The 1970s vision of sustainable communities: How did they actually stack up?

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The evolution of sustainable communities: Flashback to 1973

The pre-1970s perspective on neighborhood planning

Before the 1970s, the concept of sustainable neighborhoods as we understand it today wasn’t a formalized criterion in urban planning. Early to mid-20th-century urban development focused on accommodating rapid population growth and industrialization.

Suburban developments from this era prioritized convenience, affordability and automobile accommodation — with less emphasis on environmental sustainability or community interaction. These practices set the stage for a shift in neighborhood planning that emerged in subsequent decades.

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The 1970s perspective: A shift towards community planning

The 1970s marked a significant turning point in neighborhood planning. This change is exemplified in “Four Award-winning Neighborhoods,” originally published by Better Homes & Gardens magazine in 1973.

During this time, a collaboration between Better Homes and Gardens and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) initiated an awards program to encourage excellence in community design.

Below, we’ve featured a reprint of this article, as well as the photos that originally accompanied it. The article highlights four developments that epitomized a new focus back then — emphasizing natural preservation, recreational areas and spaces for community interaction. This period began a shift from merely building houses to creating cohesive, livable communities.

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How past concerns for sustainable housing overlap with those of today

The concerns of the 1970s, as detailed in this vintage Better Homes & Gardens article, have a remarkable connection to today’s urban development challenges. The era’s emphasis on integrating natural features and fostering community bonds remains relevant in contemporary neighborhood planning.

These historical insights provide timeless lessons, showing that the core principles of creating cohesive, livable communities have continued to influence urban development. This enduring relevance underscores the importance of considering social and environmental factors in creating thriving neighborhoods.

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Modern criteria for sustainable neighborhoods

Today, the criteria for sustainable neighborhoods have evolved to incorporate broader environmental considerations and technological advancements. Modern sustainable neighborhood design includes:

  • Energy-efficient building designs
  • The use of renewable energy sources
  • Intelligent urban planning that reduces carbon footprints

There’s an increased focus on creating walkable communities with access to public transportation, aiming to reduce vehicle dependency. Additionally, integrating green spaces for urban agriculture and biodiversity conservation is essential.

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This contemporary approach reflects a deeper understanding of environmental impacts and a commitment to addressing the challenges of climate change and resource conservation.

Tracing the evolution of neighborhood planning from the pre-1970s to the present day offers a comprehensive view of how our approach to creating communities has transformed.

From focusing on basic housing needs to creating environmentally sustainable, cohesive communities, this journey highlights a growing recognition of the importance of holistic, inclusive urban development that got its start back in the 70s.

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Four award-winning neighborhoods from the 1970s

By Stephen Mead, Architectural Editor of Better Homes & Gardens (1973)

Consider the scene above — a typical American subdivision. On the surface, it seems pleasant enough, but something is missing — a sense of neighborhood that proper planning can bring. In truth, housing built this way cheats families of some important amenities.

For that reason, Better Homes and Gardens got together with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) to cosponsor an award program that would promote excellence in neighborhood planning. On the following pages, you’ll see why we think these builders deserve recognition and encouragement.

The four photographs on this page spell out the difference between just building houses and creating neighborhoods. Each is a view of an award winner. And each serves up a full share of the features that make for excellence.

To begin with, good neighborhoods start with good houses. But there are other criteria, too. A good development preserves the natural features of the land. It also provides usable recreational areas, Safe and efficient streets, privacy for the residents, and convenient pedestrian paths. And it must provide value at a reasonable price, not an exorbitant one.

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All NAHB members were invited to submit entries for this building award contest. And to acknowledge the nation’s need for developments of varying densities; we established two separate categories: for one to five dwelling units per acre, and for six to ten units per acre.

All four of these award winners merit your careful consideration because they prove some important points. It is possible for builders and developers to create really great places to live. Aware builders are recognizing the need to make the best possible use of land that gets costlier every year.

