Tuesday, November 10, 2009

E2 Series looks at Affordable Housing

By Paul Haeder
E2 Series at EWU Riverpoint and Cheney
Partially underwritten by PacifiCAD and Autodesk

So, with the housing bubble now popped, foreclosures on the rise, and people looking to planners, architects and government and business leaders to come up with a new way to live smaller, cheaper and less dependent upon fossil fuel and private transportation, just where is affordable housing in the "sustainability movement"?

Episode 4 of the E2 Design series, season two, covers the social, cultural and economic ties to affordable housing. More than 14 million Americans spend at least ½ their incomes on rent. For more than 50 years, planners and housing and architectural folk have disregarded the notion of community when planning and designing and building low income and mixed income housing.

Biophillia and the notion that humans are innately drawn to connecting with communities and diverse people and diverse social, biosocial, biological and cultural systems are key elements to today's holistic planning. In this E2 episode, “Affordable Green Housing,” one real estate developer, Jonathan Rose, looks at affordable housing as an entire package of things – the systems and networks and complexities and integration of people living and working and recreating in communities, cities that is. The concept of livable communities is tied to the built environment, and the social and cultural fabrics of the housing, the neighborhood -- all of this is stressed in this pretty insightful and successful E2 episode.

Jane Jacobs’ concepts are alluded to, including “eyes on the street” building and planning -- the more porches out front and less carports in the way, the more sidewalks and more outdoor venues, the more the community gets to know each other and engage in diversity on every possible level. A daycare and foster care center in New York is designed with a teaching garden and community garden to make those connections, making the built environment dynamic, a place of active and passive learning. So, these sometimes throw-away kids are now part of the community and integrated in daily city life.

South Bronx hit a real low point in the 1970s with residents fleeing and buildingsabandoned and decaying, looking like West Gaza looks like now. President Jimmy Carter used S. Bronx as an emblem of what’s wrong in America with old urban policy of huge ugly and non-integrated housing complexes stuck or fenced away from community design and inclusion. So, that 1977 Carter visit pulled people in new directions of thinking and how maybe a new urban housing policy had to be embarked upon.

Now, 30 years later, we have green and community building as key elements to design. A competition -- and 32 teams applied -- created a rarified group of designers and architects to come up with both quality, affordability and sustainability as part of the housing complex design. Five firms ended up with solicitations for complete proposals. One ended up getting the South Bronx narrow piece of property for $1.
Villa Verde then took off.

Meeting neighborhood people and advocates and just plain common Joe and Jane forced the architects to look at community needs, not just designers', developer s'and architects' needs. Health was the number one concern, since more than 17 percent of kids in South Bronx have asthma, and that means missing school and parents missing work. So, housing and health were tied together. A community Health Center is at the bottom of this mixed development, plus an organic community- based food coop is also designed in. Air quality of the units was important, so two exposures were built into each of the 139 single family units and 63 coop housing units.

Gardens, orchards, south facing light, and the general idea that landscapes have the power to educate, inspire and motivate were all points that ended up built into the housing development.

The idea is to provide affordable housing that makes people healthier -- physically, mentally and spiritually. An example of sustainable and culturally sound design and thinking is a village in Tibet that has been around for a thousand years and has maintained three simple inputs – sunlight, rainwater and human intelligence.

Bringing back the Bronx or Flint or Cleveland or other urban spaces is the goal now in a world where oil is expense, and it’s people like T. Boone Pickens who sees gas in the USA going for $10 a gallon in less than a decade who wants to see a decarbonization of societies. Sun, rain, intelligence -- what a concept.
Holistic design includes building a safe and secure place to live in which encourages youth to leave for school and then come back to the neighborhood to concentrate on community building, jobs and potentiality. These are the underpinnings of what this E2 series episode emphasized.

Taking residents seriously, getting them into the design phase, the project initiation phase, now that’s the key to this new design principle; and looking at them as beings who want to aspire to do great things, is what Rose sees as his job – creating potential for the community is self-arising AFTER housing and community space are sustainable from economic, social and cultural points of view – with the natural environment – as much as a city can afford – key to it all.

The tendril acts as a metphor for the architects and designers since it is proof of nature reaching out, seeking a foothold, adjusting to the light, geography, the conditions to gain a foothold. So, Villa Verde and Rose and the others see that thread -- the tendril -- as emblamatic of green affordable housing -- making footholds in brownfields and old spaces and generating life, a green vision.
So, this episode is talking about revolutionizing the way affordable housing is built in NYC, and the world. Mixed income neighborhoods are what we’ve lost, and some say suburbanization has caused that, while others say cities are highly bifurcating since the poorer folk live in the tougher parts and richer ones move out or into gentrified communities and neighborhoods on the edge. Mixed income neighborhoods highlighted in this show, like the Villa Verde (Green Estate-Town), is poart of the green community movement, and that is an integrated approach covering the legalities, profitability and the beauty of it all. This is the new paradigm of architecture and private-public urban space design.

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