Building Sustainable Communities
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The Neutral Project
October 2, 2023
“Architecture is the interplay between form and life. And only if life and form interact in a successful way, this will be good architecture.” ~Jan Gehl


Sustainable communities enhance well-being, foster social cohesion, and harmonize architectural design with human life through human-centric urban planning. 


In the wake of the period of rebuilding and renewal that followed World War II (the “post-war era”), the world witnessed a profound transformation in urban planning and architectural design, as the Modernist Movement surged to prominence.1 This movement, characterized by its prioritization of mechanization and vehicular convenience, architects and developers started to reshape cities into landscapes that were car-centric.  

However, as cities expanded to accommodate motorized transportation, a critical aspect of community well-being was often neglected – the harmonious coexistence between human life and architectural form. In stark contrast to this trend, the concept of sustainable communities emerged, advocating for urban planning that prioritizes the physical, mental, and social health of residents. 

This paper provides insights into the evolution from car-centric urban development to sustainable communities. This study investigates the adverse effects of Modernist architecture, highlighting the advantages of communities designed for people. It underscores the significance of walkability and community connectivity, explores approaches to accountability and productivity in urban planning, and addresses the role of missing middle housing and form-based coding. This report ultimately defines the essence of a sustainable community, illuminating the vital shift towards creating environments that are architecturally appealing, conducive to thriving human life, and augmenting happy people.

1. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Cities Built for Cars: Effects of Post-War Era Urban Planning  

In the early 20th century, a new type of architecture and city planning was created, referred to as Modernism. The Modernist Movement gained significant popularity in the post-war era, reaching its height in the 1960s.2 

This Movement threw out all old concepts of architecture, and mechanized cities from top to bottom, expanding streets to accommodate motorized vehicles without regard to aesthetics or well-being.3 Architectural detail was abandoned, as it was inadvertently deemed irrelevant from the view of a moving car. 

Large swaths of land were allocated to parking lots, effectively prioritizing vehicular land use without regard to pedestrians. Modernist urban planning created cities for cars, shoppers, and tourists at the expense of the communities that lived there. 

Life and Form: Why Do We Need Sustainable Communities? 

A question we often ask ourselves is: Should form be derived from the demands of function, or should function be determined by an outer form? We view form as a boundary between two inextricably interlocked programs and experiences, those of the building and the surrounding community. 

Architect and urban designer, Jan Gehl, once said, “we first form the city, then the city forms us.” Gehl was referring to the foundational principle that the built environment affects people deeply, from influencing habits to overall well-being.4  

Our view of sustainable communities augments happy people - it promotes movement, social interaction, and cognitive stimulation. These have proven benefits to physical, social, and mental health and well-being.5 This interlocking of life and form is one of the most important principles to revitalize communities and put people first.  

Building at Scale: Walkability and Community Connection

For centuries, cities have been built on a human scale. Streets were narrower, dimensions were smaller, and surrounding architecture was interesting to the senses. Much of this was long abandoned to accommodate vehicular transportation, but recent efforts have reinvigorated building at scale. 

The renewed emphasis on safe, walkable spaces, as well as bicycling, has promoted independence, mobility, and community connection for a larger portion of the population. This is because walkable communities have more public spaces, such as parks, where people can come together as a community and enjoy nature. As an added benefit, walking and biking are considerably better for individuals’ health, as opposed to perpetual sitting, mandated by offices and cars.6 Our goal is to create walkable communities with easy connections to public spaces and local amenities.   

2. Source: Royal Institute of British Architects

3. Source: Modernism in Urban Planning

4. Source: These Are Jan Gehl’s Methods for Building Good Cities

5. Source: Why Sustainable Community Development Matters

Accountability and Productivity: How to Make Communities More Liveable 

Strong Towns is an established nonprofit media advocacy organization that encourages communities to seek sustainable improvements in urban planning through campaigns that have successfully enacted change in communities across North America.7 Through their advocacy, Strong Towns proposes a series of solutions to improve liveability and safety in cities. Incremental investments, rather than large projects, are encouraged, along with prioritizing resiliency over efficiency of execution.

Projects should be adaptive over time, and use a bottom-up approach–which can be a chaotic process–but is extremely effective at meeting community needs. Communities can pursue sustainability by promoting transparency in local government accounting, ending highway expansion, and creating safe and productive streets. 

Incrementally increasing housing density zoning is a way to address housing shortages without significantly disrupting communities.7 Increasing zoning density for housing essentially means allowing more people to live on the same area of land. Many areas with housing shortages have historically been zoned strictly for single-family housing, which is often an efficient use of land and inaccessible to those who cannot afford to own a house. Increasing housing density in the zoning code allows multi-family buildings to be constructed in these areas, which is more efficient and more accessible. Finally, ending parking subsidies and mandates will further allow scarce land resources to be reallocated in more effective ways.

6. Source: Keppel Health Review

7. Source: Strong Towns

What’s Missing: Middle Housing and Zoning 

Opticos Design is a consulting firm that specializes in urban design, architecture, and strategy for the built environment. They have been designing spaces across the country for over 20 years in the private and public sectors. Opticos has created two concepts critical to understanding and addressing the need for sustainable communities: missing middle housing and form-based coding. 

The types of buildings erected in a community are of utmost importance, as it is buildings that facilitate an area’s walkability. A new concept referred to as “Missing middle housing” describes types of housing that exist between the extremes of individual houses and mid-rise buildings, such as duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and so on. These types of “middle housing” offer community connections and housing opportunities that didn’t previously exist.8 Middle housing is “missing” because there is a lack of options available on the market that fit this description and provide these benefits. 

However, there are often zoning barriers when attempting to construct such structures. The solution is form-based coding, zoning reformations that allow for the density necessary for middle housing. 

Diverse Housing Strengthens Communities

A diverse selection of housing opportunities is imperative to a sustainable community. This includes having different housing typologies in one community, ranging from single-family homes to duplexes, townhomes, and mid-rise buildings.

Within a given building, a variety of unit sizes and pricing schemes can provide diversity. Additionally, different ownership structures benefit communities, including full ownership, rental opportunities, and a combination of the two.  

Having a broad range of housing options in one community–or even one building–has been shown to promote racial and income diversity, and also protect against economic downturns.9 Low-income options provide accessibility to underprivileged communities, without the risk of isolation from community resources. 

Further, options for full or partial ownership allow individuals to invest more in where they live. Increased diversity, community integration, and diverse ownership opportunities create strong, long-lasting communities. 

What is a Sustainable Community? 

A sustainable community is a long-lasting community that connects people to one another, nature, and the built environment. A sustainable community is built at a human scale and allows people to feel connected to one another with freedom of movement. 

Sustainable communities incorporate a variety of ownership structures to promote diversity and social cohesion. In a sustainable community, people can truly enjoy their surroundings, as the environment promotes health and wellness, and creates spaces that can be enjoyed for generations to come.

8. Source Opticos: Missing Middle Housing

9. Source: Housing Diversity Makes Communities More Resilient to Economic Downturns

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