Building communities,
working with nature:
Architecure and Urban Design Working Group

The following three articles are adapted from the presentation of the SCS 2000 Architecture and Urban Design Working Group, chaired by Paul Alsenas of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and Paul Volpe of City Architecture. The working group's priorities are at right.

Building for community and convenience

  • Range of housing options
  • Mix of uses
  • Clusters of density
  • Variety of public spaces
  • Options for getting around

By Ruth Durack

Comfort and convenience have been central motives of all or much of human invention, and we certainly have come an awfully long way since we had to till the fields to get a loaf of bread. But the price we have to pay for all the wonderful comforts and conveniences of modern life is becoming intolerable with loss of environmental quality, aesthetic decay, the destruction of resources, social and economic distress, inequality and injustice, and, most of all, the loss of community and connection to other people and to the places that we inhabit.

So a key priority in the Architecture and Urban Design Working Group was to find a better balance between our natural drive for convenience and the less obvious, but just as compelling, need for community. And it doesn't mean giving up on any of the magnificent achievements of modern life. It means providing more options and alternatives to the fastest, easiest, most convenient ways.

We boiled down the options for building community and convenience into five key elements: range of housing options, mix of uses (housing, shopping, work places), clusters of density, variety of public spaces, and options for getting around.

In terms of housing options, we are not saying we need to reject the detached single family house, but we need to increase the variety of available alternatives twins, duplexes, triplexes, apartments, and condominiums all of which can coexist quite successfully to create more socially and economically integrated neighborhoods.

And we need to mix land uses in these neighborhoods to Mixed uses: The Coventry commercial district in Cleveland Heightsprovide the convenience of nearby services and entertainments and a more seamless integration of living and working.

With respect to density of building, we are not saying that density is an unqualified benefit that needs to be maximized everywhere. But for those of us who can't afford or wouldn't choose to live a gracious country lifestyle, we need to offer a range of different densities clustered in locations where the density of the design makes sense economically and environmentally.

Similarly, we need to provide a variety of public spaces, including places where we can participate in cultural rituals of our community and less formal kinds of social gatherings and activities activities as simple as sitting in the sun, playing in the park, or stealing a private moment with special friends. We need spaces that bring all kinds of people together.

Finally, we need to offer a variety of options for getting around. Public transit is obviously high on the sustainability agenda, but we mustn't loose sight of more modest imperatives like the need to provide attractive and unobstructed sidewalks or safe and well-maintained bikeways. For those of us who are not quite up to the rigors of such physical activity, we need to step up research and development of alternative fuels and new approaches to reducing private auto use.

So how do we make all this happen? We offer for discussion five directions for architecture and urban design.

First, we need greater flexibility in building and zoning codes to allow a wider range of housing options and more integrated mixes of uses.

We need to design more flexible building types buildings that can adapt to new uses and changes over time.

We need to focus on the quality of the public realm, creating a rich mix of quality public places where community can flourish.

We need to invest in transportation alternatives, which means not only putting money into transit, sidewalks, bike paths, and so on, but also supporting the development of transportation technologies and management alternatives.

And perhaps most important, we need more collaboration, not just among designers and planners, but among sociologists, scientists, artists, developers, financiers, politicians, and community residents a whole litany of people involved in making decisions about human habitation.

Ruth Durack is director of the Urban Design Center of Northeast Ohio.

Work with, not against, nature

  • Solutions grow from place
  • Work with living processes and living landscapes
  • Make nature visible; ecological accounting informs design
  • Everyone is a designer - inter-disciplinary collaboration

By Patty Stevens

Another priority of the Architecture and Urban Design Working Group was to work with nature to think about what it really means to do that. We need to appreciate that nature is more than a backdrop or a setting for architecture and urban design. We need to develop a partnership with nature and find ways to work together for our benefit and nature's benefit.

This requires a regional approach. The political boundaries that are often arbitrarily drawn on a map really do not apply when we think about an ecological approach to designing our community. Northeast Ohio has expressed its relationship with nature in a variety of forms from the leftover sites within our dense urban areas to rural areas and even wilderness areas. It's up to us to identify how we want to approach these areas and learn from them.

To work with nature, we need to understand what our ecology is, what our climate is, what our soils are, what our geology is, how drainage works every time we put up a building to work with living processes. For example, we can restore streams by reintroducing natural meanders, riffles and pools, rather than channelizing streams with a more conventional engineering approach.

In urban areas it's often hard to experience a natural setting as part of our day-to-day lives, so we need to make nature more visible, reconnect ourselves with the natural elements around us. And there are wonderful examples of this going on in our community, as organizations find lost and leftover pieces of land. There is the Cleveland Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National ParkMetroparks' new Canal Reservation in the heart of Cleveland's industrial core. There are places like West Creek in the Parma area. If we can provide public access to these pieces of land, we can connect people to their environment.

A number of other cooperative efforts are making progress - efforts like the Public Realm Plan that was done as part of the Cleveland's Civic Vision, waterfront initiatives, trail and greenway efforts, EcoCity Cleveland's Bioregional Plan, the Countryside Program, an initiative by the park districts from eight counties to identify open space and natural areas. Our challenge is to begin to pull some of these efforts together.

All this requires a great deal of collaboration. A single group or discipline can't reshape architecture and urban design in our community. We all need to be designers and make those design decisions part of everyday choices.

Patty Stevens is a principal with the design firm Schmidt Copeland Parker Stevens.

Growing smart

  • Growing smart for economy, environment, and community.
  • Recycle buildings and developed land Set priorities, provide incentives, see redevelopment as an opportunity for environmental restoration.
  • Preserve greenspace and farmland Convert vacant land to permanent open space, support local, organic agriculture with urban markets, permanently protect natural resources through public land purchases.
  • Build in appropriate locations and in appropriate densities Intensify, diversify, balance conservation and development, manage utility extensions.
  • What can we do better? Measure success by what is restored, preserved and built; "anticipate and prevent" rather than "React and cure;" think outside of the "zoning box."

