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Intent Shapes Environment, Environment Shapes Life
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By Claude Lewenz

Sometimes we talk about the environment without considering what it is.

There are two: the natural environment (made by Nature and adversely impacted by man), and the physical environment; the local environment that surrounds each of us in our day-to-day life – our room, our home, our streets and parks. When we talk about saving the environment, we tend to focus on the natural environment and the depredations done by man.

The Environment Movement tends to include high-minded people who do not profit by that depredation calling for restraints on other people who do profit by it. Sadly, when high-minded people realise they will be adversely affected by those restraints (such as living in a suburb and being told the price of fuel is about to quadruple), many tend to back off a bit… all except the purists: the purists endure sacrifice (ride a bike in miserable weather) but tend to have little impact on the total rate or scale of depredation because they are such a small minority… It's a numbers game. In order to have a significant effect, one needs to change the framework for large numbers of people, not simply those who understand the problem. One must remove the need for the product so that its damaging effects are reduced.

An example of this is what happens when one rearranges home, office / workplace, store, school, café and entertainment locations so all are within a 10-minute walk. The need to drive is eliminated, thus thousands of people who move there stop consuming all the direct and indirect products and resources required for daily driving. For people who live in such a place (we call it a parallel village) the loss of the car is painless. Health improves as the body gets exercise, the lungs need not filter the pollutants, and the young, elderly and distracted do not get run over by fast moving steel boxes. The thousands of dollars each person spends on vehicles and fuel becomes free for other purposes (or one can live well earning less). Time becomes available. One has time and proximity to meet people on the plaza, to enjoy a cup of coffee and a read of the paper in the time one would have been stuck in traffic. All these benefits to the natural environment come by changing the physical environment.

However, they were not done primarily to save the natural environment. That is too high-minded for most people. For most people, their local physical environment is primary. People will put up with a lot, but when offered the chance to create a parallel community by shaping the physical environment to their liking, most will want to live there, especially if their other needs are met. These needs include being able to afford it, they have a job nearby, and they can feel comfortable. We can approach this with the following hierarchy of thought:

Paramount – People will love the place
Baseline – Design for a low footprint on the natural environment

The baseline becomes a given, but it does not become a prime advertising feature. Why?

You can't build a successful community around a negative. As of late, we have been hearing much about that troika of doom, Pogwec (Peak Oil, Global Warming, Economic Collapse) and it has become a popular subject among high-minded people concerned about the future of humanity and earth. But Pogwec is based on fear: Fear our oil-driven civilization will collapse, our planet will cook with the ensuing storms, floods, famine, plague and pestilence, and humanity will return to abject poverty. Some people are motivated by such fears, but ultimately one cannot create a sense of community based on such an idea.

Therefore, the low footprint becomes a given in design, but not a prime attraction featured. The physical environment is where people get turned on. People don’t love being shunted to the sidewalk on a street where cars are dominant. They do love a pedestrian street, perhaps narrower, where it is quiet, safe and they meet and greet others as they walk. For the most part, we find that people are social animals. Their primary unit was once the family, and their extended unit is the community. Communities were once tribal, but now they tend to be based either on physical proximity (neighbours or work-colleagues) or a common interest. So if we design a physical environment that makes the pedestrian paramount, we create a more attractive place to live. It also means no cars, which means less burden on the natural environment.

When we examine the physical environment, we find a set of patterns emerge of what works and what does not. Architect Christopher Alexander codified many of these patterns into a book in 1977 A Pattern Language so we can use it as a quick reference to anchor any attempt to design a physical environment.

In order to secure a relatively high-density environment where everything is within a ten-minute walk, housing needs to be close with shared walls between buildings. Yet people who grew up in detached housing (the quarter acre section) express concern. “Kiwi’s won’t like that” said a New Zealand developer. Why not? It turns out the problem is not proximity but an aversion to neighbour conflict. The closer two neighbours are, the more they get on each other’s nerves. It turns out that it has to do with the physics of noise through air. The quarter acre section gives enough distance that the decibels of the noisy neighbour drop enough to be comfortable. The alternative is to use design so neighbours do not make irritating noise that travels. For a start, place the outdoor activities somewhere else: on the plaza or in the greenbelt rather than next to the house. Do not have a back lawn that needs mowing with an 85 dBa mower. Do not have a back yard where people curse each other. Build the row houses wide rather than deep and make the common wall soundproof. The developer listened, considered and replied “Yup, that should do it... you’re right. I had never considered why.”

