Affordable Housing Design Advisor

The Affordable Housing Design Advisor is an incredible resource for planners, architects, engineers, real estate developers, and anyone else involved in the production  of affordable housing. The website breaks every preconceived notion one could have about traditional “housing projects.” It shows, without a doubt, that good design can create equitable, dignified, and beautiful living conditions for people of any income, age, or ability. As the homepage tells us: “good design can make a world of difference for the people who will live in the affordable housing you help build, and for the neighborhood surrounding it.”

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Little Ajax: Source

One of my favorite projects on Design Advisor is the Little Ajax project, designed by Gluck and Partners (now Gluck+) and subsidized by the City of Aspen. Little Ajax features lovely modern design – raised, two-story, angular units, with large windows and a light grey/maroon color scheme that stands out but fits well with the mountain setting. Green design features include brownfield redevelopment, public trails, cooling rooftops, on-site stormwater management with green infrastructure, and dual flush toilets. From everything I can see, Little Ajax is absolutely a neighborhood where I would want to live.

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The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, an infamous traditional “housing project”: Source

Another great project is Maverick Landing in Boston. This is a large redevelopment project, with 150 stylish townhouses and flats that offer walkable transit access, solar energy, drought resistant landscaping, and construction using local and recycled materials. I’m not one to live in big cities, but if I needed an apartment in East Boston, I would certainly consider Maverick Landing. There is one major problem, however: at $1,295 per month for a 690 square foot, one bedroom flat, I could hardly afford to live there. Design Advisor claims that this rent is affordable for the 50%-80% range of area median income,  meaning Boston is one damn expensive place to live.

Pine Ridge Townhomes, in Ketchum, Idaho, is a third inspiring example. This is a mixed-income development, with 40% affordable housing and 60% market rate units. Mixed-income is a more respectful and socially desirable approach to affordable housing than isolating and segregating people into a power-laden class structure. Pine Ridge Townhomes also includes a range of green design features, especially walkability and on-site stormwater management. Again, from what I can see, it is a place I would certainly enjoy calling home.

These are just a few of the hundred or so brilliant affordable housing examples provided by Design Advisor. Projects range as large as the Randolph Neighborhood redevelopment in Richmond, Virginia, with over 1,000 affordable units, and as small as the single unit Jackson Habitat House in Jackson, Mississippi. The range of housing types, design styles, and innovative green initiatives is truly staggering. Surprising, and particularly appealing to me personally, are the beautiful affordable units integrated into mountain resort communities.

Clearly, there is a new wave of equitable, sustainable, and profitable  affordable housing development rising up across the country. The Affordable Housing Design Advisor is helping to lead the way.

Summary of the 2015 Mayor’s Symposium

I was asked to write a summary of the City and Metropolitan Planning Department’s 2015 Mayor’s Symposium for the College of Architecture and Planning newsletter. While I had a few critiques, I enjoyed the event and kept the newsletter decidedly upbeat. Here is the summary in its entirety:

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The University of Utah’s City and Metropolitan Department hosted its fifth annual Mayor’s Symposium on April 1, 2015, at the Memory Grove Memorial House near the mouth of City Creek Canyon. It was a bustling and energetic event, well attended by students and faculty, as well as local professionals, public servants, and non-profits. Fox 13 and KUER were on hand to provide local news coverage.

The theme for the symposium was “The Green and Blue City: Visions of Green-Blue Infrastructure in the Salt Lake Valley.” Just what is green and blue infrastructure? It’s a good question, and different speakers had different answers.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker spoke about the city’s sustainability and bicycling initiatives, its growing tourism, recreation, and technology industries, and its need to craft an agreement around planning and usage priorities in the Wasatch Mountains. In the Mayor’s eyes, green-blue infrastructure is a win-win scenario that can allow us to conserve natural resources, reduce costs, and provide for the community all at once.

Local planning consultants Ted Knowlton (Wasatch Front Regional Council) and Ari Bruening (Envision Utah) spoke about green infrastructure as the backbone of open space and recreation, and a high priority for Utah residents. Jan Striefel, another local planning and design consultant, focused on specific projects that reduce water consumption, improve environmental quality, and integrate human and natural spaces, creating healthy and beautiful places within the city. Striefel had a provocative message: “We’ve done all the visioning we need. We know where peoples’ priorities lie. Now it’s time to start acting on those priorities and realizing those visions. It’s time to start doing things.”

