Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Book Review: The Most Sustainable Communities Are the Ones Already Built 

12-09-2015 17:35

Sustainable and Resilient Communities: A Comprehensive Action Plan for Towns, Cities and Regions by Stephen Coyle, AIA, LEED AP, CNU is an insightful and well-thought-out manual for municipalities in need of some soul-searching into their planning methodology. A co-founder of the National Charrette Institute with more than 30 years of architecture, planning, and urban design experience, Coyle delivers a literary piece providing detailed insight on a planning process that is economically viable and environmentally focused. Yet I found the preservationist within me asking one question over and over—what about the historic buildings and neighborhoods? As a society we cannot develop sustainable and resilient communities without drawing upon, learning from, and referencing the historic nuclei found within every community.

Sustainable and Resilient Communities commences with a thought-provoking foreword by Andrés Duany, notable architect, accomplished author, and co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism. Duany accurately asserts that Sustainable and Resilient Communities does not serve as a silver bullet to fix decades of poor planning, nor is it intended to. Rather, the book serves to lead local officials, planning professionals, and municipalities into more cognitive and altruistic choices. The emotions arising from Duany on the topic of urbanism are palpable as he enumerates previous planning horrors, beginning with the boom of single-use zoning, continuing with Eisenhower’s interstate system tearing through cities, and concluding with the vast emptiness left behind by once-glorious Olympic Parks and World’s Fair sites. This journey through the ghosts of planners past lays the groundwork perfectly for the necessity of Coyle’s writings.

The book is designed as a how-to kit for everyone from small-town planners to large-scale regional authorities in the development of economically and environmentally healthy, habitable, and resilient communities. The author begins by breaking down the built environment into two camps. The first, and visibly faulty, camp is that of the conventional/high-carbon community whose lifeline depends upon the automobile, cheap gasoline, and affordable tract housing. The second, and obviously virtuous, camp is the resilient/low-carbon community abundant with multi-modal transit, mixed-use development, and renewable energy sources.

The conventional/high-carbon and resilient/low-carbon categories are dissected and evaluated for the reader based upon the key professional planning principles of development patterns, circulation patterns, land-use patterns, “right-of-way” or “open space” scale, and finally building and landscape scale. When comparing the opposing development methodologies, the reader readily identifies the benefits of the low-carbon pedestrian-based planning process in comparison to the high-carbon communities, which were laid out with roads and automobiles dictating spatial relationships, scale, and single-use zoning. Coyle makes a fleeting reference in this section to “historic settlement patterns;”1 however he seems to miss the point that the benefits highlighted within low-carbon planning already exist in our historic communities, which organically developed on a compact, multi-purpose, pedestrian scale.

The majority of the book is devoted to seven key focus areas of the both high-carbon and low-carbon environments: transportation, energy, water, natural environment, food production, solid waste, and economics. Accomplished guest authors wrote the chapters on each focus area and provide expert guidance on turning conventional/high-carbon communities into resilient/low-carbon communities.

A case could be made for preservation practices in each of Coyle’s focus areas, however the author doesn’t make these connections until the “Action” sections at the end of each chapter. These sections highlight topical real life examples many of which relate to historic preservation. In particular, common threads exist between Coyle’s definition of a sustainable and resilient community and historic city centers in the “Action” segments on “Transportation and Livable Communities,” “Downtown Revitalization,” and “Parking—When Less is More.”

In one example, Coyle draws parallels between “Downtown Revitalization” recommendations and the proven principles of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Center®. He notes that both recognize the challenges that underutilized land, vacant properties, limited housing stock, and absence of a strong commercial presence bring to a community struggling to bring back its downtown. Despite this, Coyle fails to highlight the strengths that historic properties themselves can bring to the table in revitalization efforts. The author overlooks the possible financial incentives available through grants or tax credits, the inherent sustainability of rehabilitating an existing building over new construction on undeveloped land, and the sense of place achieved through the revitalization of historic downtown corridors.

Preservationists will find the early chapters of Coyle’s book most helpful, especially those focusing on the development of a sustainability plan, components of the physical built environment, and the review of the regulatory environment. Coyle’s sections devoted to “Green Renovation,” “Form Based Codes,” and “Transfer of Development Rights,” although brief, will benefit local officials, preservation planners, and residents working to incorporate their community’s historic resources into a municipal sustainability plan.

Coyle’s division of American planning practices into the classes of conventional/high-carbon and resilient/low-carbon is not a novel concept among preservationists and urban planners. While Coyle dives into the minutiae required to achieve a resilient/low-carbon community on almost every level, we have seen these perspectives in the past. In 1961 Jane Jacobs made the argument for defined and districted communities complete with all necessary services and built on the pedestrian scale in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her work, Jacobs attacked the separation of uses by planners of the 1950s and 1960s and accuses those same planners of deserting cities in favor of automobile-based urban renewal and sprawl. The practice of single-use zoning and urban renewal is top on the planning horrors listed by Duany and later criticized throughout Sustainable and Resilient Communities by Coyle.

Similarly James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere, which followed roughly 35 years later, builds on Jacob’s early predications to document the disembodiment of our cities and towns by our addiction to automobiles. Fast forward 25 years more, and Coyle makes a similar argument. For the last 50 years scholars have been trying to tell us the same thing: The best neighborhoods are designed on the scale of the residents, are built to a level of density allowing for a compact radius of necessary services, and can provide multi-modal transportation sources. It is disheartening that some are still not listening.

I go back to Duany’s foreword, and agree—Coyle’s work is impressive and will be beneficial to many municipalities, but it is no silver bullet. While articulate and methodical in his directives on transportation, energy, water, natural environment, food production, solid waste, and economics, his lack of analysis of historic preservation’s role is particularly disappointing. Again I ask: What about the historic buildings and neighborhoods? It is not enough that these communities and their role in creating resilient and sustainable communities are addressed as a side bar or passing thought. How can our historic neighborhoods, which seem to embody all the characteristics so eagerly sought by the author, not be a mandatory consideration? Have they not proven themselves resilient in the face of urban renewal? Doesn’t their multi-use zoning and compact density count as principles of sustainability? Absolutely. These characteristics should be recognized as an important component of Coyle’s resilient/low carbon community planning.

Preservationists should read Stephen Coyle’s Sustainable and Resilient Communities: A Comprehensive Action Plan for Towns, Cities and Regions, if for no other reason than to insert themselves into the conversation. They should take a collaborative approach and identify how preservation can part of the solution. They should identify areas where preservation can become part of the process in developing a local sustainability plan, highlight the sustainability of historic neighborhood design, and remember that many new construction mixed-use developments are an attempt to re-create what already exists in many historic downtowns. Through these efforts, comes the recognition that some of our most resilient and sustainable communities are the ones already built.

Notes:

1    Stephen Coyle, Sustainable and Resilient Communities: A Comprehensive Action Plan for Towns, Cities and Regions, (2011) p. 4.

Publication Date: Summer 2012

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Author(s):Kimberly Kooles
Volume:26
Issue:4