Basically, what we are doing is designing with a different intent. Suburbs were invented to sell cars. What happens if your intent is to create a wonderful place to live? Intent shapes the environment. Environment shapes life.


Claude Lewenz is a New Zealand based Worldchanging Ally and author of How to Build a Village. This is an introductory piece to a series on the benefits of dense living to be published here in the coming weeks.

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Comments

This is a really great article. It touches all the big issues.

In The Netherlands, where I live, we don't have much villas as in some other countries. Right now I live in a house with shared side-walls like you are describing. The Netherlands is also known for its bike paths everywhere.

But I would love a city with high apartment buildings even better I think, given enough space for parks. I think normal houses are a waste of ground space. It's much better to use that space for parks and other common areas.

Consider Manhattan without the parks: It would be unlivable. I do think Manhattan could use more parks, but that's beside the point. I think Manhattan, because of it's use of three-dimensional space is a better model for future cities than endless streets of houses with shared walls.

Manhattan is quite walkable, and if there would be bike paths (and maybe all cars forbidden?) you would be in reach of hundreds of thousands of people in a blink of an eye. It can't get more social (and green) than that.


Posted by: Meryn Stol on 20 May 08

An example of this is what happens when one rearranges home, office / workplace, store, school, café and entertainment locations so all are within a 10-minute walk.

This is an interesting idea to consider, but people aren't going to be able to rearrange such things without a lot of thought and effort.
The complication is that homes/offices/schools are not necessarily a matrix whose components can be swapped at will. They are chosen for a multitude of reasons other than proximity. Moreover, they are not necessarily static: one may change jobs, a school may close. We're not a socially modular species.
Nor does it help that urban sprawl predicates something more like a 20-40 minute walk.

There are, of course, other strategies to employ: virtual commuting, and 'zip' cars for those occasions when shank's mare isn't going to do (Meanwhile, I've a plan to increase my bike commute rate!)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 21 May 08

It's truly interesting how "what goes around comes around". In the 1940s and 1950s, before urban sprawl became the rule, we lived in communities where you could easily walk to all the places that are being talked about in this article. Is it going to be difficult to change the way people think about these types of things? Certainly, but it can be done. Just look how the laws are changing again in the U.S. to allow mixed-use developments where we can accomplish exactly these things again.
And it's not only for the good of the planet, but truly for the good of humankind.


Posted by: Jim Newman on 24 May 08

As much as my imagination soars when one speaks of close-knit communities sharing and interacting based on pedestrian walks, pedestrian spaces, and the need for a well-designed togetherness that supports all a person, family, neighborhood and community can need in a tight space - I deeply believe that it is an overly-simplistic fantasy that is out of touch with people's deepest wants (and therefore those things that allow one to express individuality and life fulfillment). As you suggest in the article, it is only a small percentage of people that can find and adapt to that type of community structure - and here's why:
- In climatic regions known as temperate and more extreme, seasonal variations can mean only 4-8 months of light jacket or better weather. Typical people do not tend to walk/ride more than 750m in temperatures less than 12C or during other inclement weather types.
- The busiest and most dynamic spaces (which is what I would term a successful space - quiet, contemplative spaces that only have a few people using them (<- by definition) are an ineffective use of space) are often loud, boisterous, and constantly in flux. These require many resources for lighting, personal support (washrooms, etc) and retail/commercial. Further, and most importantly, they require the draw of 1000s, if not more, to be economically viable and cannot simply draw on a neighborhood of 10000s+ within 4-10. sq.km. They have to draw upon 10x or more. The point being that only a small number of people use a given type of space at a given time, so there must be a large population to get a sufficient number to make it economically viable.
- From personal experience: each and every one of my friends, associates, and others have constantly said (often in conflict with their own feelings in the past) that a family needs a backyard to successfully raise one or more children. Common parks and nearby streets provide only a semi-effective supervised area. It is too much to ask one or more of the family heads to be in constant supervision of a child up to school age for all the number of hours that are required (6-10 per day). A backyard provides a safe, restricted area that can have a lower level of supervision. Since most families that I am close to believe in having careers as a major part of a fulfilling life, giving a child more than a full year of personal full-day attention is restrictive. Consequently, backyards mean sprawl.
- The type of community one wants during the workweek, during the weekday evenings, and during the weekends (or whatever period is strictly leisure time) is very often different. The type of activities and expectations of individuals are different during each of these times. Workweek -> dynamic work environment close to amenities, fast-paced, efficient. Weekday evenings -> community and/or family and/or couple-centric events - dinners, entertaining, walking, possibly quiet/reclusive. Weekends -> personal chores, family trips, larger projects, family groceries. These times all have distinct and different atmospheres to them that are unlikely to be ideally contained within a neighborhood of 4-10sq.km. every week of the year.
- A poll which I referred to in an earlier article described how most neighbors do not know each other well, do not share meals, do not share neighborhood responsibilities. A flaw in the way our communities are designed - possibly. But, more likely, the ideal matches for individuals, families, as revealed by recent internet communications are often 5-50km away. People have a distinct preference to be with people, at events, in places that are very attractive to them and consequently esoteric- not likely available within a small neighborhood (i.e. large-scale sports team, exclusive art event, fine dining, spectacular view/spot, close friends). People are willing to use much of their disposable income to get to these places and in an efficient, comfortable, convenient manner (i.e car)
- Another little known but substantial idea is the: small-town syndrome. It is the result of a person/family being within the same neighborhood, being exposed to the same people, and being restricted to a limited number of events. This usually leads to a convergence of thinking/values/ideas that would otherwise not exist when one is expected to be in different parts of a city/state/country several times a week/month/year.

