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.


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