By Catherine Benotto AIA, ASLA, LEED AP
as published in Puget Sound Section,
American Planning Association News
Sprawl. With its low density, single use zones and maze of meandering streets that favor cars over pedestrians, sprawl is the planner's source of all evil. It converts up to 1.2 million acres of farmland, 3 million acres of open space and 60,000 acres of wetland into 2 million homes every year. It contributes directly, or through collateral damage, to a long list of environmental problems that affect the air we breathe, the water we drink and other resources that sustain us. It diminishes our transit opportunities. Worst of all it makes us fat, as recent studies have linked sprawl to the rise of obesity.
While New Urbanism addresses many of the problems of sprawl by promoting walk-ability and de-emphasizing the visual impact of cars, many of the New Urbanist communities are on greenfield sites and, with an average density of only 4-7 units per acre, do not address saving land and low impact building.
Beyond New Urbanism, a key challenge for community planning these days is satisfying the market's desire for single family homes while still building compactly, devoting less land to infrastructure and without sacrificing quality of life, community interaction, safety and security. These were the goals of Crofton Springs, a community within Issaquah Highlands, planned and designed by Weber + Thompson for The Dwelling Company.
Crofton Springs comprises of 121 homes on a mere 6 acres with a net density of over 20 units per acre. It achieves this density with a mix of detached single family homes, carriage houses, duplexes, fourplexes and row houses. All but 20 of these units were sold as grade related fee simple single family units, which makes its density all that more of a challenge and an achievement.
Crofton Springs' density takes New Urbanism up a notch, to what the designers coined as Neo Urbanism, where cars are not simply hidden behind the home on alleys but are detached from the lot, where roads are reduced and homes face onto green spaces rather than streets. By not servicing every home with a driveway and garage, the land that would have been occupied by impervious surfaces and cars is converted into larger shared community green spaces — the trade off for having to walk 100 to 150 feet to your parked car.
In addition, the plan uses the alley space for cars more efficiently. Cars for many of the homes are clustered in car court garages abutting the alley. The planners increased density by adding carriage houses over this series of attached garages overlooking shared greens. This idea put "eyes on the car court" and turned what is often considered necessary–wasted space into an efficient and quirky marriage of parking and living.
While there was a generous amount of shared green space, individual private lots were reduced to the minimum. Many detached homes had lots as small as 2400 sf and the attached homes' middle units were as small as 1000 sf. Designing smaller homes on smaller lots takes more skill to ensure efficient use of space and privacy between units. Creating a strong sense of place was the trade-off for the increased density. Homes not only abutted open space on two sides, but many of the cottages lined a 'stream' of cleaned storm water running downhill through the middle of the site.
Not orienting homes directly towards streets violated a near code requirement for New Urbanism. However, the social aspects of fostering community through front porches on shared green spaces were directly in line with the tenets of New Urbanism.
Continually weighing on the designers and developers was the question of what the market's response would be to the smaller lots, remote parking and an emphasis on walking. However, once a critical mass of houses was built and the community started taking shape with completed garden spaces, the charm factor of Crofton Springs began to emerge. Buyers could see how they were exchanging quick access parking for abundant green spaces, fewer cars, friendly relations with their neighbors and safer places for their children to play. The market took off, and the community sold out.
By rethinking, stretching and massaging the traditional tenets of community planning, planners and designers have ample opportunities to create healthy, safe communities. Bringing a fresh eye to community planning and a focus on healthy density — still maintaining a level of individual privacy — will go a long way towards protecting our farmland, our wetland, our health, and, most importantly, our waistlines.
About the author:
Catherine Benotto, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP is an architect, landscape architect and associate at Weber + Thompson where she specializes in Master Planning.