Built Environment

Detatching From the Single-Family Home

drawing_loganpost_300x190.jpgI taught a class on the American Dream while student teaching last year. I gave students markers and giant pieces of paper and asked them to draw whatever popped into their minds when they thought of the “American Dream”.

Nearly every student’s paper included a simple drawing of a house—a square with a triangle roof attached, four little windows and a front door. This should not have surprised me; my drawing also had a house. But this caused me to wonder: is single-family home ownership the ultimate expression of the American Dream?


The Good of Getting on the Ground

Photo: Workshop participants take advantage of Belfast’s public art chairs while doing fieldwork.
Heart & Soul Community Planning
is rooted in the idea that people share common values when it comes to what makes their cities and towns unique. Although the language people use may be similar across communities, the specifics of what people mean by that language can be quite different from place to place.

So how do you get beyond nebulous conversations about “sense of community” to a shared understanding of the specifics of your town? You get on the ground and figure it out.


The Power of the Temporary

pincurbia_poweroftemp_brownpost_350x205.jpgPhoto: Pincurbia, the Pop-up Park

The Atlantic Magazine recently printed an article titled “Temporary is the New Permanent.” It explains that in our current economic climate, with cities low on cash and an abundance of empty lots and abandoned buildings, temporary projects are taking off. Why?

Because land owners and bureaucracies are often more willing to sign off on non-permanent creative projects that can be easily adapted or scrapped than long-term, infrastructure-heavy projects, which tend to be more expensive and less easily altered. It’s a matter of practicality. Another huge plus is that grassroots organizations, architects, designers and volunteers who want to impact their communities can take a much more active role in such projects.


Midd’s “Self Reliance” on the National Stage

Much More than an Eco-Bachelor Pad

selfreliance_exterior_360x240.jpgAfter spending ten days competing in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition in Washington D.C. with the Middlebury College team, I’m convinced that the family unit remains the strongest force in our communities today.

Nineteen international collegiate teams participated in the competition, designing, building, and operating houses completely powered by the sun. These houses were displayed for ten days in a public exhibit at the West Potomac Park, educating people about solar energy, while exhibiting that highly efficient, livable homes are sensible and affordable in the domestic realm.


Awakening Community Creativity

painted_labyrinth_300x93.jpgThere is no shortage of artists using the tools of their trade to create social change. But each time I run across a story about Lily Yeh, acclaimed visual artist and founder of Barefoot Artists, I am humbled and inspired by her work, using the power of art to revitalize impoverished communities.

lily_yeh_184x215.jpgAs Lily describes in a recent interview with David Kupfer, “Making art in destitute situations is like making fire in the darkness of a winter’s night. It gives out warmth and light; it beckons and rekindles hope. It does not directly solve problems but it creates a fresh, nurturing environment in which new possibilities and methodology can emerge.”

“My work engages people, whose participation ensures its sustainability. This is why I call my art living social sculpture. It usually begins with making art with people; it then expands to include other activities such as storytelling, education, construction and economic initiatives. The living fabrics of communities become the canvas of my work, creativity its fuel, people’s talent and imagination its palette and tools. In the poor communities where I have worked, this process often leads to an improved environment, a better quality life, and a sense of joy and hope for the future.”


An “Indomitable People” Live Up to Their Reputation

Photo: Matt Kiedaisch

Many Vermonters haven’t had the time or space to fully process the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

They’re either still completely cut off from the world without services of any kind, they’re struggling to get access to critical supplies and services, or they’re in the throes of a massive cleanup effort—one likely to last for weeks, even months to come.

I’m one of the lucky ones, able to watch from the safety of a community not badly affected by the storm. My home is dry, my family safe—sadly, not the case for so many of my fellow Vermonters.

It’s not every day this small northeastern state lands a top story in The New York Times, and I wish it didn’t have to happen as a result of such severe devastation. (There are countless positive Vermont stories that merit national headlines and the attention of people across the country.) But, as is often the case, out of the seemingly impenetrable layer of bad news have sprouted some uplifting shoots of goodwill and true grit: the stories of regular citizens going out of their way—and in some cases, putting themselves in serious danger—to help each other.


Death Cab for Cutie and a One-Armed Bear

Photo: Michael Dorausch
wooden_bear_183x275.jpgI recently tuned in to our local KBCO (World Class Rock) radio station and heard Death Cab for Cutie’s new song “You Are a Tourist”. These lyrics grabbed my ear:

And if you feel just like a tourist
In the city you were born
Then it’s time to go
And define your destination
There’s so many different places to call home

Music has the power to touch people, wherever they are in their lives. Given the right moment with the right mix of experiences, lyrics can be powerful “shifts in the context of community.”

In Community – The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes about shifting the context of community and creating an alternative future through transformation. He claims that all “transformation is linguistic, meaning we can think of community as a conversation” (p 31).


A Tale of Two Visions: Growth, Sustainability and ‘Living Cities’

Image: A boundary of the Living Bend site, transformed into a “linear greenstreet” with urban agriculture, native landscapes and an “integrated greenshade” featuring water catchment, solar PV and UV protection.

BendLCD_GreenwoodAve_Before-After_500x333.jpgFifteen years ago, Flagstaff, AZ, a small city perched on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, launched a community visioning project: Flagstaff 2020. It was the largest public dialogue ever conducted in Flagstaff, and the hot topics at the time were rapid growth and urban sprawl.

The result was a sweeping 25-year vision for the city, leading the way to some notable accomplishments:
completion of an Open Space and Greenways plan; institution of new logging practices in surrounding national forests; and a new downtown public square.