Friday, March 14, 2008

The future of cities

There so many problems facing us as a society as we look to the future. So many big problems to solve. As a lighting designer, someone involved in the architecture industry I am constantly amazed at how architects, designers and urban planners can rethink things and change the way we live. We don't think about these things on a daily basis but the architectural spaces we occupy everyday affect the way we live our lives. They can promote health, well being, peace among neighbors, a sense of community, security, and the environment.

When most people think of a "green" home they think of tiny house somewhere in California, where the owner installed solar panels on the roof, and they built the walls of reused cardboard boxes. Usually these places are in the middle of the woods where eccentric owner strode to make as little environmental impact as possible. When we think of affordable urban housing, we think of huge, ugly brick structures with tiny apartments lined up floor upon floor in blocks of indistinguishable buildings. We never consider these buildings could add to their environment, or be pleasing to neighbors and neighborhoods, we never imagine they can be healthy places for all inhabitants. We never imagine they can help save the planet.

And yet that's what's happening right now in a vacant lot in the south Bronx of New York City. The Via Verde project is being built as we speak. And it will change everything. The New Housing New York Legacy Project announced a design competition challenges architects and design teams to take an empty strip of land in the south bronx, the area Jimmy Carter visited in 1977, when he announced his plan for national urban renewal, and turn it into a housing project for the future.

The designers from Phillips-Rose-Dattner-Grimshaw (PRDG) created a winning design they titled Via Verde, as the winners the developers were sold the land for $1 to begin building. The project represents an evolutionary leap in how housing and communities can be designed and built in the future. The settlement features housing for low, middle, and moderate incomes, as well as units deemed affordable housing. That alone stands as a model to shatter the previously held notion of housing developments becoming ghettos and enclaves for crime.

But there is far more to the development than mixing incomes. Creating a terraced elevating shape with a primarly southern exposure the PRDG team was able to provide every residence and abundance of natural light throughout the majority of the day. The terraced effect created level surfaces for green spaces such as gardens and play grounds. Providing spectacular views, a healthy environment and financial stability this project changes the way urban planners will be expected to see their cities.

I could go on and on about this project. As I believe it is a stunning design achievement as well as a high water mark for urban planning and policy. Let's hope other cities are paying attention.

For more on the project check this out.

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