Planning professor Dr. Sarah Hinners and Salt Lake Public Utilities Director Jeff Niermeyer both focused on water: how it enters and moves through our cities, what it means for Utah residents, and how green-blue infrastructure such as storm sewer retrofits can support conservation, water quality, and ecosystem services. Julie Peck-Dabling, from Salt Lake County, gave an inspiring talk about local food production and urban gardening. Tracy Aviary executive director Tim Brown offered a big-picture, systems perspective, linking our local issues to the global stage.

The final speaker was Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the U of U business school and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. She explained that green-blue infrastructure is not only for the environment but is also a community investment: something that attracts businesses and supports a robust, resilient economy. She used a clever analogy, referencing back to the 2002 winter Olympics and urging Salt Lake City and Utah to be proactive leaders in green-blue infrastructure, rather than reactive followers. Interestingly, Gochnour’s closing message was quite specific, calling for Utah to abandon its outdated subsidies for water wholesalers so that the market can function correctly, reflecting the true value of water in an arid place.

Following the speakers was a lively discussion about what it all means: concrete next steps to move the green-blue infrastructure agenda forward, what barriers stand in our way, and how to overcome them. Some questions and challenges yet remain, but the 2015 Mayor’s Symposium represents major progress in advancing the local conversation around sustainability, stewardship, natural resources, and quality of life. As the Mayor told us, it’s a win-win scenario, and clearly the community is jumping on board.

My Show and Tell

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Every student int our Green Communities class gets the opportunity to do a show and tell: to share something with our peers that provokes, inspires, and uplifts us.

With my research focus on water, the topic of my show and tell was a foregone conclusion. But, at first, what to share stymied me.

I considered the city of Tucson’s decision to use its surplus Central Arizona Project water to create a “pulse” flow, which allowed the Colorado River to reach its mouth at the Sea of Cortez for the first time in fifty years.

I considered the local rainwater harvesting initiative championed by the Utah Rivers Council – an effort to decrease contaminated stormwater runoff and reduce outdoor water use.

I considered my own project to revitalize Red Butte Creek on the University of Utah campus as a social, economic, and environmental asset.

Ultimately, I decided to go for something more straightforward.

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A crucial challenge in water resources management is to create closed-loop, rather than open-loop systems. A closed loop is water neutral. You use the same water again and again. As a large scale example, the global hydrological cycle is a closed loop: the planet has a finite amount of water, moving through different phases and different locations in the soil, rivers, lakes, oceans, icebergs, and atmosphere.

We can think about closed water loops at all sorts of scales. Orange County pumps water from a massive underground aquifer, pumps recycled “waste” water back into the same aquifer, and pumps it out again. Las Vegas pumps water from Lake Mead, then diverts “waste” water through Las Vegas Wash and back into the Lake. (Of course, if climate change slows the Colorado River to a trickle, Lake Mead will dry up and Vegas will still be shit out of luck.)

My show and tell looked at technologies that close the water loop at smaller scales. The first image above is the Janicki Omniprocessor. It converts sewer sludge and other toxic, contaminated water sources into clean drinking water, electricity to continue running the machine, and ash that can be used for soil fertilizer. It is a large contraption, but considering that it can serve 100,000 people, not all that large.

The second image above is the Slingshot water purifier. Like the Omniprocessor, the Slingshot can convert horribly contaminated water into clean, purified drinking water. It can serve 100 people, running on less energy that a toaster oven.

The implications here are profound. As long as people are generating sewer sludge – meaning as long as we’re eating – we have machines that can recycle the water, using almost no energy or even largely powering themselves. Right now, the primary thinking around these innovations focuses on their use in the third world – providing clean drinking water for the millions of people who lack safe access. This the obvious, and probably the most immediately important application.

On a slightly longer time horizon, however, these energy efficient water purifying machines may become crucial to urban water management everywhere. In Salt Lake City, for example, major water supply deficits are anticipated in the coming decades. The de facto solution for local resource managers is to build huge new supply infrastructure, costing billions of taxpayer dollars and threatening sensitive ecosystems. But this strategy will only kick the problem down the road – what happens when we use all of that water, too?

A more sustainable solution is to close the urban water loop in Salt Lake City now. With a back of the envelope calculation, I estimated that implementing Omniprocessor or Slingshot machines to supply water in Salt Lake County would cost 1% or less than large infrastructure proposals, without damaging the environment and while generating local capacity, sustainability, and resilience.

It’s a no-brainer, right?

Let’s make it happen.

