• Credit: American Institute of Architects

In 2005, the city of Northampton, Mass., got wind of a new initiative from the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute of Architects that aligned with the community’s values and direction. The Sustainable Design Assessment Team program appeared to be an ideal way for Northampton—the state’s top-ranking sustainable city according to Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Capital program—to get the community’s creative juices flowing in preparation for the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan: the Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan.

Northampton applied to be one of 10 communities chosen each year by the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design to receive volunteer professional assistance in balancing its cultural, environmental and economic systems. AIA selects communities based on the strength of their application and their ability to garner community support for the process. Costing between $20,000 to $25,000, each SDAT project receives up to $15,000 in assistance from AIA; the community is required to contribute $5,000 in cash. The remaining balance generally is funded through in-kind contributions and donations from community members, often in the form of donated meeting space, materials, supplies or meals, but each community raises the funds in its own way.

OBJECTIVE VIEWPOINT

Once Northampton was chosen, an SDAT team leader and AIA staff member visited the city to meet stakeholders and assess the community’s unique issues. AIA then drew from a volunteer database of more than 200 people to assemble a six- to eight-person team of relevant experts from outside the community. Because each team is tailored to the issues of a specific project, professionals can include everyone from architects and historic preservationists to ferry transportation experts and artists. To maintain impartiality, volunteers agree not to accept work related to the project in the community for two years after the SDAT project is complete. “One of our primary program goals is to provide communities across the country with models of how to achieve sustainable growth and practices,” says Erin Simmons, director of design assistance at the center. “We hope to create case studies, best practices and recommendations that can be shared by the applicant and other communities.”

The volunteer team carefully reviewed the issues and met in Northampton for a three-day charrette to offer their fresh perspectives to the community. Although the charrette included a presentation, it also offered an opportunity to engage the public and open a dialogue among all stakeholders. Armed with new information, the team created a report outlining Northampton’s sustainable strengths, challenges and untapped opportunities. One year after the SDAT team delivered its report to the community, the team leader visited the city again to see how it had followed up on the initial recommendations.

FRAMING ISSUES

Northampton was the fourth completed community in the program’s five-year history. Wayne Feiden, director of planning and development for the city of Northampton, says the SDAT helped move conversations forward. “Previously, people talked about housing, economic development, sustainability and the environment, but all those discussions were in different rooms. After the SDAT, focus groups shifted to specific neighborhoods instead where all these issues are addressed together, which helped broaden the discussion,” Feiden explains. For example, instead of affordable-housing advocates simply talking amongst themselves about where new affordable housing should be located, representatives of neighborhoods and advocates of sustainability and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods jointly debated about the best place for affordable housing and how to integrate it into their urban fabric. Feiden so enjoyed the process that he subsequently became an SDAT volunteer and has participated in six other projects around the nation.

STRONG COMPOSITION

A crucial component of the SDAT process is the local steering committee, which provides the volunteer team with detailed knowledge of challenges and goals of the city. Community citizens are essential players. Guemes Island, Wash., was able to engage islanders through its 2007 SDAT project that provided assistance in formulating a sub-area plan—a detailed land-use plan for smaller geographic areas in the county—for the regional government. Although it has 700 year-round residents, the island’s population triples to 2,000 in June with tourists and summer residents. One critical issue for the island is its sole-source aquifer; individuals have to be careful not to pump too much water from it to prevent seawater intrusion. The SDAT also explored how to protect the beaches from misuse and improperly working septic tanks. Joost Businger, chair of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee, says the process had a galvanizing effect on the community, helping formerly isolated islanders grow closer and recognize issues that affect them collectively. Marianne Kooiman was a member of the local technical committee and headed up the aquifer round table. Other participants included islanders, representatives from county departments and the public utility district. “People who normally don’t talk to each other were talking—not necessarily agreeing, but talking,” Kooiman says. “That was the most valuable part of the SDAT for us.” As an outgrowth of the process, some citizens formed a Waterworks group that encourages islanders to reduce their aquifer pump rates, conserve water and collect rainwater. The Guemes Energy Efficiency Club also raised funds to install a solar system that can make the firehouse energy independent for up to five days in an emergency.

SMART SUBJECT MATTER

Windsor, Calif., is a young community that was incorporated in 1992 in response to uncontrolled growth. Within five years, the progressive town created a downtown plan that spurred an award-winning downtown development project. As elected officials looked at the principal transportation corridor, the Old Redwood Highway, they wanted to take advantage of sustainable opportunities it could offer the community. Last August, six professionals from around the country, including a transportation planner, renewable-energy architect and economic-development expert, came to Windsor as part of a 2008 SDAT team.

According to Windsor’s mayor, Debora Fudge, one of the main goals was to design Old Redwood Highway to be less auto-oriented to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. She found it very interesting to see the project through the eyes of someone from the outside. “The transportation expert explained that if we wanted people to walk, bike and use their scooters, we would need to design the highway so a child would feel safe. For example, we could separate the bike lane from the highway with a median or a row of trees. We hadn’t thought of it that way,” Fudge says. Mitchell Conner, principal of ArchiLOGIX, Santa Rosa, Calif., chaired the planning commission in Windsor and was instrumental in bringing the SDAT to the town’s attention. He had experience with other public involvement processes and knew the SDAT could help create long-term momentum by encouraging citizens to define their own outcomes and empowering them at the grassroots level. The town of Windsor launched a major effort to get the public involved and the first day of the SDAT charrette brought the largest public turnout the mayor ever had seen. Although the town always intended to hire a consultant for Old Redwood Highway’s planning, Windsor’s planning and building director, Peter Chamberlin, believes the community got much more out of the SDAT process than it could have from a professional plan. For him, the lingering message was to focus the town’s efforts of family-friendly planning with designs that meet the needs of children on bicycles, seniors and those aging in place. Simmons notes the program is valuable for the communities and volunteers alike. “Experts bring their skills to each project, and they take away enhanced knowledge of what works back to their own spheres,” Simmons says. “I think there has been no end to the SDAT’s benefits, and collaborations across the country continue to grow.”

Note: The 10 SDAT projects for 2009 already have been selected, but communities can prepare to submit their applications later this year for the 2010 cycle. To learn more about the program, view past applications, or volunteer for an SDAT team, visit www.aia.org/liv_sdat.

KJ FIELDS writes about architecture and sustainability from Portland, Ore.