Timeless Urbanism is the Most Sustainable Habitat

Sustainable building techniques must be balanced to create lasting communities for the future


I am often asked about the latest trends in urban design and master planning. Current news focuses on resiliency, sustainability, or a green environmental agenda, as if the inclusion of bioswales and green roofs in the planning efforts will lead to successful towns, neighborhoods, and exceptional places on their own.

A singular approach to any one aspect of design or specific area of concern such as environmentalism renders an unbalanced result. For example, many of the obstacles architectural planners face are due to strict environmental constraints that put handcuffs on good urban design by focusing solely on a specific issue such as hydrology. Obviously, this is an important virtue; however, the movement and quality of water needs to be balanced with other necessities of daily life and human desires as we plan neighborhoods, towns, and cities of the future.

As architects and planners, I believe that we are tasked with the responsibility to create places based on time-tested principles that find the best solutions regardless of obstacles. Those who are involved in the process of planning communities must work together to find the optimal solution. As architects and planners, we are seemingly pitted against opposition from specific groups at every turn.

The trend toward walkability encounters its first conflict, transportation and infrastructure. Efforts to build walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are often thwarted due to the conflict with automobiles. If the traffic engineer’s task is to move vehicles smoothly and efficiently along roadways, pedestrians are a problem. They cause traffic to slow down and get in the way. It’s best for them that we don’t have any pedestrians at all to impede the flow of vehicles. And, while we are at it, let’s do away with street trees that shade the sidewalks and protect the pedestrians from the fast-moving vehicles. After all, no pedestrians, no need for trees!

Alas, those wide roads require trees to be cut down and bring along impervious surfaces, water runoff, and other hydrological and environmental concerns. Look at many of the great cities of Europe and early cities of the United States; they are all built right up to and against rivers, and yet, they have continued to function and thrive for hundreds of years because they were intuitively built based on the basic human need to gather together, share resources, and continue to innovate and adapt.

It is true that the places people love best are often resilient and sustainable, but simply selecting individual aspects as if they were menu items does not create a comprehensive solution for building environments suitable for human habitation and sustaining long-term value. For example, KTGY’s master plan for the Town Center at Liberty Park, located in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, combines the latest environmental practices with valued urban design aesthetics. The goal in Liberty Park is to seamlessly combine the natural amenities of the site with a solid urban fabric. In order to achieve a result that will be a walkable, sustainable environment that is as pleasing today as it will be into the foreseeable future, KTGY is working in collaboration with the stakeholders, holding charrette meetings, and working as an advocate for urban planning principles.

To build truly meaningful and sustainable places, we have many great examples from which to learn. See just about any historic tourist destination in the US. People flock to these places because they thirst for the urbanism and the social aspects of dining, shopping and entertainment, whether in New York City or Savannah, Georgia. Their roots are based in simple walkable communities that contained all the necessities of life for their founders. These places have transcended their creators’ lifetimes and will survive long after we are gone. There is a timelessness to these places, even though they are constantly regenerating new structures.

Technology and data available to us in the 21st century needs to be harvested and utilized to enhance the human experience now and into the future. We have almost instant data on how humans inhabit, use, and appreciate the environments we create. Somehow, what we once knew that helped us intuitively create for hundreds of years has become unattainable, due largely to one-size-fits-all regulations and the problematic vision of an idyllic suburbia.

I marvel at places such as the city of Washington, D.C., which was conceived in 1791, bounded by the Potomac River. The plan’s originator, Pierre L’Enfant, knew nothing of the future technologies we would advance, yet the city continues to function and thrive over 200 years after its conception. Trends may come and go, but truly great planning is timeless.

Michael Medick is a principal and urban planner with KTGY Architecture + Planning. He may be reached at mmedick@ktgy.com or 703.245.0398

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