Is the Romance with Tiny Houses More Than a Fling?

Tiny house

Tiny house (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tiny house movement, which is often credited as having gained popularity thanks to Sarah Susanka’s 1997 book, The Not So Big House, has captivated architects, designers, city planners, and increasingly eco-conscious homebuyers on either end of the buying market. There are millennials who, faced with uncertain economic growth and unwilling to tie to the long-term mortgages of their parents’ generation, are considering tiny houses. Architects and designers are intrigued with the challenges of making 1,000 square feet and smaller feel like living large. City planners appreciate the economic possibilities, and even Boomers are willing to engage if downsizing to tiny can work with a lifestyle they can enjoy.

Not everyone is a fan, of course. As NPQ reported in an earlier article on possible use of tiny homes for the homeless, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino expressed his concern about tiny homes, on average “the size of a garden shed,” and which are “built on wheels so that [they] can be moved frequently enough to skirt laws against loitering or trespassing.” Buscaino felt “each home would require reflective markings” and that this idea overall might not be the best of solutions.

But many others, as the Star Tribune piece showcased this week, would argue tiny houses are a game-changer and feel they offer exciting alternatives to traditional notions of housing in addition to posing the question of “how much space one really needs—and encourages living in a sustainable way.”

Among the architecture community, there has sprouted “a competition of sorts to design appealing, cost-effective, environmentally friendly tiny homes. […] One of the movement’s pioneers, Geoff Warner of St. Paul-based Alchemy Architects, has teamed with the Robert Engstrom Cos., the city of St. Paul, and an East Side nonprofit developer to propose a tiny house cluster as a demonstration of how such homes could spur development of affordable for-sale housing.”

A cluster of Alchemy Architecture’s “Weehouse” prefabricated tiny homes has been proposed for St. Paul’s East Side, an area that connects downtown St. Paul “with an “emerging business and entertainment corridor.” The Weehouses are described as “modular boxes prefabricated in factories and designed by Warner to vary in size from 300 to 850 square feet. They can be set up side-by-side to create stand-alone neighborhood clusters, or stacked on top of each other to build bigger single-family or multifamily dwellings.” The Star Tribune article also said “their real innovation is that they’re hardly Spartan: They include modern aesthetic features such as floor-to-ceiling glass and open kitchens, while also emphasizing energy efficiency with passive solar design, reflective roofs and geothermal heating.”

The hope of planners there is that the “units will market for around $100,000,” putting it at “a price that can appeal to a wide range of people, including first-time home buyers of all racial backgrounds.” According to a report issued by tech company SmartAsset, “in over half of the biggest U.S. cities, the typical millennial can’t afford a 1,000 square-foot home.” Warner’s hope, which is shared by many enthusiasts of the growing trend, is that more and more people will realize “you don’t need to have huge spaces to have really nice spaces.”

In the city of St. Paul’s case, the municipality “will need to craft a new zoning overlay designation governing such clusters of tiny housing.” But this is being “envisioned as a possible template for other cities across the state and country seeking to encourage the tiny living phenomenon.”

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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Critics Blast New Forms of Public Art as It Goes Mainstream

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Street and public art is having a heyday here and abroad, thriving in once-desolate parts of cities. And while it’s exciting to see an art form that harkens back millennia to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, there’s a question of whether its power and its artists are being coopted by gentrification.

New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz is quoted in Vulture as saying he worries that the cultural forces responsible for “something like a new golden age of public art,” also support soulless and synthetic art and architecture that he loathes. And UK curator and author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, Rafael Schäcter, prompted a flurry of discussion last month on the site The Conversation when he claimed that street art has moved from “dissident to decorative,” and sold out.

Schäcter explained in his piece, “Street art—as well as its artistic forebear graffiti—are often thought of as radical, rebellious aesthetic practices. Both the artists and their works are portrayed as the very definition of “edgy”; dangerous and dissident, but also creative and avant-garde. Yet within the last five years or so, street art…has been commandeered by the corporate interests of the ‘creative city’.”

Schäcter describes the creative city doctrine as “one in which public space is privatized and monetized.” City authorities in these cases look to “draw the emerging creative class to their sites” by marking themselves out “visually and recreationally to entice the key demographic of well-educated professionals and ‘bohemians’ (the coders, the designers, the “knowledge-based” professionals) who form the basis for a post-industrial economy.”

At or near the top of Saltz’s list of offenses in New York City is the High Line project, which he calls “that stretch of elevated rail lines strung through the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and the Hudson Yards, refurbished with private money a dozen years ago as the spine of the massive luxury redevelopment of each of those neighborhoods.” The mile-long public park, which snakes over and across a section of New York has, since it opened in June 2009, “had more than 27 million visitors.” And with annual attendance in excess of 6 million, it’s more popular than the city’s Museum of Modern Art or Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now developers have even more ambitious projects for art and entertainment centers to construct at either end of the High Line—Pier 55, at the southern end of the High Line, and the even bigger Culture Shed, at the northern one.

Saltz is not at all a fan, and he can envision problems of epic scale for these centers, the larger of which he calls a behemoth projected to cover 200,000 square feet (roughly the size of 3.5 NFL football fields). “The hubris of all this will be how costly these spaces are to build and maintain—predicated as they are on the belief that there will always be enough money for crews and equipment to come in at night and restore them for the next day’s audiences and merrymakers,” Saltz said. “It’s fitting that when this cycle of abundance recedes, these caprices may become the very “ruins” that inspired them.”

Saltz envisions the following dilemma: having new opportunities for putting art in the public sphere is good, but the creation of environments that mix experiencing art with planned programming and entertainment may change the dynamic in ways that aren’t beneficial.