The Language of Separation

All semester, Stephen has emphasized the crucial role that language plays in shaping our perceptions and experiences. Brilliant writers show this time and again – Robert Bringhurst, Orhan Pamuk, and Roberto Bolano come to mind – but it is still difficult to grasp. Words have a life all their own. Words make reality.

This fact has profound implications for sustainable communities: the basic linguistic binary of natural/unnatural sets us (meaning English speakers) up for failure. Naming, and therefore experiencing ourselves as separate from the world, our thinking is flawed from the very beginning.

We are all made of the Earth, after all, and the Earth is made of the Universe. On a long enough time horizon, matter as we know it has the same starting point and ending point. None of it is unnatural, and none of it is natural either. All of it seems… maybe supernatural?

At any rate, this is why new artists like the writers at saltfront literary journal assert: “For now, we set aside conventional uses of the terms ‘nature,’ ‘wilderness,’ and ‘environment.’ These ideas embody a binary that no longer serves us.

Stephen wanted our class to have a more visceral connection with the language of separation. He asked us to divide up into those who identify as male and those who identify as female. We quickly separated along cis-normative lines.

What followed was a wide ranging discussion about gender, equity, and identity. Where before we had one fairly integrated class, we now had two constructed “teams.” The vibe certainly wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t comfortable either. Our sense of community seemed unstable.

One student made perhaps the most important point of the exercise: “There’s real gender inequity going on all the time. We didn’t create it – just made it slightly more visible.”

The visible challenge is an easy one to solve. Re-integrate the class; eliminate the separation; structure the room so that it is not defined along the boy/girl binary.

For human communities the Earth is our classroom, the binary  is natural/unnatural, and the solution is also a reintegration. Finding the language for it – the new language – is difficult. This is why I respond to the term “green.” On one hand it is imprecise and has come to be seen as surface-level sustainability, i.e. “green washing.” On the other hand, though, the imprecision is useful, as is the visual cue. There can be many shades of ‘green’ communities. There can be a spectrum of green and grey infrastructure. And so on.

Developing a new language for sustainable communities is a key challenge lying before us. ‘Green’ isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.

Biophilia in Singapore

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This video shows the incredible biophilic innovations taking place in Singapore. It is an exemplary and truly inspiring model of urban greening.

For me, the most striking features of Singapore’s accomplishments are the commitment and ambition of their visionary leadership. In the United States, we talk often about the transformations that might be possible, if we had the political will to make them happen. But our political system is a buyer’s market, and the 1% aren’t buying transformation. We get more of the same.

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In contrast, we see serious commitment, grand ambition, and firm political will in every facet of the Singapore case study.

We see it in the language: the fact that their National Parks department administers their urban greening program, as if to say, “our city is a cherished place, worthy of stewardship, dramatically beautiful, and full of life.”

We see it in the scale: whole buildings, whole blocks – a whole city – overflowing with green.

We see it in the people: the pride, the excitement, and the intrinsic understanding of the three pillars of sustainability.

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As this article by Joe Berridge brilliantly captures, the Singapore model can be hard for westerners to wrap their heads around. It’s a different sort of political and social structure, and the late Lee Kuan Yew, founder of the nation-state and Prime Minister for three decades, was a different sort of leader. I must admit, even seeing the spectacular results, that the “soft dictatorship” Berridge describes makes me nervous.

I do believe that western elected officials can show the same sort of iron will we see in Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew, because I believe the green wants and needs of their constituents will demand it. With the money in politics, it’s hard to say when those demands will be heeded. But that’s a topic for another day.

A Vision for Red Butte Creek

At the University of Utah, Red Butte Creek (RBC) is largely invisible to the thousands of people who pass by it every day. The Red Butte Creek Master Plan will transform RBC into a visible showcase and embodiment of the University’s mission and core values.

The Master Plan focuses on the portion of RBC running through campus andResearch Park, but seeks to leverage assets and create benefits along the riparian corridor and throughout the watershed. The transformation we envision is a process of revitalization: from a neglected, degraded, and under-utilized space, to a healthy, beautiful, and highly valued corridor that connects the Wasatch Foothills to Salt Lake City and creates a vibrant campus at the urban-wildland interface.

trash along rbcRevitalization will mean shifting University activities to focus on RBC. Campus plans and design standards will make enforceable policy commitments that support watershed restoration and faculty research. Instructors and students will have state of the art facilities for place-based, hands-on learning. Research Park, Fort Douglas, Salt Lake City and County, and other collaborators will help to build capacity, engage the community, and implement a plan with broad public support.

