Building Small, Building Community

Monday, March 24 saw the kick-off of the Build Small, Live Large series of events, curated by current Loeb Eli Spevak and presented by the Loeb Fellowship. The series displays the work and perspectives of design and planning leaders who are transforming communities across the country through fine-grained, progressive interventions and placemaking strategies. Lectures by Mark Lakeman, Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard inspired and provoked, with Aaron Naparstek (LF '12) abetting.

Lakeman, a Portland-based “design-facilitator” and founder of the organizations Communitecture and City Repair Project joined Eli Spevak, founder of Orange Splot, LLC, a housing development company that focuses on affordable tiny homes, for an afternoon Brown Bag Talk, “Designing for Community, Part I: Cottage Clusters.”

During the talk, Lakeman, who trained as an architect and is dedicated to creating sustainable public places, described his desire to empower communities by offering design literacy. “The most important thing for me is to be a design facilitator.”

He presented several projects he’s worked on including Dignity Village, a neighborhood designed and built by and for formerly homeless people. It earned him the National Lewis Mumford Award in 2003. Dignity Village shows the process of building community by building together, achieving ecological responsibility and a minimal carbon footprint through methods including passive solar design. He stated that the project is 22 times less expensive than government-run shelters and provides a better quality of life and more stable position for people to get back on their feet in society. Lakeman also notes that this type of community offers “more richness and a shared story.” The model has inspired similar clustered and self-governed communities throughout the west coast.

Spevak, who is exploring new models of ecologically-friendly infill developments during his year as a Loeb Fellow, followed Lakeman and began his talk by discussing the societal importance of building smaller housing units. He presented data that show the significant increase in average house sizes and decrease in family size in the US, which has led to square footage per person more than tripling since 1950. The severe environmental impacts of these trends could be diminished by cutting down housing sizes and encouraging attached housing units.

Spevak then discussed alternative housing models that address the housing size issue and provide a sense of community for residents. These include accessory dwelling units, pocket neighborhoods, and conversions of larger old homes into multiple units. He shared one approach capturing the public imagination: creating a cluster of tiny homes on wheels.  Boneyard Studios in Washington, D.C. was recently formed to experiment with this idea, although this in-fill model is not (yet) legal in most jurisdictions.

In the evening, Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard of Better Blocks joined Lakeman in the presentation “Occupying and Transforming the Right-of-Way: City Repair Through Civic Engagement, Traffic Calming, and Public Art” in Piper Auditorium. Moderator Aaron Naparstek (LF 12) introduced the speakers as “the vanguard of a new generation of urban practitioners” who are creating new systems for building communities.

Jason Roberts described an early endeavor of Better Blocks: the Oak Cliff Transit Authority.  He initiated the project in Dallas by launching a webpage that stated that he and a then-fictitious organization would be bringing back a trolley system to the city. The webpage has since turned into a real funded project. Phillip Baker (MUP ‘14), a native Texan in the audience, said in response, “Having gotten lost driving in South Dallas before, it almost felt like a ghost town! It is great to see such a creative and locally-led initiative bringing Oak Cliff to life.”

Howard then discussed Better Blocks’ progressive efforts to create public space in a variety of cities, including Wichita, Memphis, and Norfolk, where they’ve bypassed normal zoning barriers through the use of special event permits. Often initiating creative interventions on the fly without typical drawn-out planning processes, they have been able to avoid “rendering fatigue” and “participation fatigue” by local stakeholders, sometimes turning residents “from curmudgeon to advocate” through the process.  They’ve fought gentrification in these areas by supporting the creation and expansion of local businesses.

Lakeman presented some of his work with Intersection Repair, one branch of his City Repair organization. He stressed the significant lack of public space in the United States and declared it a “design crisis,” noting that communities can respond through small on-the-ground changes, especially at intersections.

Philip Baker said of the event, “This presentation reinvigorated my passion and expanded my beliefs in what planning is really about.”

The series will continue next week and will include another presentation in Piper Auditorium by Ross Chapin of Ross Chapin Architects and Kevin Cavenaugh (LF ‘08) of Guerrilla Development, entitled “Sharing Spaces and Building Community Where We Live, Work, and Eat.”

INFORMATION
Fellowship Year: 2014
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