The Promise of Sustainable Design

I first took an interest in community development in 2005 while at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. At the time, the economy was growing at a remarkable rate. Federal programs like HOPE VI, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and the New Markets Tax Credit were attracting millions of private dollars to create affordable housing units and to catalyze redevelopment in neighborhoods across the country. As a sign of the prevailing economic optimism, dozens of cities, including Nashville, were working to develop and implement their own 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness. To me, no area of social policy promised more positive outcomes than housing and community development.

Our field did face challenges — rising land values and shrinking block grants. But two emerging trends promised to address much of our nation’s housing and development needs: (1) a historically low barrier to homeownership and (2) a growing number of successful public-private partnerships to develop affordable housing with a mix of land uses, a mix of resident incomes, compact sustainable design, or a combination of all of these.

The recession has since exposed the dangers of our aggressive homeownership campaign. The American Dream lives on, but many of us now look at conventional homeownership in a different light. I think if there is a silver lining in the foreclosure crisis it is this: more Americans are recognizing the critical importance of quality, affordable rental housing. Demographic and climate change also seem to be converging to produce a “golden age” of multifamily housing in the United States. Recent survey data for the two largest generational cohorts — Baby Boomers and their children, Gen Y — show a strong preference for walkable communities, which both depend on and result from higher-density and mixed-use residential development. By nature, these walkable communities reduce resource consumption, vehicle miles, and carbon emissions far more effectively than other, more fragmented conservation efforts.

This is good news for housing and community developers and for policymakers alike. It is easier to plan for (and to mandate the inclusion of) affordable housing units in higher-density multifamily rental developments where economies of scale help ensure a project’s feasibility. And when multifamily rental developments are located in a walkable community and near transit or a major employment center, they reduce the overall cost of living for our workforce. These models already exist. We know them as “mixed-use,” “mixed-income,” or “TOD” (transit-oriented development). In a few short years — the years I have been in the field — these ideas have evolved from academic case studies into federal housing priorities, and they are now starting to cement themselves in neighborhood expectations.

I see a future of these mixed-income, mixed-use, and transit-oriented communities. Done right, these will be more attainable and more sustainable places to live and do business — vibrant downtowns and lively suburban town centers with housing and economic opportunities for people of all ages, abilities, and incomes. This is not utopian thinking; this is the most effective way to deliver on the promises of our profession.

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