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For Safe and Sustainable Community Design, Start with the Community

By Charla Hodges on May 6th, 2015

As more governments, organizations and decision makers recognize how the built environment impacts health and quality of life, curiosity about how to incorporate sustainable community design has grown. Daniel Rodriguez has been a part of these conversations, both as a transportation planner and a community member. He currently serves as Director at the Center for Sustainable Community Design at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Institute for the Environment; is a Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Community Design in the Department of City and Regional Planning; and is an Adjunct Professor in UNC’s Department of Epidemiology. His interdisciplinary approach to sustainable community design, which integrates city planning and public health, boils down to one foundational ingredient: the community. Recently, I sat down with Daniel to talk about how communities can work to achieve sustainable design objectives.

What are the core elements in creating safe and sustainable communities through design?

Daniel: The process of community design can be distilled into two steps: the first step relates to the community process, and the second relates to implementation of design elements. Community participation should happen in an organic way, meaning the members should feel a true and long-term commitment to the proposed design, as well as its implementation and maintenance. Community ownership of these solutions is also an important part of the design process. Design should rely on evidence-based and sustainable interventions, yet as we know, sustainability can take many forms. Financial, environmental and social sustainability should be our guides, meaning: can the community withstand the cost of the project; is it environmentally conscious; and does it have community buy in? This ties back to the initial process step. It’s also important to note that there may be community members who don’t feel empowered to participate for some reason or another, but who will be on the receiving end of the design policy and implementation.

Which disciplines do you think are left out of the safety and community design conversation?

Daniel: My hope is that planners and architects will sit at the table with more sociologists and anthropologists to see how perceptions of safety are culturally determined. We’ve all been to a place that we don’t know well, where we don’t know the cues of what is or isn’t safe. This is in part a result of the physical environment and the human response to design. We aren’t universal enough as planners or architects to conclude that the same design is best for every place. I surmise that there are some organic, community-based approaches for safety and community design that are innovative, yet overlooked. These should also be investigated more and brought to the forefront.

Are there examples of communities you can think of that “got it right”?

Daniel: New York City and other cities have adopted the Vision Zero project as an aspirational goal for city leaders and community members coming together to solve pedestrian issues. In the case of New York City, the community spurred this project after several families had experienced the deaths of family members involved in pedestrian–vehicle accidents. At the neighborhood level, there is a focus on creating streets where vehicles are strategically and intentionally slowed down. This originated in the Netherlands with the concept of woonerfs. I’ve seen renditions of this in Berkeley, CA; Portland, OR; and here in our own Carrboro, NC.

By intentionally involving the community, inviting more people to the table and incorporating lessons learned from others, we can foster better sustainable design outcomes in more neighborhoods from the start.

Charla Hodges

Regional Project Director at Counter Tools

Avid consumer of books, emerging public health planner focused on inclusivity, and former ALBD Research Assistant.