Washington, D.C., Jan. 6 – During a presentation on sustainable communities at the National Building Museum, developer Jonathan Rose stressed the importance of transit-oriented urban development as part of the solution to environmental and social issues.
Rose was the first speaker in “Sustainable Communities,” a presentation series that will run over the next nine months in conjunction with the museum’s “Green Community” exhibit, which showcases neighborhoods and cities that are working together to foster sustainability through environmentally and socially responsible practices.
Jonathan Rose Cos. describes itself as “repairing the fabric of cities, towns, and villages, while preserving the land around them.” Drawing on this mission and a rich portfolio of infill communities and urban rehabs, Rose demonstrated diverse methods for creating sustainable, affordable housing projects that make sense for their residents while enhancing the surrounding community and preserving the living environment.
“I do not believe you can have truly green communities unless they are dense and transit served,” Rose said.
Previous visions of the country’s landscape have left us with sprawled developments with little sense of place, low-income housing reduced to trailers far from jobs and opportunity, and uninspiring hollowed-out urban cores. But the tide is shifting as more Americans recognize the economic and environmental benefits of smart growth and more developers look to create a better legacy of community.
Few people think about how closely housing and transit are tied together, the developer stated. But a building cannot exist without the means of getting to and from it. For example, a typical suburban single-family home uses 115 million BTU annually and requires 125 million BTU for transportation of its residents. That same house built green and in an urban setting can operate at 69 million BTU and require 20 million BTU for transit.
The challenges lie in proper integration, both on the community planning level and with government agencies. “We need to stop subsidizing urban sprawl because it’s environmentally irresponsible,” he said, advocating instead for higher-density green communities gathered around public transit.
Current methods and funding don’t always reward alternative methods of transportation; what’s more, highway and transit administrations must begin collaborating rather than competing against each other for funding. Practical growth will look beyond the dead end and will require smart systems that better integrate travel networks for bikes, cars, buses, and rail.
“It’s not about 80/20; it’s about are we going to build the last infrastructure of the 20th century or the first infrastructure of the 21st century?”
We also must change our cultural perceptions of transit, Rose said. Buses are viewed as a second-class mode of transportation, and it’s a stereotype that is reinforced by seemingly unfair treatment of conditions. For example, Rose showed pictures of a pristine rail station in Stamford, Conn., directly adjacent to a run-down, littered bus depot.
“We need to create this integrated system so that everyone is made to feel comfortable riding both.”
On the community level, developers must foster connectivity between housing and transit, with techniques as simple as creating or enhancing pathways to and from transportation hubs.
“There’s no one perfect solution,” Rose cautioned. “But we need to think of integrated solutions.”
Integration of community is just as important to Rose’s mission as integration with transit. Many of his projects include bonus public gathering places, such as amphitheaters, spiritual centers, gardens, and parks. A recent project in the Bronx included a youth construction training academy.
In addition, “As we densify cities, we have to bring green into cities,” Rose said, citing a “biophilic” desire in which we all like to be in touch with nature. Most of his buildings and developments integrate natural features, including green roofs and courtyards in multifamily buildings and green spaces and community-gathering points in developments. In some cases, residents become directly involved in upkeep and planning of gardens and public spaces.
Extras such as these not only benefit the residents, but can ease local resistance. For example, residents of Irvington, N.Y., initially opposed the renovation of the historic Burnham Building into low-income housing—until they learned that the first floor would be converted into a new library.
Aesthetics also are key to acceptance. The reasons America is against growth is because developers built junk, Rose said, and the only way to avoid NIMBYism “is if the development is appropriate for that community.” Show residents how the project’s design will blend with the existing fabric and what additional features—both community and retail—it will bring with it.
“You have to have great design of density.”
And though most would expect higher costs to accompany stronger communities, that’s just not the case, Rose indicated. Creativity of design can generate savings that can be applied to additional green features. “It’s not about spending more money,” Rose said. “It’s about spending more thought.”