“I don’t even want to talk about it,” said the late twenty-something urban planning consultant sitting next to me at one of the many hip coffee shops cropping up in New Orleans’ Garden District. Typical of most college aged students on their spring break, by the fourth day of my visit to New Orleans, my group of friends and I had spent a majority of our time wandering about the French Quarter and old jazz and bar district. As we wandered about the meticulously preserved French-colonial architecture and enjoyed beignets in pleasant, green plazas, I grew more and more suspicious that these neat pockets of tourist friendly zones were a gross misrepresentation of the financially drained, slow to recover New Orleans I had read about. My spontaneous conversation with two quasi-public planners confirmed these suspicions. Assuring me that summarizing the realistic state of neighborhood recovery and reconstruction would take all day, they relayed that city government is an exasperatingly slow moving machine in regards to rebuilding public infrastructure and protecting land values in the worst affected residential areas. But I would have to see it for myself, if I really wanted to understand, they told me.
Fortunately, that afternoon, my friends and I were scheduled to take a tour of the Lower 9th Ward with Jordon Pollard, family friend and Design Manager of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s ‘Make It Right’ organization. Given my quest for answers, this visit was well timed; Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007, as direct response to the city’s failure to protect and rebuild one of New Orleans’ most challenged neighborhoods. Working in collaboration with the displaced residents of the 9th Ward and over 21 world-renowned architects, Make It Right has rebuilt over 100 homes to replace some of the thousands of homes destroyed as a result of failed human engineering when the levees broke during the storm. Relying on a variety of foundations and corporate partners to provide new housing to residents of the 9th Ward, the organization attests that they “… have learned valuable lessons about how to change the low cost, low quality paradigm… we’ve proven that you can build inspiring homes that are healthy and sustainable for about the same price as conventional low-income housing.” Having pledged to build 100 homes from the get-go, economy of scale enabled the organization to use materials and methods in compliance LEED’s Platinum standards, guided by the Cradle to Cradle philosophy that the built environment should honor the respect and dignity of the residents and produce more energy than they consume.
There is visible evidence of Make It Right’s commitment to rebuilding community- not just homes- when you walk around the Lower Ninth Ward. Children play in puddles in front yards, volunteers work in the community garden and parents sit on the front porches of their state-of-the-art homes. However, local frustration with the cities’ sluggishness to rebuild and the federal government’s failure to adequately support reconstruction is also tangible. Outside of Make It Right’s radius of permeable streets, bio swales and happy front porch dwellers, at least every other lot remains vacant and the streets are dotted with pot holes 5 feet in diameter. It’s disheartening to realize that Make It Right’s efforts are in some ways a micro chasm of what I witnessed in New Orleans historic and tourist districts; deliberate investment in the right places, by the right people can easily create the illusion that pervasive change is underway. But even residents of Make It Right’s new community aren’t buying it. In the front yard of Mr. Robertson’s* home topped with solar panels, a sign leans against the base of a poll bearing the American flag: “We want our country to love us as much as we love our country. The strength of our community belongs to us all… Rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Cross the Canal AND Tennessee Street.” Pulling out of his driveway in his pickup, Mr. Robertson rolls down his window and stops next to my group. “You can take pictures,” he says.
The field of housing development, particularly high-density development, has seen many faces and known many facets. In the past, high-density developments were primarily cost-driven, and they focused on merely creating housing for a large number of individuals, instead of creating homes. Today, the focus of development is on the community, on creating spaces in which individuals and families can lead full and sustainable lives. Ideas such as New Urbanism and Transit-Oriented Developments have this community concept at the forefront. Walkability, mixed-use-mixed-income, green or open spaces, pedestrian or transit orientation, and a focus on the public realm are ideas driving today’s affordable and high-density housing industries. These innovations in design, and the systems thinking surrounding affordable and dense housing, are important to be aware of and understand because they make drastic, positive impact on affected communities and individuals.
A concept that has recently started getting attention and gaining momentum is New Urbanism. This design movement promotes walkability within mixed-use, traditional neighborhood structures that support planning for green and open public spaces. New Urbanists hope that these practices will increase quality of life by creating spaces that support and uplift the individuals living there. Take at look at the principles of New Urbanism as explained on their website:
New Urbanism, though first practiced in the 1980s, is still a relatively new idea. High-density developments of the past focused on housing the largest number of people for the least costs, often not taking into account factors like the ones that New Urbanism centers itself around. One of the most famous examples of a new type of dense housing is the Pruitt-Igoe Development, built in the 1950s. Pruitt-Igoe was a large public housing project in St. Louis, comprised of 33 high-rise, concrete structures with nearly 3,000 apartments. Because of its isolation and high concentration of poverty, the development became an area known for its crime and segregation.
Pruitt-Igoe is known as a failure within affordable housing, and developers have learned from the mistakes of this project. Today New Urbanism can be seen in recent projects across the United States like the Orenco Station development outside of Portland, Oregon, which has received much praise for its innovation and creativity, and is a well-known up-and-coming Transit –Oriented Development (TOD). Orenco Station is built along the MAX line in Hillsboro, allowing residents to travel to and from Portland easily. This project has a mix of townhomes and live/work units among narrow streets, town centers, and green spaces, and it has been praised as a trailblazer in infill and TOD housing.
Communities like Orenco Station are being developed across the country, but that does not mean that hope is lost for existing communities that don’t reflect the ideas of New Urbanism. In Fairfax, Virginia, Tysons Corner is being redeveloped to incorporate new innovations and systems. Developers hope to transform what is now a disjointed region including a shopping mall, offices, and suburban neighborhoods into a more walkable urban center where people can live, work, and shop easily, and reduce the need for cars.
New Urbanism is more than the next big thing in development design. It is a set of principles shaping a new way of living that will hopefully become the model of higher-density developments across the nation. It views housing not just as a number of units, a style of architecture, or location of a site, but as a system of people and processes. This way of thinking about development allows a community to grow in ways that create more sustainable, safer, higher quality, and more efficient living.
Here we are in 2015 and affordable housing is still a major concern. A recently released HUD report on Worst Case Housing Needs, says that things got better from 2011-2013 for the hardest to house but we have a long way to go. One of these populations that is getting more and more attention is the plight of homeless Veterans. Cities and states across the country are vowing to end homelessness among Veterans by the end of the year. Progress is being made.
Over the course of the next couple of months, students in the Advanced Housing Seminar at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, are exploring how the structural and social alternatives for ending homelessness in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Using the combined talents and expertise of architectural, engineering, urban planning, and policy students, designs and strategies are being generated that push the envelope. You will be reading about their thoughts about homelessness and affordable housing generally.