He sees the High Line as a “harbinger of a bad pathogen now transforming public space into fussy, extra-busy, overdesigned, high-maintenance mannered playgrounds, curated experiences, and crowd-pleasing spectacles.” He admits that the “semi-privatization of public space has produced some of the best public art the city has seen in decades,” but at the same time he worries that “the money people who make major projects happen” are too interconnected.”

For his part, Schäcter believes this “transformation is due, in part, to the steady rise of the street-art festival. From Miami to Manila, these festivals have given institutions a way to establish the ultimate delivery system for creative city policies. They make and market “place”, turning physical space into a branded commodity. The “edgy authenticity” of street art makes it the ideal fit for this task: it is just perfectly, marvelously edgy enough.”

He continues,

“Much of the street art pumped out through the festival apparatus provides an aesthetic of transgression, while remaining perfectly numb to the social realities of its setting, treating public space like a blank canvas, rather than a site already loaded with cultural, historical and personal significance.

“It appears political while in fact being perfectly non-partisan. It performs a charade of rebellion and insurgence, while being officially sanctioned by commission and invitation.”

It’s not hard to see just how mainstream “street art” has come. One has only to look to Madison Avenue, which has just come up with an Instagram campaign for the color-trend-setting company Pantone. To gain consumer awareness for its #ColorOfTheYear (actually two colors this year), it’s having street artists “with large social followings in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami” create art installations to “showcase the colors’ harmony and their dominance in fashion, art and design.”

And in Toronto, a children’s art studio just announced it will be offering “Express Yo Self,” graffiti classes for kids, to introduce them to street-art techniques. Purists will certainly find this unsettling.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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Herb Gardens, Goats & Real Estate Developers: Considerations in Community Development

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Urban farms and community gardens have been popular for a number of years, particularly as the farm-to-table movement took off. In cities across the country, many vacant, often blighted lots were adopted and converted to bring “healthy food, commerce and eye-pleasing greenery to dreary neighborhoods” and to supply restaurants and farm markets with locally grown produce. But now, according to the Associated Press, “as more people look to live and work in central cities, growers say it’s harder to find and remain on land now sought by developers.” At risk, farm advocates say, is not only the ability to grow food nearby and cultivate nature in more parts of the city, but the community spirit that often grew up around these projects.

Community gardens have often provided neighborhoods, local schools, and programs that work with at-risk youth with the chance to bring diverse people together to work toward a shared goal. But with big money at stake, local officials are often unwilling to champion these projects in opposition to housing development. St. Paul City Council Member Amy Brendmoen is quoted as saying that she saw the decision there to support building projects instead as “sad but inevitable.”

At the same time, ABC News reported this past week on a contradictory trend taking place in some suburban subdivisions and various communities wherein housing developers are responding to the farm-to-table movement themselves by “adding farms to neighborhoods to give people what they want…old fashioned roots to grow.”

Some urban farm promoters are “pushing local officials to begin setting aside plots for urban agriculture because of the health and community benefits.” In the Seattle area, “officials have designated portions of parks and other public land. In Los Angeles, community groups are encouraging developers to have farming and green space designed into housing, including on rooftops.”

At The Cannery in Davis, California, which presents itself as “the first farm-to-table new home community,” ABC News reported that “nearly 540 homes will be walking distance of a 7.5-acre farm” with housing styles ranging from affordable apartments to million-dollar estate homes. Given that when it opened to potential buyers in August, 5,000 people came through the Cannery on the first day—and that buyers have ranged from millennials to retirees and empty-nesters—the developers seem to be onto something.

Ed McMahon, senior fellow at the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, a real estate research group in Washington, D.C., told ABC “agrihoods” are hot. “Almost every week I get a call from a different country about a new development,” McMahon said. “What people are finding is that it is an amenity that can really actually create some value in a community.”

Across the U.S., these communities take different forms. “At Agritopia, outside of Phoenix, residents take pride in growing on their own plots, whereas, “people who buy in the Davis development won’t work the farm.” In Serenbe, a community within an hour of downtown Atlanta, “homes are scattered throughout a 25-acre organic farm, where professional farmers tend the land and sell fruits and vegetables to local residents.”

There’s even a movement afoot in some places to push the concept even further to include livestock. The Detroit Free Press just reported that, where “city laws technically don’t allow for the raising of livestock,” city councilman James Tate is looking to sponsor an ordinance that would change that to “allow homeowners and urban farmers to raise their own livestock safely while also making sure that neighbors aren’t upset.”

Not everyone is a fan, of course, but a recent study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute that looked at emerging trends in real estate for 2016 suggests, according to the Christian Science Monitor, that “more urban farms will sprout up across the U.S., especially in areas where vacant land sits unused and unwanted.” The report also said, “What is important—and trending—is the new vision that has urban land as the most precious and flexible of resources.”

Mikkel Kjaer and Ronnie Markussen, who run a Danish urban design lab and who were written up in September by UK firm Collectively, are among those hoping this is true. They are designing a type of urban farm in a box intended to “increase food security in cities, lower the ecological footprint of food production” and “easily adapt to changes in the urban landscape.” Eyeing the U.S. as their primary target market, their “Impact Farm” kit is designed to be built with “an assembly-kit of ready-made components” which when put together, is a two-story vertical hydroponic (or soil-free) farm…designed to be self-sufficient in water, heat and electricity.” Once installed, their farm’s production area “stretches to 538 square feet. Crops include greens, herbs and fruiting plants.”

Kjaer foresees it being used by “catering companies, housing cooperatives, schools, municipalities, restaurants, and local communities.”

NPQ would love to hear from advocates of community development about the importance of such projects to development in poor urban communities and whether you have had to protect them from other development plans.

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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