As the concept and practices of a sustainable built environment have evolved over the years, it is increasingly recognised that the scope should be expanded beyond individual buildings to the community scale. Sustainable community design and practices refer to planning, designing, building, managing and promoting social and economic development of communities to meet sustainable development objectives.
Sustainable community design is often referred to those that relate to the physical planning for a new community. The key players are master planners, architects, engineers and other environmental professionals, who plan and design infrastructure, public facilities and buildings. The physical built environment will then serve as a base and facilitator for the newly established community to practice sustainable development lifestyles and initiatives. Sustainable community practices involve initiatives, organisation and management of both existing and new communities gearing towards sustainable development goals.
Sustainable community design and practices have been developed from conceptual ideas at the early stage to refined models and frameworks, through the experience gained from practical experiences around the world.
The current accumulation of global experiences shows that any community, regardless of income level, can work toward a sustainable development vision. At the very basic level, sustainable community design and practices can focus on:
- Providing, rectifying and/or improving the physical built environment, sanitary and infrastructural services,and maximising the renewable resources available at the local context – e.g., sun, wind, rain, and vegetation.
- Offering alternative means to generate incomes from the environment-friendly economy, such as ecotourism, local food production, waste recycling, etc.
- Enhancing social conditions and community ties through joint-community projects and educational programmes.
This model, termed a low income sustainable community model, is the most suitable one for lower income communities with a vision for sustainable development.
For mid- to higher-income level communities, sustainable community design and practices include the above plus the following areas of focus:
- High quality of life, such as sporting facilities, sustainable transportation facilities, local availability of organic food, and accessibility within walking distance to amenities such as retail stores, schools, parks, etc.
- Community coherence and a low crime environment.
- Community pride and identity, achievable by making community projects, such as renewable energy technologies, a landmark for a carbon neutral community.
Many success stories of sustainable communities, at the lower- and higher-income levels, have been reported and have been published widely.
Sustainable community design works with, and makes full use of natural and climatic conditions. These include being responsive to sun, wind, rain, and vegetation when planning an energy efficient and comfortable environment for a community.
Responding to the local sun path at the community planning level takes into the account:
- Provision for building layouts oriented north/south, and constraints for buildings with long westfacing façades.
- Sunlight accessibility to individual buildings, especially during winter months. This is achievable through provision of minimum spacing between buildings to avoid overshadowing on windows.
For example, in China’s northern provinces, residential buildings are required to be orientated not more than 200-250 from being directly south-facing. Furthermore, minimum building spacing is required, so that all residential units can have at least 3 hours of access to sunlight per day.
Planning sites in response to local seasonal wind characteristics will contribute towards creating good micro-climatic conditions for a community, including thermal comfort in communal spaces and in individual buildings. The planning strategies include:
- Planning for taller structures and/or densely planted trees on the boundary facing the prevailing winter wind direction, so that the communal public spaces and/or other buildings in the community can be protected from cold wind.
- Using building shapes and layouts to channel and allow prevailing summer breezes to pass through open communal spaces and other buildings in the communities.
Rain offers a community water resource, which is particularly important for regions where fresh water is a scarce resource. If well planned, harvested rainwater provides alternative fresh water source for a community. However, if not well managed, rainwater may become polluted making it a source of environmental health hazards, such as breeding ground for mosquitoes. Good community design and practices include:
- Harvesting rainwater from building rooftops for usage at the building level (see 'Rainwater harvesting').
- Capturing and channelling run-off water to provide natural cleansing mechanisms, including a network of leading to a retention pond. Here the cleansed water can be used for non-potable usage, such as local farming and landscape irrigation.
Good practices in landscape ecology are also important factors in community design. They include:
- Protecting the existing nature and ecosystem of a site. In the planning process, it is good practice to identify and preserve the existing ecological network, which is densely vegetated and rich in biodiversity.
- Planning for green corridors connecting various green patches to create a continuous green network within and beyond the community to nurture biodiversity.
- Promoting and nurturing native vegetation, which usually requires minimum maintenance and saves water resources (as no additional irrigation required).
- Providing open green spaces, such as parks and communal gardens that are easily assessable and within walking distance for all community members.
