborhood because two cars can’t pass unless one pulls over at a break in the parking (like at driveways). The parked cars are a buffer between kids playing in the yard and the traffic. And the large front porches enliven the streetscape with activity—the emphasis as you look down the street is the front porch, not the garage door.

Awhile back, I heard a speaker from the National Institute of Health report on a study regarding the safety of neighborhoods. If you’re riding your bike in suburbia, you are actually more likely to be hit by a car than if you’re riding your bike in an old neighborhood like mine. Why? Because suburban developments are designed so you can drive your car fast (because you don’t live close to anything you have to drive everywhere which leads to more traffic and the need to have wider roads for cars driving at fast speeds). Cul-de-sacs lead to feeder roads, those lead to 4-lane arterials. You don’t see many bicyclers on those roads, or pedestrians. People driving cars don’t expect to encounter bicyclers. Thus, those hardy souls riding their bikes in these harsh landscapes are more likely to be hit by a car. Wow.

Sustainable neighborhood design also means you can walk to the grocery store, you can walk to work. Your kid can ride their bike to their friend’s house. If you can walk places without fear of crossing a 4-lane, arterial street with traffic racing by at 45-50mph, then you will also be healthier (you will also be healthier because you haven’t been hit by a car!).

So what is the ONE thing we should do to make our neighborhoods more sustainable? We should design them so they are livable—then they will be sustainable. After that, we can look at solar panels, triple-pane windows, and no-VOC interiors for the buildings.