By David Bailey
Zipping through Atlanta’s tangled web of choked freeways, you can take any exit to see the most common form of development in America – the arterial strip highway and suburban homes. You’ll undoubtedly find a box gas station, box fast food, box hotel – all surrounded by acres of parking. The only place for you is inside a car or inside a building. Everything looks exactly the same, no matter where you go.
Sure, this asphalt monotony can certify some of its building as “green,” but it’s important to consider the resource demands of these spaces, not just the buildings. Much of the land area in these developments must accommodate for single occupant car parking. It’s a tall order to call strip highway development an efficient use of our finite resources. It’s even more far-fetched to call these places safe, beautiful, sustainable or desirable, but a preponderance of our cities are being built following the same principles.
EarthCraft and its Communities certification are active participants in this broader dialogue of urbanism and creating sustainable, compact growth. EarthCraft Communities, a certification framework within the EarthCraft program, focuses specifically on sustainably-planned communities. They require an urbanism that is part of a system, a larger urban landscape of homes, offices, communities and public spaces that shape the way humans interact with each other and the natural world. Through this program, EarthCraft communities enhance their livability and health and are engaging and efficient through these 5 strategies:
1. Respect the public realm: The most successful communities have interesting and lovable public spaces. These spaces are created and defined by the many buildings which face a street or by the trees that shade and cool. These public spaces are spontaneous and interesting. More importantly, these types of community developments blur the lines between what is natural and what is “built.” Shop-front windows facing public spaces offer pedestrians outside to peer in, while the patrons in the shop are able to freely look outside into the natural world. This intentional design helps to frame the public spaces, providing a sense of enclosure and close-knit community that is integral to any urbanist environment.
2. Encourage green space and open space for all to enjoy: When you hear the word “urbanism” or “urban planning,” you might think of greenspaces, parks, sidewalks and walkable neighborhoods. Urbanism puts humans and nature as the focus of neighborhood developments, designed for walking, biking and with access to alternative transit systems. Most mixed-use urban developments that take this approach are built around public spaces that allow for daily interactions among community members. The metro Atlanta area is home to some great examples of well-designed community developments, including Serenbe in Chattahoochee Hills and Vickery Village in Cumming, Georgia. These communities are built to offer humans access to natural, public spaces while promoting connectivity to residential and commercial areas.
3. Design for connected streets and walkways: It goes without saying that Atlanta traffic is some of the worst in the country. The urban and suburban sprawl that has plagued the area over the past several decades (as with many of the major U.S. cities) has resulted in disjointed residential areas that lack connectivity and funnel motor vehicle traffic onto large, ugly, single use roadways and freeways. Urbanism, as taught by the EarthCraft program, is meant to curb that trend. Design that understands connectivity and social patterns can result in more walkability, increased bike lanes and less congested driving routes. And at the end of the day, that means calmer traffic and increased safety for pedestrians, drivers and communities.
4. Steward our limited water resources: EarthCraft certified homes and buildings are designed with water efficiency in mind. Low-flow water fixtures, high-efficiency water heaters, on-demand recirculation loops and other water-saving strategies are commonplace in EarthCraft buildings and developments. In EarthCraft communities, water use is also measured by effective design and implementation of landscaping, irrigation and stormwater management systems. Natural stormwater infrastructure, like rain gardens, bio-swales, stormwater ponds, permeable pavers and pervious concrete allow excess water from heavy rains to effectively drain and recharge the groundwater systems. These “green infrastructure” tactics also reduce the risk of pooling and flooding, and can mitigate erosion. Incorporating these features is a requirement for EarthCraft Communities certification, and is key to designing and building neighborhoods (and cities) that work with environmental systems.
5. Think on the human scale: Most people are comfortable walking ¼ mile to run errands, to work, to the train station, to play or to go to the park. Thinking in terms of a ¼ mile walk encourages compact walkable neighborhoods that adequately provide for the needs of a community. It also focuses on human-based developments that promote walkability and dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that consider local context as a means to placemaking and community building.
The City of Atlanta recently unveiled the “Atlanta City Design,” which is an aspirational guide for how the City should plan, design and implement projects and policies. Everything from traffic routes, public transportation, affordable housing and tree canopy conservation has been outlined and included in the 410-page document. The hope is that this framework will shape Atlanta’s growth in the coming years, as population numbers continue to climb. As the book states, “denser developments may be making city life better, but we fear it’s coming at the expense of our natural assets.” Through this intentionality of combining the urban population areas with access to natural parks and woodlands, Atlanta will help build connectivity between places already developed while taking significant steps to conserving and protecting the natural landscape of the region.