Unfortunately, a full and rich (modern) life requires a vast expenditure of resources. I believe that at a certain level of restriction (conservation), quality of life is diminished which further leads to diminished interest in volunteering, communities, etc..
Viable solutions include: multi-dense spots that support a wide variety of neighborhood types that can interchange their populations for a wider variety of experiences (similar to a variety of ethnic neighborhoods within a diverse, larger metropolis) - with the caveat that there needs to be a wide range of transportation corridors between them. (Far fewer cities have these than one would imagine - most european cities do not. A successful example is San Francisco or Toronto)
Support different living situations based on the 'time-of-life' circumstances (i.e. a young childless couple/single vs. mid-size family vs. retired couple/single) - all have different needs for the type of community that would provide for them for most of a given week. This support could be in the form of incentives for elder people to give up their large home to a family - or backyard size connected to number of kids, etc.
This all requires a level of urban planning far beyond the dream-planning of the 1950s through 80s. More information about the needs of individuals and the communities they want to be a part of, through a more comprehensive database; support for multi-use and flexible property costing, and increased integration of all types of vehicular technology can make communities useful for all, not only those who want to be cutting-edge enviro-leaders.


Posted by: Jer on 26 May 08

((My previous post directly above was cut in several places due to technical error - full text below))
As much as my imagination soars when one speaks of close-knit communities sharing and interacting based on pedestrian walks, pedestrian spaces, and the need for a well-designed togetherness that supports all a person, family, neighborhood and community can need in a tight space - I deeply believe that it is an overly-simplistic fantasy that is out of touch with people's deepest wants (and therefore those things that allow one to express individuality and life fulfillment). As you suggest in the article, it is only a small percentage of people that can find and adapt to that type of community structure - and here's why:
- In climatic regions known as temperate and more extreme, seasonal variations can mean only 4-8 months of light jacket or better weather. Typical people do not tend to walk/ride more than 750m in temperatures less than 12C or during other inclement weather types.
- The busiest and most dynamic spaces (which is what I would term a successful space - quiet, contemplative spaces that only have a few people using them (by definition) are an ineffective use of space) are often loud, boisterous, and constantly in flux. These require many resources for lighting, personal support (washrooms, etc) and retail/commercial. Further, and most importantly, they require the draw of 1000s, if not more, to be economically viable and cannot simply draw on a neighborhood of 10000s+ within 4-10. sq.km. They have to draw upon 10x or more. The point being that only a small number of people use a given type of space at a given time, so there must be a large population to get a sufficient number to make it economically viable.
- From personal experience: each and every one of my friends, associates, and others have constantly said (often in conflict with their own feelings in the past) that a family needs a backyard to successfully raise one or more children. Common parks and nearby streets provide only a semi-effective supervised area. It is too much to ask one or more of the family heads to be in constant supervision of a child up to school age for all the number of hours that are required (6-10 per day). A backyard provides a safe, restricted area that can have a lower level of supervision. Since most families that I am close to believe in having careers as a major part of a fulfilling life, giving a child more than a full year of personal full-day attention is restrictive. Consequently, backyards mean sprawl.
- The type of community one wants during the workweek, during the weekday evenings, and during the weekends (or whatever period is strictly leisure time) is very often different. The type of activities and expectations of individuals are different during each of these times. Workweek -> dynamic work environment close to amenities, fast-paced, efficient. Weekday evenings -> community and/or family and/or couple-centric events - dinners, entertaining, walking, possibly quiet/reclusive. Weekends -> personal chores, family trips, larger projects, family groceries. These times all have distinct and different atmospheres to them that are unlikely to be ideally contained within a neighborhood of 4-10sq.km. every week of the year.
- A poll which I referred to in an earlier article described how most neighbors do not know each other well, do not share meals, do not share neighborhood responsibilities. A flaw in the way our communities are designed - possibly. But, more likely, the ideal matches for individuals, families, as revealed by recent internet communications are often 5-50km away. People have a distinct preference to be with people, at events, in places that are very attractive to them and consequently esoteric- not likely available within a small neighborhood (i.e. large-scale sports team, exclusive art event, fine dining, spectacular view/spot, close friends). People are willing to use much of their disposable income to get to these places and in an efficient, comfortable, convenient manner (i.e car)
- Another little known but substantial idea is the: small-town syndrome. It is the result of a person/family being within the same neighborhood, being exposed to the same people, and being restricted to a limited number of events. This usually leads to a convergence of thinking/values/ideas that would otherwise not exist when one is expected to be in different parts of a city/state/country several times a week/month/year.