Developers have found that with a little time and trouble they can offer families a better way of life on less land than the old row-on-row system of laying out subdivisions. And, by carefully planning the buildings, they can give every family enough room for enjoyable outdoor living — and additional wide open space that can be shared by the whole neighborhood.

Significantly, these four award-winning developments have all met with a high degree of success in their local markets. This demonstrates that many families know and appreciate the difference an innovative developer can make in the neighborhoods they create. And when more families appreciate — and demand — that difference, we’ll be seeing more and better neighborhood planning.

Join us on a tour of these four good places to live, and you’ll see what we mean: that well-planned building developments are great places for families; that some builders do share a concern for better land use. And that the aware builder wants to provide you, the home buyer, with the best possible place to live.

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Town houses grouped for village-like living

Scarborough, in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the honor award winner in the Category of one to five dwelling units per acre. Every home here is a town house designed for single-family living with double garages, fireplaces, private decks or patios, basements, and several different bedroom and bath options.

Each unit is joined with at least one neighbor and is owned separately. Each family is automatically a member of the Scarborough Homes Association which takes care of the wholly owned grounds and maintains the pool and recreational facilities.

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The site plan illustrates how the groups of town houses are clustered around hammerhead cul-de-sacs, which keep the streets free of fast-moving vehicles. Also, each cul-de-sac provides ample guest parking and is laid out so that cars are kept from direct view of the houses.

Each of the clusters is linked by pedestrian paths. Not only can you walk to and from your neighbor’s house, but the paths connect every family to the pool and recreation area. Pleasant sitting/conversation “niches” are provided along the way for easier neighborhood interaction.

Most of the houses in Scarborough front on a large grassy area much like the village greens of early America. The walkways and niches for conversation help the families who live there enjoy this space fully. Yet in the backs of the houses there is plenty of privacy for outdoor living.

The photographs opposite show how grade-level patios are all cleverly screened from their neighbors; the above-grade decks are also separated from each other by the offsets in the buildings.

The preservation of natural features was of utmost importance to the developers of Scarborough. The only grading done was that necessary for the buildings and drives. A small pond (see plan) was left untouched, except that a pathway was created for access to the water.

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Where a specific building type was called for to preserve topography and natural vegetation, it was used — such as walk-out plans on down-slopes and grade-level plans on flat site conditions.

The varying offsets of individual units relate each residence to the open space and the natural amenities. The result of this type of total planning: a development you can move into and immediately enjoy.

To enhance the preserved naturalness of the site, earthy materials were used. The exteriors of the units and the surrounding landscape structure is of brick, wood siding, and weathered posts.

Additional detailing — arbor fencing, decks, canopies, lighting, and retaining walls –enlivens the community yet doesn’t detract from its overall wooded character.

Scarborough was developed and built by Pemtom, Incorporated, a member of the Minneapolis chapter of the National Association of Home Builders. The architect was Michael McGuire, the landscape architect Marc Putman.

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Houses and town houses compatibly combined

The Trails at Woodfield in the Chicago suburb of Roselle took top honors in the six-to-ten-units per-acre category. Detached houses on town houses are mixed together around a system of looping streets.

The plan shows only a part of the whole community, with the detached houses nearest the curved collector street at the top and the townhouses at the bottom of the loop. A wide grassy strip runs through the area, separating this system of loops from the next. The green strip offers a safe and convenient route to the recreational complex for pedestrians, young and old.

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The site was basically prairie land, with few natural amenities. The developer used the best of these and added man-made features in some areas. The large berms in the photographs above are one example. They help separate groups of houses and help create interesting vistas on flat land. Such improvements take time and add costs, but sincere developers realize their long-run value.

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Families who choose one of the detached houses select an individual lot, much as in any subdivision. But at The Trails, the house is designed to be placed on one of the side lot lines. This concept, called “zero lot lines; gives the family full use of the space between their house and the neighbor’s on one side — instead of splitting that space into small, unusable lawns. Each house is designed with a windowless wall so the single side-yard area is completely private.