Sustainable community practices especially for existing communities, often include: rectifying and enhancing the environmental performance of the physical built environment, building a sense of community, upgrading the community quality of life and developing skill sets gearing toward a green economy. The required steps towards sustainable community practices often take a bottom-up approach and include:
- Discussions with members of the community to understand their existing lifestyles, daily activity patterns, and wish lists for improving the living experience in the community.
- Encouraging members of the community to participate in all activities, including identifying areas for improvement, planning and design of the physical built environment and operating and monitoring sustainable-related activities.
- Empowering members of the community in all decision-making processes and instilling a sense of ownership and pride in communal activities.
Feasibility for implementation
Feasibility for implementing sustainable community design and practices requires a large amount of preparation and coordination effort, especially at the initial stage. Steps towards implementation, especially for low-income sustainable community models, include:
- Involving as many stakeholders as possible to appraise the status of existing communities, in terms of the physical built environment, and of social and economic conditions. The stakeholders include all residents of the communities, local government, agencies, and business networks as well as related non-government agencies.
- Designating individual(s) as champion(s) for sustainable community programmes. This person(s) should be endorsed and supported by members of the community and local government authorities.
- Identifying, together with stakeholders, key needs and objectives. All decisions should be based on consensus building.
- Creating a vision and a workable roadmap to achieve the vision, based on the key needs, objectives and contextual constraints, (Smart Community Network, 2003).
- Developing a set of indicators to benchmark and monitor the progress.
- Identifying and communicating with supporting partners, including (a) financial support and expertise from international agencies, regional and national governments, and (b) potential customers or service receivers from a community’s activities.
- Starting with the most feasible and economical activities, which are able to generate an income stream, that can support subsequent and more challenging activities.
- Monitoring and improving the progress of the activities with regular feedback sought from all stakeholders and partners.
Sustainable community design and practices have been widely implemented worldwide. Evidences for this in developed countries are substantiated by the launches of community versions of existing green building rating tools, such as LEED for Neighbourhood Development, BREEAM Communities, Green Star Communities, etc.
In developing countries, sustainable community design and practices are also widely implemented, evidenced by the expanding name list of sustainable communities and reports of successful stories in the press, especially in Africa. Low-income sustainable community models are proven to be useful in improving livelihoods in many rural areas of developing and least developed countries, and in rebuilding the communities affected by post-natural disasters (e.g., the 2004 tsunami affected communities in South- East- and South-Asia).
Sustainable community design and practices, especially the model for low-income community, contribute to social development by:
- Providing members of the community opportunities to learn new skills and pick up new knowledge
- Generating community ties and sense of ownership
- Reducing crime
- Generating additional income sources
- Improving quality of life.
Sustainable community design and practices contribute to economic development of a community by:
- Reducing and eliminating poverty for lower-income communities, while upgrading their skills for employability in green economy sectors.
- Facilitating a sustainable local green economy, for example, through eco-tourism and local food productions.
Sustainable community design and practices contribute to environmental development through:
- Designing with regard to local climatic conditions, including sun path and wind conditions, to create a comfortable micro-climate for both communal spaces and individual buildings in a community.
- Harvesting rainwater as an alternative additional fresh water resource for non-potable usages, e.g., landscaping and farming irrigation. This helps avoid or reduce groundwater extraction and depletion.
- Promoting native vegetation, preserving existing ecological network and nurturing biodiversity.
The implementation of sustainable community design and practices for low income communities often requires financial support by international agencies, e.g., Habitat for Humanity, the World Bank, United Nations Agencies, NGOs, with backing from local governments. Financial support is required at the initial stage for a kick-off, usually related to the design and implementation of activities related to the built environment and infrastructure development. Low income sustainable community design that is based on the principles of maximising available renewable resources, as detailed in the ‘Feasibility of technology and operational necessities’ section, does not often incur any additional significant investment cost. Furthermore, successful community activities often find themselves a sustainable income stream generated from the return on investment, which can help maintain their current activities, and even allow the community self finance their subsequent activities.
Smart Communities Network (2003). Ten Steps to Sustainability. [Online]: www.smartcommunities.ncat.org/management/tensteps.shtml