Envisioning a Sustainable Urban Village: A Puzzle of 1000 Pieces by Brian Skeele

Sustainability is a Puzzle of 1000 Pieces.  As we rearrange the pieces to design a Sustainable Urban Village (SUV),  Green Fire Times quest associate editor Brian Skeele (yours truly) got to ask the paradigm shifting questions…What would make a SUV such a great place, you’d move in?!   What are the best practices emerging in your field, and how can we rearrange these puzzle pieces for maximum affordability and beauty?…

Some 35 years ago, in college, my eyes opened to the probabilities of a social, economic and ecological train wreck that lay at the end of the line of our unsustainable, car-dominated sprawl lifestyle.

Ever since, I’ve been on a quest for the antidote. What else can we do besides suburbia? How do we enjoy a quality lifestyle while living lightly on the planet? Maybe Sustainable Neighborhoods are the new American Dream. How do we make sustainable real?

I’ve come to call the antidote to suburbia “Sustainable Urban Villages” (SUVs) – “Mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods with lifelong learning and open space. These vibrant, alive, simpler, walkable communities can be located anywhere, as long as they have enough residential to make the commercial successful. The good news is, according to various surveys, there are a substantial number of Americans who want move into such places. The problem is we have been mass-producing sprawl and there is nary a Sustainable Urban Village in sight.

St. Michael’s Drive: A Sustainable Urban Village?

When the City of Santa Fe’s Long Range Planning Department commissioned six “envisionings” of a transformed St. Michael’s Drive two years ago, I got inspired. What if St. Michael’s Drive/Boulevard became a showcase; a demonstration site of a Sustainable Urban Village?

If the boundaries were expanded to include Christus St. Vincent Hospital, the Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), and Santa Fe High School, the area could have affordable housing embedded in an affordable, healthier, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use lifestyle for the students, staff, and faculty, nurses and doctors!

SF High students could have hands-on learning on all the components that go into a sustainable lifestyle. Art and theater from SFUAD students could be incorporated into the community.

If all of these entities, along with the Community College/UNM Higher Education Center, and other service providers got together and planned for greater levels of shared facilities, they could all benefit from lower costs and transform the neighborhood into a pedestrian-friendly place to live, work, learn, shop and play.

What would it take for all these institutions to go beyond their turfs and plan for mutual benefit? And what about the existing businesses and landowners? What about zoning and financing, renewable energy and technology, water, and healthcare and all the other parts that go into a SUV?

I ran these ideas past Seth Roffman, Green Fire Times’ editor, and he suggested, “Why not make this Sustainable Urban Village concept the theme of one of our upcoming issues?”

Two months later, here we are. This issue of the Green Fire Times is an invitation to New Mexicans across the state, to rise to the challenge. A systemic approach, thinking outside the box and bringing best practices from every field requires us to tap into our inner leadership resources. New Mexico was a leader of innovation in solar technology in the 1970’s, and we can become leaders in the emerging sustainable economy.

Affordability and the Puzzle of 1000 Pieces

We sent out a request for ideas. “What are the best practices that are emerging in your field and how could they be integrated into this improved reorganization we’re calling a Sustainable Urban Village?

What would make a centrally located SUV so compelling, you’d move in?!”

This ongoing conversation of pooling ideas and visions is, to my way of thinking, a reassembling of a Puzzle of 1000 Pieces. You are invited to join in! How can we arrange these puzzle pieces to get the best results? What is the puzzle piece you’re holding, and where might they fit in?

If Santa Fe and the region come together and collaboratively keep working the puzzle, first in a model, and finally as a demonstration showcase, I believe this collaborative effort will resurrect the construction industry, strengthen the ecotourism market, and lead to an astonishing future of job creation where our region is recognized as a sustainability and alternative energy leader.

What I know is to first build a virtual model on paper or on the computer. Just as model homes give shoppers a reasonable facsimile of what they’ll be moving into, both the costs and the amenities, so  too will SUV residents need assurances of the quality of life they are moving into. Landowners, investors, appraisers and city regulators all need to be assured of the outcomes as well.

Affordability and beauty are key indicators. As we mill about this prototype Sustainable Urban Village (SUV) in the planning stage, comparing our puzzle pieces and looking for fits, if we find connections that advance affordability and beauty, chances are we’re “getting warmer”. Maybe when you look at your puzzle piece, it’s a bit hard to see, or the image keeps shifting around. That’s par for the course. In the meantime, enjoy reading about some of the pieces your fellow New Mexicans are sharing.

As our envisioning of a sustainable future builds, we can begin reorganizing our puzzle pieces. What are the arrangements that lead to greater efficiency, less time spent commuting, fewer resources wasted, and easier  cycling of most everything? What are the jobs that get created with this less consumptive, more affordable lifestyle? What are the shared facilities that give learners of all ages the hands on curriculum that leads to these jobs?

As we continue this conversation, milling around the model Sustainable Urban Village, we will develop our ability to see how close we’re getting to affordability and beauty. Maybe we’ll pick up some tools on the way, to help facilitate all the complexity that goes into our Puzzle of 1000 Pieces. A tool I can offer is “playful and yet serious” as the edge I find is the most productive to walk as I tap into pragmatic creativity.

Share your tools, bring your puzzle pieces, and join the process! We’ll learn how to play better together, and someday, hopefully in the not too distance future, we’ll look at the model, smile in satisfaction, and declare it ready for production! Together, we can make sustainable real.

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