Unfortunately, a full and rich (modern) life requires a vast expenditure of resources. I believe that at a certain level of restriction (conservation), quality of life is diminished which further leads to diminished interest in volunteering, communities, etc..
Viable solutions include: multi-dense spots that support a wide variety of neighborhood types that can interchange their populations for a wider variety of experiences (similar to a variety of ethnic neighborhoods within a diverse, larger metropolis) - with the caveat that there needs to be a wide range of transportation corridors between them. (Far fewer cities have these than one would imagine - most european cities do not. A successful example is San Francisco or Toronto)
Support different living situations based on the 'time-of-life' circumstances (i.e. a young childless couple/single vs. mid-size family vs. retired couple/single) - all have different needs for the type of community that would provide for them for most of a given week. This support could be in the form of incentives for elder people to give up their large home to a family - or backyard size connected to number of kids, etc.
This all requires a level of urban planning far beyond the dream-planning of the 1950s through 80s. More information about the needs of individuals and the communities they want to be a part of, through a more comprehensive database; support for multi-use and flexible property costing, and increased integration of all types of vehicular technology can make communities useful for all, not only those who want to be cutting-edge enviro-leaders.


Posted by: Jer on 26 May 08

I'm going to disagree with Jer.

It's true that redesigning already-built environments to accommodate mixed-use and higher density is going to be very, very difficult. Like trying to turn an airplane into a golf cart. But the actual reality of it is not what the pessimists seem to believe.

I currently live in an apartment complex that is a mix of traditional apartment units and townhouses, so both shared walls and ceilings/floors. There are no fenced back yards, but all the townhouses have both front and back doors to the common outdoor areas and the apartment units are at most two flights of stairs away. All common areas are well away from the street; parts of them are paved, parts are grassed, parts are garden. I can't tell you how odd it feels to see a fourteen-year-old hanging out and playing with an eight-year-old and a four-year-old, but it's a common sight; the kids run around and find each other, without fences, and play without the tedious intermediary of playdates or trips to the park.

The subway is a five minute walk away, as is the school. The grocery store and pharmacy are across the street. Doctor and dentist offices are also within easy walking distance. This is in a Canadian city, so the weather is not temperate year-round; but walking to school and the subway in the middle of winter (even the last one, which was brutal) was doable. I drive my car maybe once per month.

The only problem is the soundproofing, or lack thereof: the building is old and so the soundproofing is not great. But I used to live in one of those big suburban houses with the fenced yard, and I met more of my neighbours more quickly and feel more confident in letting my daughter play outside here (while I stay inside and watch through the window, or sit outside with a book) than I did there. And I do not have oodles of time, either; I'm a single mom with a full-time job.

Getting there may be a problem. Living there, in my experience, isn't.


Posted by: anonymous on 28 May 08



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