By Carol Thaler

A lot of people, from environmentalists to builders, are saying that we need to "grow smart." But we don't always do that in Northeast Ohio.

As a result, the tax burden on maintaining existing infrastructure is pretty enormous. We are just now feeling the effects of maintaining all the infrastructure built since World War II, and communities are desperate for maintenance money. We have built so many schools that we don't know quite how to fund them. Polluted runoff from ever-increasing paved areas affects water quality, and the ever-increasing amount of vehicle miles traveled is damaging our air quality. We are losing our cities, and we are losing our countryside.

What can we learn from other metropolitan areas and apply in Northeast Ohio? First, we need to recycle buildings and developed land. In Maryland, they have established priority spending areas where the state targets its limited resources to support the maintenance of existing cities and towns. In Ohio, we need to redirect incentives, perhaps reverting back to the original intent of the state's enterprise zone and tax abatement policies to help businesses locate in previously developed areas and use existing infrastructure.

We also need to recognize the environmental restoration opportunities in every redevelopment project. In Toronto, every project is seen as a way to reconnect with the environment and restore streams or some other natural processes. In our region, we need to preserve green space and farmland. We need to reclaim some of our vacant urban land as permanent greenspace. One of the biggest reasons people cite for moving out of the city is a desire for more room. If we can provide access to greenspace in the cities, people will choose to come back. To protect open spaces, we can again turn to the state of Maryland as a model. Maryland has a pot of money set aside to purchase land that has been locally nominated for permanent protection. To preserve farmland, we need to support local, organic agriculture with urban markets. People need to eat, and if we can eat the things that are grown near to us, we can save energy and transportation costs, as well as preserve our rural landscapes.

The flip side of land protection is building in appropriate locations and at appropriate densities. We need to balanceCentral Commons in Cleveland conservation and development. Some sites lend themselves better to development than others, and so we need to be able to purchase the development rights or transfer the development rights off of pieces of land that don't lend themselves to development and find ways to preserve them. Then when land is developed we need to look at creative ways to intensify without overcrowding add diversity of land uses so we can simplify our lives a little and cut down on the amount we have to drive. In addition, we can do a better job managing utility extensions in ways that will save on the costs of building and future maintenance.

In many ways, we can measure our success by what is restored and preserved, as well as by what is built. Sometimes we seem to grab onto the number of housing starts as a measure of progress. It would be great if we could also consider the number of acres preserved or how many buildings were restored. We need to anticipate and prevent bad things from happening rather than react and cure. We can't just keep going ahead and doing things the way we've always done them and hope that technology will provide an easy fix in the future.

Carol Thaler is a planner at the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.


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Copyright 2002-2003



Proceedings of Sustainable Communities Symposium 2000
Three days in May 2000
Symposium agenda
The thought and practice of sustainability
Themes of the discussion
Agenda for architecture/urban design
Agenda for business/economics
Agenda for infrastructure
Agenda for political/legal issues
Agenda for health
Forging a regional civic vision
Committed to people and place
Sustainability pledge
Quotes from speakers
Resources for sustainability

Download publication of SCS 2000 proceedings

Back to main sustainability page
Go to SCS 2000 site


Priorities for
architecture and urban design

In terms of how architecture and urban design can help Northeast Ohio become more sustainable, SCS 2000 participants arrived at three overall consensus priorities for change:

  • Provide information and education to encourage and facilitate sustainable design in communities as a whole.
  • Provide creative, diverse incentives from the public and private sector to enhance sustainable design and development opportunities.
  • Create community-inspired policies that reflect sustainable values and that guide regional design and development.

Following are priorities presented at SCS 2000 by the Architecture and Urban Design Working Group:

Build for community and convenience

  • Provide a range of housing options and public spaces, mix uses in appropriate densities, and make streets walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly.
  • Adopt transit-oriented development concepts (appropriate density, mixed uses, and transit).
  • Adopt flexible building and zoning codes.
  • Provide sidewalks along every street; pedestrian links between land uses.
  • Create a regional bike trail system.
  • Invest in, improve, and increase public transit.
  • Create mixed-use zones with housing, shopping, and work places.
  • Preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods.
  • Promote in-law suites, co-housing, apartment living.
  • Build community gathering places.

Work with, not against, nature

Design buildings to use renewable, restorative resources; use nature's design intelligence as a partner; and make natural processes and cycles visible.

  • Use locally produced, renewable, non-toxic, and biodegradable "green" building materials.
  • Reduce use of non-renewable resources - use pavement heat pumps, photovoltaic systems, wind turbines.
  • Create incentives for businesses to become clean and green using closed-loop production and benign manufacturing processes.
  • Restore and create wetlands to manage water problems.
  • Manage urban stormwater runoff and other nonpoint sources of pollution.
  • Promote use of native plants.
  • Promote urban gardening.
  • Practice stream restoration; uncover culverted streams.

Grow smart

Recycle buildings and developed land, preserve green space and farmland, and build in appropriate locations and at appropriate densities.

  • Create monetary incentives for recycling buildings and developed land.
  • Convert vacant urban land to permanent green space.
  • Use Location Efficient Mortgages to promote urban living where homeowners use transit.
  • Support sustainable, organic, local agriculture through farmers' markets.
  • Preserve prime farmland.
  • Manage utility extensions.
  • Establish an Urban Growth Boundary to define appropriate areas for growth.

Architecture and Urban Design
breakout session at SCS 2000


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