Carefully planned fences are also included with every house to add to the privacy of total outdoor living.

The town houses in the large photograph above offer something special. Detached garages were placed close to the street, so that each town house is approached through an entry court between the garage and front door.

Both the townhouses and detached houses were designed with similar styling so that the community has a single architectural flavor. Fences, street lighting, and other details carry out the overall theme.

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A wide range of ages and interests is abundantly satisfied by The Trails’ recreational facilities. They include a clubhouse, pool, putting green, and courts for tennis, basketball,and volleyball. A soccer field also converts to an ice skating rink when winter comes.

For younger kids, several pocket-sized play areas are scattered throughout the community. These are all located so that toddlers can use them and still not be out of range for Mom’s supervision.

And, as in other planned neighborhoods, all families belong to a homeowners’ organization formed to manage the recreational facilities and other exterior maintenance.

The developer also has planned a nearby shopping center and has provided space for a school to be constructed as the community grows.

The Trails at Woodfield was developed and built by Kennedy Brothers, Incorporated, of Northbrook, Illinois, a member of the Chicago chapter of NAHB. The architects were Selleg, Stevens, Peterson & Flock, Inc.

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Clustered townhouses bracketing a rustic stream

The Park at Southern Hills, located in Des Moines, Iowa, received the runner-up award in the lower density category of the petition.

The whole neighborhood was planned to capitalize on a meandering stream. It’s the focal point of the site and is flanked on each side by groves of trees. The stream is sandwiched by open green space, which in turn is surrounded by the townhouses.

Tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a clubhouse for all residents are grouped in the middle of the open green area. This way, it’s only a short stroll from any of the townhouses to the social and recreational center.

The street system prevents through traffic — main arteries on the periphery carry that. Feeder streets from the arteries are laid out so that only residents and their guests need to use them.

Age and family situation were car fully considered in the planning of The Park at Southern Hills. The townhouses vary widely in size and plan style in order to attract newly married couples and families with growing children. and older couples who feel they need less space. But all the homeowners have an attached garage, a private patio or deck, use of the recreational facilities and full enjoyment of the neighborhood’s open spaces.

The Park at Southern Hills was designed by John D. Bloodgood Architects, a member of the Des Moines chapter of NAHB. The landscape architect was Elizabeth Howerton.

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Affordable three-family units with privacy and convenience

Runner-up in the six-to-ten-units-per-acre category is Monterey Village in the new town of Park Forest South outside of Chicago. Families in Monterey Village live in these handsome three-family buildings, each of which has a separate garage and private entrance. The families who live here buy their homes on a condominium ownership basis and all share in the ownership of the open space.

As the plan above shows, the units were all placed on short, quiet streets — none face the more heavily traveled thoroughfares. And there are none through the neighborhood at all. A green area adds a large amount of open space in the middle of the community and each three-family house backs up to a smaller open space.

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Walking is popular and pleasant in Monterey Village; the plan shows how the walks are placed so that they are unrelated to the streets.

Inside, some of the homes are two stories; others are all on one level. Families can choose from two- or three-bedroom plans at prices ranging up to about $26,000. All families belong to a homeowners’ association that manages the upkeep for the common land, arranges for snow removal and the like.

Monterey Village was developed and built by the 3-H Building Corporation, a U.S. Home company, of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and a member of the Chicago chapter of NAHB. The architect was Barry A. Berkus, of Environmental Systems International, Inc.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. We lived in a “sustainable community” such as the ones described here in the late 1980s — and it was the classic case of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. They were built in the 1970s, but by the time we moved in the neighborhood had deteriorated significantly. Most houses were rentals and were neglected. The construction was shoddy, so many of the houses were falling apart. The residents were low-income for the most part; most were decent people, but there was still a lot of crime and vandalism. Plus there was a stigma against townhouses, with homebuyers who could afford it seeking out larger single-family homes (this was the age of McMansions). As soon as we could afford something better, we moved.

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