Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Adapting to the Future

By Jon Quitslund

Architecture is a social art. It becomes an instrument of human fate, because it . . . shapes and conditions our responses. . . . It modifies and often breaks earlier established habit. (Richard Neutra, 1958)

On February 9th, the proponents of the Grow Community development finally had their chance to present the project to the Planning Commission, and a three-hour meeting was devoted to the formal presentation, Q & A with Commission members, and public comment.
It was a lively evening, with none of the droning explanation and passive listening that sometimes settles over the Council chambers for long intervals.  There was a good audience for the proceedings.  I was present with other citizens who had contributed to the project’s ‘Sustainability Action Plan,’ a book-length document that provides the rationale for a somewhat utopian community.

Several aspects of the project were given a good going-over by members of the Planning Commission and concerned citizens.  Impacts on traffic, characteristics of the faces that the buildings on Wyatt will turn toward Wyatt Ave., plans for handling surface water, and the adequacy of pathways through the open spaces between Wyatt Ave. on the north and Madison Ave. on the east were all discussed. And the need for adequate parking came up, of course: more on that later.

These were all legitimate concerns, touching on problems of first importance to the architect and other contributors to the project.  From the beginning, it has been crucial to provide for dynamic relationships of the residents and the built environment of the new community with its near neighbors and the Island as a whole.

Several people expressed a hope that as this innovative project takes shape, with the developer assuming responsibility for its boundaries, the City and various citizen groups will coordinate efforts to improve the infrastructure of roads, trails, and sidewalks beyond those boundaries.

Just maybe, we can break free of a tendency toward reactive, piecemeal, and contentious responses to our problems and opportunities, and commit to projects that fit into long-range plans.  We could, simultaneously, increase vitality in neighborhoods and provide attractive connections of each place with others.

When I had an opportunity to comment, I started with the quotation from the architect Richard Neutra that appears at the beginning of this post.  “Architecture is a social art.”  The Grow Community project is a bold instance of architecture as a social art.  Many people – both professionals and amateurs – have contributed to the project, and many more will be involved in its unfolding.

When it is imaginative and original, architecure “becomes an instrument of human fate.”  Richard Neutra’s thoughts about the architect’s social role, shaping behavior and breaking established habits, emerged against the backdrop of 20th-century modernism in the International Style.

The two decades after the end of WW II were an epochal time for architecture in the United States, and for the planning and building of cities and suburbs, with all the infrastructure needed to provide people and commerce with a mobility to match the era’s prosperity and its newfound need for convenience, efficiency, and freedom.  Real progress in the quality of life for the great majority of Americans was achieved in those decades, but in recent years it has become clear that some Faustian bargains were made.

Now the devil’s at the door.  Cheap energy and the other non-renewable resources that made the American dream possible aren’t so cheap any more, and efforts to keep fossil fuels cheap are wrecking our environment.  Land isn’t cheap either, except in places where cities, towns, and suburbs are blighted and jobs are scarce.

Mobility is still important, but sometimes it’s problematic.  People love to travel, but long commutes by car are less and less feasible.  We’re getting more aware of mpg ratios, more interested in carpooling and the availability (or not) of public transportation.  Those who are fit and brave enough to commute by bike or scooter are envied; likewise, those who can walk to work or work at home.

Which is more important: high speed internet access, or hassle-free driving, anywhere, any time?  I think our culture is already redefining mobility, and reexamining the priorities that shape how we spend our time, how much stuff we need to own, what big-ticket purchases our incomes must support, and what we can do without.

Concern for the environmental impacts of an acquisitive lifestyle isn’t the only factor that’s driving these cultural changes, nor is the current economic downturn and the dim prospects for a return to go-go growth.  Thoughtful people are considering in fresh ways what choices and activities make them happy, and what circumstances really contribute to their security.

These changes, and others related to them, are already shaping our future, regionally and right here on Bainbridge.  Which brings me back to the Grow Community, and to the proposition that the architects who build a community can modify and even break established habits.

Marja Preston acknowledged that the prices for units in the new neighborhood are not “affordable” by conventional measures, but she pointed out that if the community’s emphasis on teamwork, common property, and cost-sharing means that you won’t need a car of your own, or a washer and dryer, and if much of your food comes from community gardens, then the total cost of living there won’t be so high after all.

Members of the Planning Commission asked the designers to find room for more parking spaces before the project is fully built out.  I seriously doubt that they will be needed.  We don’t know what the future will hold, so things have to be done step by step, adapting positively to contingencies and possibilities.  I hope this process won’t be hindered by outdated assumptions.


  1. Jon - I am a supporter of the Grow Community. However, some dear friends of mine have expressed concern about the density of the Grow Community as being "out of scale" with the rest of the community, there not being enough greenspace, and concerns (with respect to managing water runoff to the Sound) of the loss of water-loving significant trees.

    Do you have any observations from the Planning Commission meeting regarding these concerns?

    1. Density out of scale, insufficient green space, and loss of trees that would contribute to surface water management: these are important considerations that were not addressed in “Adapting to the Future.”

      The Planning Commission did not fault the project for these reasons. I believe that the people who have contributed to Grow Community planning – both the professionals and citizen volunteers like myself – have done their best to deal with these issues. Further, since the project will be completed in phases, subject to review and revision of some plans, there will be several opportunities to evaluate and modify the plans for buildings and amenities.

      Density. The Grow Community is an ‘infill’ project in a residential part of Winslow where most houses date from the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s to be expected that the eight acres will be developed at a higher density than is found to the west on Grow Ave. and to the north on Wyatt Way, but with plans for 131 residential units, the project is well below the maximum that the zoning code would allow. No home is larger than 1600 sq. ft., and many units will accommodate only one or two people. Housing units are dispersed in clusters throughout the site, with paths, gardens, and green spaces between the ‘mini-neighborhoods.’

      Tree Retention. There are no ‘trees of significance’ on the site, and some of the trees are not healthy. The HDDP regulations for the project require Built Green 5-star certification, which calls for 30% tree retention, which is consistent with what the developers wanted to do anyway.

      Green Spaces and Surface Water Management. In addition to retention of much of the existing vegetation, landscaping that follows the contours of the site will provide open space (exceeding the 25% code requirement) and manage surface water in various ways. The central green corridor traverses the site, from the northwest to the southeast corner; it passes through gardens and play areas before widening into a large plaza and community garden and continuing to more gardens and play areas.

      Sincerely, Jon Quitslund

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.