Intentional Community Design for Developers

During the last decade, high-rise builds in America’s largest cities have trended up at unprecedented rates. But COVID-19 drove many residents out of cities, leaving behind saturated rental markets across America’s largest metropolitan areas.

This unique moment presents opportunities for developers to improve environmental conditions around their projects, facilitate meaningful community engagement, and ultimately gain a competitive advantage against challengers.

Developers must look to entice potential renters, but they also must be mindful of the communities they are building within. High-density, luxury housing is displacing long-time residents of urban areas. All too often, the groups most acutely affected are low-income communities of color.

This displacement does not just come as a result of built infrastructure. Green gentrification occurs when environmental revitalization of a space, such as pollution reduction or park implementation, increases property values and drives existing populations out. A prime example of this phenomenon occurred in the Brooklyn community of Sunset Park. Many residents were unable to afford rents after a years-long lobbying effort to clean up the waterfront was realized.

Leveraging government functions can mitigate some of the negative impacts of gentrification and create more inclusive communities. Local government in particular plays a major role in defining the revitalization efforts within cities. Public sector decision-makers mandate types, mixes, and intensities for land usage, as well as how public facilities and transportation systems will be situated. These decisions also present many opportunities for community members to voice their concerns and carve out the community they want to see.

Despite potential public sector solutions, it is imperative that private investors leverage their resources to make a positive impact. They must think critically and holistically about the effects of ecological development. Deeply assessing all potential stakeholders, how will they be affected, and who the real winners and losers will be is a crucial first step. Town Halls and surveys that center community members from all socioeconomic backgrounds will be pivotal in making equitable and sustainable development decisions.

To combat environmental gentrification, some advocates support a “just green enough” approach, one in which community involvement is central to redefining the meaning of green space but measures are taken to prevent totally wiping out traditional, industrial spaces. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, residents worked together to clean up trash and increase green spaces along Newton Creek, while ensuring that long-established commercial enterprises remained.

Developers must balance a desire to be on the cutting edge of environmentally sustainable designs with the assurance that their proposed designs are welcomed by the communities they are building within. A prime example of a developer meeting community needs while leading with sustainable innovation is Jonathan Rose Companies. In Rose’s Grace West Manor, an assisted living and affordable housing complex located in Newark, NJ, the developer places great emphasis on enhancing community spaces through green infrastructure.

PLANT Group is building a customized fruit forest for Grace West Manor which will provide a full spectrum of environmental and community benefits. Among them is rainwater retention, pollinator habitats, communal gathering space, and opportunities for residents to grow fresh local foods in an area otherwise plagued by a food desert. The forest will be surrounded by planters and benches which we custom-built from reclaimed yellow pine. PLANT Group created a comprehensive survey for residents, gauging interest in community events, flora options, and other desired outcomes for the rooftop space.

PLANT Group has over four years of experience helping residential developers create unique ecological spaces for their tenets while improving surrounding environments. We partner with organizations that are genuinely invested in the residents they house and the communities they occupy. From edible rooftop gardens to irrigation automation, PLANT Group understands how to devise and implement ecological designs for intentional urban space, always placing community members at the center of our considerations.

We want to help socially conscious developers empower the communities that they set out to transform, not drive out the character and soul that makes these communities beautiful. Throwing a few affordable housing units into a new development is a performative, surface-deep solution. Government action that takes into account community voices will be crucial to ensure an equitable planning process for the future. Most importantly, involving existing communities in the design of a rejuvenated, environmentally sustainable space is a more promising path forward.

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