Fundamentals of Resilient Design #9: Building Strong Communities

Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

A pedestrian-friendly, walkable community was created in Annapolis, Maryland, making getting around without cars much more feasible. Photo: Dan Burden.

In this ninth installment of my ten-part series on resilient design fundamentals, I’m focusing beyond individual buildings to the community scale. Following a natural disaster or other problem that results in widespread power outages or interruptions in vehicle access or fuel supplies, people need to work together.

We saw that throughout Vermont with Tropical Storm Irene last year when some communities were cut off for a week or more. Where there were cohesive communities in place—where people knew their neighbors and worked cooperatively on issues of common concern—dealing with the crisis was a lot easier.

Community resilience also relates to how well we could get along without our cars. In some future crisis, gasoline might become unavailable for an extended period of time, or a political upheaval somewhere could result in a quadrupling of the price of gasoline, which could price it out of reach for many. Additionally, without power, gasoline pumps at service stations don’t work, so unless a service station has back-up power, its gasoline pumps won’t work. How would we function without cars?

Resilient communities, in these situations, will be communities that can function without the automobile. Indeed, in certain respects, improving the resilience of our homes is the easy part—not cheap, certainly, but relatively straightforward. Making our communities more resilient is a very difficult, long-term challenge. Here are some strategies:

Create pedestrian-friendly communities

Places where it’s more convenient to walk around—and less convenient to drive—will inherently be less dependent on cars. Traffic calming measures that slow down vehicles and make walking safer are key. Some of these measures, such as bump-outs on traveled streets and closely spaced cross-walks, are a bane to drivers, but they make a difference in safety and walkability.

Wide sidewalks are key to pedestrian access. And in cold climates, it’s important for municipalities to keep those sidewalks clear in the winter months.

Bicycles and walking are the preferred means of getting around in Lund, Sweden. I was amazed to see so few cars. Photo: Alex Wilson

Provide bicycle lanes and pathways

I spent a couple weeks in Lund, Sweden a few years ago. I arrived in the late afternoon on a rainy December day and was astounded by the number of people getting around by bicycle. The city has an entire network of bicycle paths, divided with directional lanes. On a busy Saturday in Lund, with the streets bustling with people and commerce, the bicycle parking lots were packed, and about the only open pavement I saw in the city was a large parking lot for cars in the center of town. The few lonely Volvos and Saabs provided stark contrast to our packed parking lots here in America.

Bicycling is certainly easier in relatively flat places that don’t have a lot of snow—like Lund, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; and most of Holland. But significant progress is being made here at home in some surprising places. Minneapolis, for example, recently pulled ahead of Portland, Oregon as the most bicycle-friendly city in the nation, according to Bicycling Magazine. Despite the cold weather, more than 120 miles of bicycle paths, indoor bicycle parking, and other features helped Minneapolis gain that recognition.

Encourage mixed-use development

Standard zoning in the U.S. separates commercial and residential development. When this zoning was created, industry was pretty dirty, noisy, and smelly, so separating uses usually made sense. But today, that same zoning often makes things worse by increasing our dependence on cars. In most recently built communities, you can’t walk to a corner café, bookstore, or food market, let alone workplaces.

That can change. More progressive communities today are modifying zoning to encourage mixed-use development. The New Urbanism movement is leading that charge. The starting point in these newer, more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments is often to look back at older cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and towns built up around railroad stops outside such cities as Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Encourage density and public transit

Density is key to creating less car-dependent communities. Without adequate density it’s very hard to make public transit work, because there isn’t a critical mass. And without effective public transit, people have to drive. This is the primary reason public transit works so much better in most of Europe than it does in the U.S.—significantly higher density in the cities and towns.

One solution is to make in-town, infill development easier by providing incentives for denser development while raising hurdles for sprawling, car-dependent, greenfield development.

Whether we push it or not, there is already a shift toward higher-density, transit-accessible development, because that’s where people want to live. Over the past ten years, even as real estate values have declined generally, they have continued increasing in places like the neighborhoods within a half-mile of Metro stops in the Washington, DC area.

There’s a great report just out by Chris Leinberger of the George Washington University School of Business: DC: The WalkUP Wake-up Call that explains the benefits of walkable urban environments. These spaces are what the market is asking for, and deliver enhanced resilience.

Light-rail and bicycling help to make Toronto a great city. Photo: Alex Wilson.

Support locally owned businesses

Resilience at the community scale is also a function of strong local economies. With locally owned businesses, more of the profits are recycled within the community and region. Those businesses are more likely to reach out during a natural disaster, helping neighbors and donating to recovery efforts than are large national companies owned by distant stockholders whose motivation is primarily maximizing profits. Local businesses are also more likely to source materials locally, magnifying the benefit to local economies.

Build strong communities

Whether or not there are bike pathways or enough density to allow public transit, a high degree of resilience can be achieved in communities through community-building. Potluck suppers, local cultural events, farmers’ markets, apple pie festivals, strawberry suppers, Sunday town-green concerts, town meetings, and community walks can all help to create communities where people get to know each other and will work together when needed. That’s the most important aspect of community resilience.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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