The East Lake Commons Conservation Community in Atlanta, USA, successfully demonstrates how residential development can be carried out in a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable manner. Sustainable building methods and materials and low energy designs were used to provide a diverse range of affordable homes in a low-income neighbourhood of Atlanta in the USA. High-density design has enabled part of the land to be set aside for woodland and organic farming to provide food and recreation for residents. Cars are prohibited from the central area of the development and car-sharing is encouraged, in order to reduce the community’s impact on the environment. There is considerable local and national interest in the project, which is already being replicated in other areas of the USA.
The East Lake Commons Conservation Community in Atlanta, USA successfully demonstrates how residential development can be carried out in a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable manner. It is located 3 miles from the Central Business District of the city in a low-income neighbourhood of Dekalb County. The 18 acre plot was originally zoned for 35 low-density duplex dwellings but planning permission was given to develop 67 homes on 8 acres of the plot, with the remaining 10 acres set aside for green space. This green space is owned in common and includes a 4 acre organic farm, woodland areas, a wildlife corridor and stream buffer zones.
The idea of conservation communities arose from the work of George Ramsey, a Professor of Architecture in Atlanta who developed ideas on practical sustainable living in the 1970s. These communities are designed to minimise the damaging consequences of urban sprawl development. These include:
- The segregation of people by age, social status and income, gives rise to personal alienation and isolation and a host of social and psychological problems. Ecological costs include air pollution and the destruction of forest and field for parking space, lawns and roads.
- The time available for community activities is reduced due to long hours spent commuting.
- Complete dependency on car transportation robs children of the ability to discover the world for themselves.
- Village Habitat Design was established in 1997 as a planning firm to bring the principles established by Professor Ramsey to reality.
The East Lake Commons Project was developed in 1997. It uses sustainable building methods and materials and provides homes at an affordable price, as well as providing the setting for a socially sustainable and vibrant community life. Construction of the project was undertaken by a professional developer and 35 of the 67 residents were involved in the design and development of the project from the very early stages. Energy efficient construction using renewable, durable materials was used throughout and residents were able to choose extra energy-saving options if they wished.
Although the project was developed as market-rate housing with a very broad range of prices, some of the homes qualified for financial subsidy and this combination of market rate and subsidised housing has proved popular. All houses were sold or rented without any delay and there is a waiting list of people wishing to move into the community. The building cluster has been designed on wheelchair ‘visitability’ principles i.e. that each home has step-less entrances and generous circulation space on the ground floor. This enables those in wheelchairs to have access to all parts of the community, rather than just their own house.
The project consists of three components – the woodland area, the agriculture area and the building cluster. The building cluster contains 67 dwellings, as well as community buildings and plazas, semi-private courtyards and soft-scaped areas. It is placed near the main road in order to reduce the cost of utilities and the amount of paved roadway necessary to reach the project. There is no parking within the building cluster itself and all cars are parked on the perimeter. This enables the pedestrianised zones around the dwellings to be used for social interaction and play space for the children. The distance from the parking area to the furthest home is less than the average supermarket car park and hand carts are provided for residents to move their shopping from their car to home. The presence of commerce and work opportunities within the community are welcomed as this reduces the amount of commuting that needs to be done and increases the social interaction in the day time for those in the community.
The reduction in the amount of hard-surfaced roads helps to reduce the rapid run-off of storm water and enables a much greater proportion of the water to be collected. Storm water is directed into a retention pond for first flush, in-soak and gradual release into the stream. The stream feeds the lake which is used for recreation and irrigation of the agriculture area.
The Common House is the central shared resource of the community. It contains dining areas, kitchens and guest rooms/living areas, a small library, play areas, laundry facilities and a classroom area. By extending the range of facilities available to residents, it allows the individual houses to be smaller and less expensive. Regular community events are held in the Common House, including twice weekly communal evening meals and picnic lunches. Summer camp activities are to be held there for both the children living in East Lake Commons as well as those in the surrounding neighbourhood. Twice monthly meetings are held for all residents and decisions are taken on a consensus rather than a majority vote basis. Activities such as landscaping, cleaning of the common room and production of the newsletter are carried out as a community effort.
The issues of affordability and diversity have been addressed in the project. There are a range of property size and types and a mix of ownership and rental dwellings. This allows people of lower income to live in a mixed income community, rather than being ghettoised into ‘entry level’ housing. Many dwellings have the option of letting out their basements that have been designed to be self-contained. In total there are 37 adult renters in the community. The project is located in a poor area of the city of Atlanta and has suffered from the policy of red-lining since the 1960s, thus making it very difficult to obtain financing. The project brought the first new home construction in ten years to the area. Links have been established with the local community and action has been taken in common to improve the facilities and services in the locality. The increase in vitality in the area is welcome, although it does mean that affordability is likely to be reduced as the area gentrifies.
The 4 acres of farm land are owned by the community in common and are farmed by a local farmer on organic principles. Organised as a Community Supported Agriculture programme, each resident pays $400 per season to the farmer who then provides them with weekly supplies of organic vegetables (enough for four people for approximately 40 weeks a year). The farmer sells his extra produce in the local farmers markets and to local restaurants. Residents in the locality are also encouraged to join in the scheme and the organic farm provides a welcome point of contact with the wider neighbourhood. Outreach education is also provided by the farmer for the children living in the project, as well as those in the neighbourhood. Weekly supplies are donated to the homeless shelter and small plants are donated to the local community. The farmer prepares a weekly newsletter with up to date information on what is happening on the farm.
East Lake Commons Inc. was established as a not-for-profit company for the development phase of the project. The development was financed by the developer, who already owned the 18 acre plot of land and who was prepared to work with Village Habitat Design to create an innovative and sustainable co-housing project. All properties have been sold with fee simple ownership and all development costs have been met. The total development cost was $10m with $6m being the construction cost of the 67 dwellings. There is a wide variation in the costs of individual dwellings since residents were able to work with the developers to design homes to meet their own specific needs and budgets.
Atlanta is behind other USA cities in its environmental attitudes and the success of the East Lake Commons Project clearly demonstrates the advantages and popularity of more sustainable and environmentally sound development. There has been considerable local and national interest in the project with other potential co-housing groups visiting it prior to establishing their own housing projects. It has been the recipient of a national award by the AIA for mixed-use development.
Private sector, local community