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Thursday, 18 December 2014

8  Discovering Enough:  Creating Healthy Neighbourhoods

The traditional way of building neighbourhoods is to line up homes on individual lots facing sidewalks and streets.  With the advent of the vehicle dominated culture and interior oriented activities, sidewalks and front porches ceased to be venues for neighbourhood interaction.  It is now common that neighbours no longer know or interact with neighbours. New home designs have minimal pedestrian entrances or porches with primary access by the occupants through an attached garage.  Sidewalks have often disappeared in newer subdivision designs.  Neighbourhood schools and shopping centres disappeared in favour of vehicle accessed services at remote locations.

A sustainable, pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood needs a business and service centre that encourages social interaction within walking distance of each home.  Locally provided service centres could include a neighbourhood primary schools, local wellness health centres, local businesses geared to everyday needs, neighbourhood scale nursing homes, community meeting spaces, churches, community postoffice and mailboxes, satellite libraries, satellite police stations, pharmacies, etc.  These neighbourhood service centres should firstly be interconnected by a system of walking / biking pathways, then by a community wide public transportation system, and lastly by individual vehicles. 

An example of a sustainable, pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood design is provided by the concept of the Pocket Neighborhood as put forth by Ross Chapin.  These are clusters of 8 - 12 homes or townhouses surrounding a common green that provides a venue that encourages social interaction between residents.  Cars enter form the rear or the side to separate people from cars (or better yet share a small fleet of cars).  The Pocket Neighbourhood concept would also result in less road and utility maintenance cost for the host city and thereby provide additional land for development or public green spaces.  Groups of homes built in a pocket neighbourhood could also economically benefit from community gardening, car sharing, electrical micro-grids and biomass district heating.
Neighbourhood service centres could be built with sidewalk level shops surrounding the edge of a block.  Above the shops could be homes for business owners or rental units that would open onto a central, private courtyard space for the residents.  

Neighbourhood Wellness Centres could offer primary care to residents of several neighbourhoods with a focus on prevention rather than treatment.  These centres could focus on services that do not require major medical interventions and could be staffed by nurse practitioners.  Clients could give blood, obtain immunizations, and receive infirmary services.  They could also offer home care support, physical exercise equipment, meals for seniors, health education, yoga classes, etc.  For expanded health services, these centres could be tied to regional treatment centres staffed by doctors and/or hospitals staffed by specialists.

Rather than institutional-scale nursing facilities, neighbourhoods could include smaller homes with 8-12 residents along the GreenHouse Model.  This could allow people to remain in their traditional neighbourhoods and be close to family and friends.  Residents  could purchase a transferrable share in the facility rather than depend on government programs.  The homes could be staffed by people living in the nearby neighbourhoods.  Neighbourhood Wellness Centres could provide the basic medical services required. 

Another concept beginning to catch steam are AgriHoods, i.e. communities built around locally grown food.  Churches could develop pocket neighbourhoods for parishioners seeking a more intimate relationship within a religious community. These are now being built and are popular in certain regions.

Recently, eco-villages have sprung up, e.g. the Belfast EcoVillage in Belfast, ME, a community built around the concept of super efficient housing and community interaction.

The knowledge to build super efficient  buildings is already here, e.g. the Naugler House near Fredericton, the Hawkins House near Halifax, the G-OLogic homes in the Belfast EcoVillage in Belfast, Maine.  The additional cost of initial construction is typically offset by reduced mechanical equipment costs and minimal lifetime operating costs (heating & cooling).  Couple this with new technologies like LED lighting and the cost of operating these types of homes can be as low as 10% of what is typical in an average home today.

Following the oil embargo of the 1970’s, Sweden upgraded their minimum requirements for building construction to address the need of heating their building inventory in a cold climate.  Canada developed the R2000 program around the same time and is planning on upgrading their requirements in the near future.  The difference in the two programs is that Sweden’s program is mandatory while Canada’s program remains voluntary. The German PassivHaus Institute has recently come on board with the passivHaus concepts based upon the research and refinement of work initially done in Canada and elsewhere.  

By adding photovoltaics (PV) to the design, these homes are actually capable of net-zero energy consumption, i.e. they annually generate more electricity than they consume.  Connected into mini-grids, these distributed systems will offer neighbourhoods enhanced energy security and the main grid greater reliability. Plug-and-Play PV systems forecast to become available in the near future will make household PV systems as simple as installing a water heater.

Further savings are feasible by locating these buildings in neighbourhoods within 
walking distance of neighbourhood service centres where people work and play to reduce transportation costs.  

Most importantly, discovering how to build “just enough” or “not too big” can make living both sustainable and accessible to all.

One of a series of personal opinion pieces as to where New Brunswick could head in the future.  With the effects of global climate change becoming more obvious each day and the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground becoming more imperative, these opinion pieces will put forth alternate ideas for job creation within a sustainable economy.  
Richard Lachance
Cocagne NB

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