Focus topics

  • walkability/human scale/alternative transportation
  • community engagement and buy-in
  • social equity

Sustainability is inextricably tied to the wellness of communities. Describe specifically how community members, inside and outside the building, benefit from the project. How does this project contribute to creating a walkable, human-scaled community inside and outside the property lines? How were community members engaged during the design and development process? How does the project promote social equity at local, regional, and global scales? Also, transportation-related emissions negatively affect public health. Because the CO2 emissions associated with how a building’s occupants travel to and from the building are frequently comparable to the CO2 emissions associated with operating the building, describe how the project, by its siting and operations, helps reduce transportation-related emissions.

Although this measure touches many diverse topics, one common theme is addressing the impact that cars have on our urban environments. Our dependence on single-occupancy vehicles does not just carry an environmental cost of carbon emissions, but also a community cost of decreased social interaction, a safety cost due to vehicular accidents, an equity cost regarding highway placement and access, and a health cost of decreased walkability and increased particulates (just to name a few).

Architecture that promotes alternative transportation can go a long way toward correcting a century of urban planning scaled for cars rather than people. Projects should focus on strategies that give everyone the freedom to choose among multiple ways to safely and comfortably commute to the building. Strategies that decrease the number or increase the cost of parking spots will better reflect the true cost of driving and encourage people to look for other modes of transportation. Strategies that increase density and promote mixed-use development also further this goal.  

The other two high-impact strategies are about broadening our idea of who is part of the design team and occupant group. Extending the bounds of the design team to include the community will result in a broader pool of ideas and a more relevant project. Extending the bounds of the occupant group to those who might not otherwise use the building will result in a more diverse, accessible, and welcoming final product.

Walkability/human scale/alternative transportation

  1. When possible, choose a site that has been previously developed, is close to a variety of amenities, and gives occupants a range of transportation options, including walking, cycling, and public transit.
  2. Every effort should be made to minimize the number of on-site parking spaces. As a baseline, no additional parking spaces should be provided than are required by code; seeking strategic ways to decrease that number further is even better.
  3. Minimize the visual impact of parking areas by burying, stacking, covering, or moving them to the backside of the project. Use landscaping and pedestrian walkways to screen surface parking that is required to visually disappear.
  4. The primary building entrance should be designed for pedestrians, while those arriving by cars should either be directed to the main entrance via a pedestrian walkway or enter the building through a secondary entrance on a lesser façade.
  5. Don't just add bike racks; design the bicycle entrance sequence. Provide bike racks that are covered, secure, and coated to prevent damage to bikes. Provide ramps and wide doors for easy access. Provide showers, lockers, and a system for drying towels. Provide bike storage for 25–50 percent of occupants and showers for 3–5 percent.
  6. Scale all on-site environments for human occupants. For best practices, reference the guidelines of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) “Living Building Challenge” Imperative 15: Human Scale and Humane Places.
  7. Maintain diverse, visually interesting environments along the site edges with plantings, landscape furniture, public art, and building articulation to encourage the community to interact with the project site.
  8. Endeavor to improve the environment immediately beyond the site. Advocating for new public transportation lines, community gardens in street medians, or speed bumps and stop signs is one way to help the building engage its immediate surroundings.
  9. Provide adequate lighting for safety. Light the path and keep luminaries out of all lines of sight. Limit dead ends and/or visually isolated spaces that may pose security concerns.

Community engagement and buy-in

  1. A first step to community engagement is to know who your community is. Define this group early, identify its leaders, and communicate with them. Someone who thinks he/she is a stakeholder probably is and should be treated as one.
  2. When working with communities, use tools and processes that balance sustained engagement with the design team’s limited resources of time and budget. Examples include the KJ Method, Elito Method, Personas, and Design Ethnography. (See the EDR Community Engagement Toolkit in the Resources section below.)
  3. Provide avenues for community feedback such as public meetings and presentations. Work to foster citizen committees tasked with collecting and channeling feedback and provide opportunities for anyone to offer their thoughts.
  4. Be sure that all community feedback is addressed with either a design change or an explanation as to why a desired design change was not included. Track comments and find a transparent way to communicate design decisions and progress.
  5. A project must benefit both the client and the broader community. The architect’s challenge is to find ways to keep both parties satisfied. When the client suggests a design or strategy that goes against the best interests of the community, it is the professional responsibility of the architect to push back and seek solutions that are mutually beneficial.
  6. Buildings should be proudly part of their community. Boundary walls and fences should be avoided in most (but not all) circumstances.
  7. Ensure that the building does not block off any segment of the population from nature. For best practices, reference the guidelines of the ILFI “Living Building Challenge” Imperative 16: Universal Access to Nature & Place.
  8. Improve the safety and security (both real and perceived) of the community by placing “eyes on the street.” Arrange workstations and residential units to look over public spaces so the community can literally look out for each other.

Social equity

  1. Strategies that improve access for the physically disabled (such as wide entrances, smooth thresholds, and ramps) also benefit families with strollers, bicycle commuters, and those with temporary physical injuries. Efforts should be made to design for wheels, even when not required by ADA.
  2. Just as all buildings are required to be accessible to those with physical disabilities, buildings should also be accessible to those at an economic disadvantage. Strategies include on-site amenities, welcoming public spaces, and special programs, such as free museum nights. “Defensive design strategies” that prevent the public from comfortably engaging with a space should not be used.
  3. Include one mother’s room for every 200 occupants. See the resources tab for AIA’s recommendations for designing a mother’s room.
  4. Within the office, make every effort to assemble teams that are culturally and economically diverse. Use this same strategy of intentional diversity when hiring consultant teams. A design team with more diverse backgrounds and perspectives is usually more creative and innovative. Their design solutions are often more comprehensive.
  5. Architects should set the standard of socially equitable corporate policies by pursuing social equity and transparency programs such as the JUST label from the International Living Future Institute. Endeavor to work with consultants and subcontractors (and specify products from manufacturers) who follow equitable business practices.
  6. All projects, sites, programs, and communities have complex and winding histories that can, when researched and deeply understood, deepen the meaning of a project’s concept and cement it as part of an evolving narrative. Best practice is to do the necessary research to fully understand the broader context in which you are designing.
  7. People tend to group with others from similar backgrounds; architecture can be used to encourage chance encounters. Strategies include centralized communal spaces, such as kitchens or bathrooms, that everyone needs to visit. Wide stairs that are well daylit and prominently located are also great places for impromptu conversations and connections.

Additional information

This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered.It is published and distributed with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering professional services.  If professional advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

Image credits

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