RBC restoredRevitalization will also mean shifting the physical and built environment on campus, especially the hardscaped impervious surfaces. Bioswales will control and treat contaminated runoff, in place of conventional storm drains. Parking lots will become pervious surfaces, in place of conventional asphalt. Paths, benches, and bridges will integrate RBC into campus life, in place of conventional fences and walls. Native flora and fauna will stabilize the stream bank, provide critical habitat, and improve water quality through nutrient uptake and cycling, creating a vital natural amenity in place of a degraded ecosystem.

These changes will require the University of Utah to reimagine its relationship with RBC. Today, the creek serves as receiving waters for urban drainage, and its unstable banks are a hazard instead of an asset. Through restoration and revitalization, we will create a unique campus amenity that promotes health, advances knowledge, and provides sense of place. There is no better opportunity for the ‘U’ to become a leader in sustainability and to advance the seven part vision – produced in meetings with over 100 campus and community stakeholders – that guides the Campus Master Plan:

  • A lively campus; a magnet for student, faculty, staff and public life;
  • State of the art facilities to support the university’s mission for teaching, research and public life;
  • A setting to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and interaction;
  • Campus as a destination for the public;
  • Functional and sustainable transportation;
  • Capitalize on the natural landscape setting; and
  • Leadership in environmental stewardship.

David Orr and the Cost of Utah’s Water

The University of Utah recently brought leading ecological urbanist David Orr to campus. Some lucky students, including myself, had the chance to chat with him in a small group setting.

Two of Orr’s messages really stuck with me. First, “cities are going to pay for sustainability, one way or another.” Proactively, this means an investment in health, quality of life, and economic livelihood. Reactively, it means creating or recovering from a disaster, or both.

Second, Orr said, if you’re seeing unnecessary waste or sluggish progress toward sustainability, and you’re wondering why, “follow the money.”

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Both of Orr’s lessons are crucial in my research area – water – especially in Utah. To see how, let’s start by taking a step back and highlighting what we already know.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, two-thirds of counties in Colorado, three-quarters of counties in Idaho, and 100% of counties in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah are experiencing or are contiguous with counties experiencing a drought emergency. Basically, the entire western US is a federally recognized disaster zone.

At the same time, we know that people in Utah use more water than almost any other place on Earth.

How could this possibly be?

Many answers are fairly obvious. Our long history of successful water engineering. Our relative water wealth compared to the regional cohort. Our huge lawns.

Much less obvious, but equally if not more important, are our quasi-public water wholesalers: conservancy districts, irrigation districts, canal companies, etc. In Utah, these water agencies are unelected but are able to collect property taxes, to the tune of half their total revenue streams. This results in artificially low water prices for retail sellers and end users. Thus, for instance, people in Salt Lake City face lower water costs than people in Phoenix, Tucson, Boise, Seattle, Denver, Reno, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles.

By insulating consumers from the true cost of water, Utah’s water wholesalers create a clear disincentive for conservation. But, these same agencies are also predicting major water supply deficits in the coming decades and are calling for over 30 billion dollars of state funding for massive new infrastructure, including the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project.

The logic is schizophrenically bad. Low water prices on one hand, looming scarcity and expensive infrastructure on the other, and the same damn interest group pushing both agendas in the middle.

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So how does this all connect to David Orr?

First, follow the money. We have unelected institutions that not only collect property taxes but also take huge loans on the public dime. Water wholesalers are uniquely powerful, and for them the twisted logic makes perfect sense.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that Utahans are uniquely high water users.

It’s no wonder historians Gottlieb and Fitzsimmons describe water agencies as “hidden institutions… a complex of nominally public bodies whose policies and agendas affect the everyday life of… citizens in complex and hidden ways.”

Second, Utahans are going to pay for water sustainability, one way or another. Proactively, this could mean accurate water prices coupled with conservation and green infrastructure: xeric landscapes, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, wastewater recycling, etc. Reactively, it will mean destroying precious landscapes with huge grey infrastructure, saddling taxpayers with billions of dollars of debt, and relying on tenuous water supplies that could stop flowing at any time.

I say, let’s be proactive. Let’s save the precious landscapes rather than wrecking them, avoid the debt, and create cherished green places in our cities, rather than maintaining the grey status quo.

And, when someone confidently argues otherwise, let’s remember David Orr.