Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Alternative Development Forms - Natural Co-Housing

The most interesting development models to me are often those that exist in the space between traditional home ownership and rental. Co-housing is one of these models, and I just recently found an update about a project in Ithaca, New York, called Ecovillage.

Despite the overly “pc” name of the place, there are some amazing features to this development that I think are begging to be replicated on a larger scale in both urban and rural development projects.

Yard Sharing
In my own experience I have found that “good fences can make for good neighbors”. But that’s not how I’d really like to live. When I bought my house (as I suspect you did)  I wasn’t able to interview and choose our neighbors, but the idea of sharing outside spaces with neighbors and friends is most appealing to me.

For a short time I did have one neighbor that removed our common fence, and while it was hard to train her landscapers to stop coming into my yard and mowing over my drip hoses, I very much enjoyed the fact that our children were able to move from one yard to the next without any barriers. It created a great sense of community and we became very close in the process. Unfortunately, a fence has been built now and we have found interaction between our families  to be limited and much less frequent.

Though we still have a gate that allows us to go back an fourth, the very presence of the fence creates a visual and physical barrier. With my other neighbors we have chain link fences separating our yards. Although these create a physical barrier and many people might think they are less appealing then a nice wooden fence, I find that I have more frequent interaction with these neighbors.

Communal Resources
Another feature that I love to see in any development is shared or communal resources. In the case of Ecovillage there are shared kitchen, laundry facilities and workshops with tools.  My attraction to these types of shared resources is multi-fold. Kitchen’s and dining areas provide a common space for neighborhood meetings,  parties and other events. More importantly they can provide access to healthy home cooked meals for seniors and other individuals that either don’t have the ability or skills to cook for themselves.

Shared laundry facilities are an obvious cost savings that eliminate the need for every household to buy expensive machines that typically only get used periodically. Additionally, the savings from shared workshops and tool programs allows not only direct savings, but the ability to share skills between neighbors and another avenue for neighbor to neighbor interaction.

Expanded Natural Spaces
The last thing that places like Ecovillage can provide is an alternative form of land use that can be seen as more efficient and less invasive in our natural environment. While my experience with Ecovillage is limited to photos and other materials that I have seen on the web, the development gives me the sense that there is plenty of space one might consider in its “natural state”.

Housing and buildings in Ecovillage are compact and located close together. Unlike typical subdivisions in urban or suburban developments, buildings are organized in tight formations that help maximize and consolidate outdoor living areas. This is certainly not a new idea but one that I have always been attracted to.

The idea of reorganizing suburban spaces to maximize outdoor living was first introduced to me through the book Experience of Place by Tony Hiss.  This was the first time I heard of one of the early pioneers in planning Benton MacKaye.  MacKaye is better known for his work on the Appalachian trail, park lands and trail systems for the national parks.  Tony Hiss however discusses how MacKaye took land planning and suburban development in a new direction by focusing on maximizing natural spaces in developments that created the same density per acre that traditional suburban developments would.

This idea was revolutionary to me at the time and I still advocate and think about it every time I look at new development projects.

What all this boils down to is a belief that I hold in the ability for alternative development patterns and ownership structures to have a positive impact on creating more accessible, affordable and ecologically sound forms of housing. I certainly am no expert on the numbers or statistics about why or how places like Ecovillage are better for our environment, but it would surprise me if they weren’t given the anecdotal evidence that’s been provided so far.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Expect Failure, Then Deal With It

Failure is a topic that a lot of business and nonprofit professionals are talking about today. Whether this trend is a result of new ideas or concepts on how organizations deal with failure or a reflection of the overall economic recession, there are a few key concepts that I have taken from my readings that I’d like to share here.

Failure is not Immoral

Dan Pallotta, one of my favorite thinkers in the nonprofit world, recently released an article on how risk should not be considered immoral in the nonprofit world. I’d like to take his thinking one step further and add that failure is also not immoral.

Pilot projects are one of my favorite ways to test new ideas on a small scale. At my current position, we started a pilot program for land banking with three different local partners and one national. We invested a small amount of seed money to buy properties and work through the logistics of foreclosure sales, local partner agreements and ground leases.

In the end, we were only able to buy one property during that 9 month pilot . We certainly didn’t see the financial returns we wanted from the pilot, but we were able to test the waters and identify many of the hurdles that we would experience in the future.

Was it immoral or wrong to invest my time, our companies time and our local partners’ time in this pilot that produced so little? My answer two years ago may have been different, but today we have been able to raise more than $6.2 million, create more than 350 affordable housing units, and have covered our operating costs as a result of that pilot program. I’d call that a big success in our corner of the world.

The example above might be more of a parable on taking risks and finding solutions to problems you encounter, but isn’t failure just another way to discover problems and find out which of your assumptions were wrong.  

As an administrator of federal funding in past jobs, I experienced the failure of my assumptions on almost a daily basis. From assuming that all nonprofits could produce annual financial statements, to application materials that didn’t include clear instructions that anyone could follow. Failure seemed like a daily tasks.

In order to over come this type of failure, there are a couple of beliefs I have developed over the years that I think have helped me endure.

First, learn everything that you can about the product, the market and the client that you can. Knowledge is power after all, and knowing everything you can before you launch that new program or product will be the most valuable work you do up front.

Second, assume that you don’t know everything about the product, the market or the client that you need to.  This might be more an attitude, but it helps me deal with the problems that inevitably pop-up, and has worked better for me than just standing my ground on the “facts” I believe I know.

The nonprofit world is rife with adversity. Our missions and work often focus on those with the lowest incomes, the least resources and the most insurmountable problems. So it can often feel wrong, even unethical to take risks or fail when so much is at stake. But failure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  When we fail, we must learn. Then apply what we’ve learned and move forward.

I believe one of our defining characteristics as humans is the urge to move forward. To challenge ourselves, to explore new ideas and improve our standard of living. Just think about where we’d be if our parents, ancestors and society had given up and stopped moving forward.