Building a Whole Community

In a room full of strangers, say, an event at a regional or national conference, the first question someone is likely to ask upon meeting someone new is, “Where are you from?"

In a room full of strangers, say, an event at a regional or national conference, the first question someone is likely to ask upon meeting someone new is, “Where are you from?”

In fact, most people closely identify themselves with the places in which they live and work. Yet may communities —including new, isolated suburban developments and older, declining urban neighborhoods —often are places without strong identities. JHP Architecture/Urban Design has recognized the challenge of creating strong, sustainable communities that enrich the lives of the people who live and work in them. To encourage an open discussion of these issues with peers, owners and developers, JHP has developed “Whole Community Design.” This initiative seeks to create memorable environments for people—rich in diversity, unique to the place, and sustainable over time—bringing people together as a whole community.  At little or no additional cost, this design philosophy and associated principles can add enormous value to a project, whether it is a retail, commercial, residential, or mixed-use project.

Although “Whole Community Design” was not conceived as a strategy for survival in a troubled economy, the solid planning and design principles underlying this initiative can help developers and owners thrive in good times and bad.

In fact, in today’s troubled economy, and with over $16 billion in stimulus money slated for high-speed rail and other public transit developments, whole communities —particularly in the form of infill transit-oriented development (TOD)—are more relevant than ever.  With traditional development stalling and developers looking for alternate funding sources, a public/private partnership offers a unique opportunity to engage with the city and its citizens in order to establish an economically feasible product.

More than a place

Whole Community Design has been developed through a grassroots effort to serve as an umbrella for sustainable design research, philosophies and trends. These include environmental responsibility, a return to the city, healthy living (socializing, exercising and stress reduction), the so-called “graying of America,” and antidotes to the hurried, time-starved nature of most working American’s lives.

Simply stated, Whole Community Design revolves around the people it serves. At the end of the day, the built environment is an investment in people. Through the creation, revitalization or enhancement of a community, this design approach seeks to inspire those who live and work in a community with a sense of identity and inclusion in something larger than themselves. Communities need a center. This may be a physical place, or it may be an abstract sense of identity and belonging, but it must be genuine to the culture. This singularity of identity enriches the lives of those who live and work there, and engenders the community with a memorable experience, not only of a place, but also of people.

Whole Community Design focuses on four main principles to create a community that enriches the lives of people:
•  Center: A uniting force or point of reference
•  Sustainable: Unique and diverse in its design, adaptable over time and environmentally responsible
•  Diversity: Meeting the needs of a broad range of socio-economic levels and uses
•  Interaction: Encouraging all types of interactions among the people who live and work there—physical, virtual, formal, informal, deliberate and accidental

Let’s look at these qualities in more detail, and consider some of the planning and design strategies that the firm has found to be effective in achieving them.

Creating a uniting force

A whole community is often given definition in relationship to a “center,” that is, a uniting force or point of reference. The project should be unique and relevant to its location and to the people it will accommodate.  A whole community is unlikely to grow out of the imposition of the will of a jurisdiction, developer, planner, architect or other interest group. To become a whole community, a project ideally should be carried out in partnership with the people of the place in which it is to be located. Every new project that creates linkages with what is already in place and valued, while bringing new opportunities to the community, helps create or define a center.

Often, people resist new development because they see it as out of touch with serving the needs and interests of their community; often, they are right. A whole community can revitalize the existing and surrounding communities, not simply replace valued institutions and services, by integrating within the existing fabric and historical context. Moreover, it can help to establish a new (or reinforce an existing) sense of identity. People who live and work in a whole community are easily able to identify themselves with it, whether it is the area’s history, a natural feature, and/or an iconic structure. Thoughtful architectural design can establish or reinforce the identity of a unique place and inspire community pride.

Encouraging interaction

A whole community encourages interaction of all types among the people who live and work there—physical, virtual, formal, informal, deliberate and accidental. It enhances the lives of its residents and workers by creating spaces for activities and events. Walkable neighborhoods also enhance security because residents can readily interact with neighbors and passersby on the street from their porches or stoops. In fact, there are many ways to urge people to come out of their individual homes and interact with their neighbors, from community gardens, playing fields and dog parks to civic spaces that enable large-scale events.

By involving its residents in one another’s lives, a whole community program proves to be more enriching, adaptable, flexible and sustainable over time.

Achieving sustainability through diversity

A whole community aspires to be sustainable—unique and diverse in its design, adaptable over time, and environmentally responsible. An adaptable and flexible community is more likely to retain its social, civic and commercial value over time. A building (or project) that has been thoughtfully designed to be adaptable to retail, residential or office space, has a sustaining benefit to a whole community. A project that interfaces with smart building codes or ordinances that support sustainable principles also contributes to longevity. Developers, planners and designers seize opportunities to re-use existing infrastructure, buildings and/or materials.

A whole community by its nature promotes diversity with respect to sale and/or rental pricing, occupancy types and transportation modes, meeting the needs of a broad range of users. A diverse range of pricing and occupancy types promotes long-term sustainability through inherent adaptability and flexibility. As residents transition through life and their spatial needs evolve, they have more options to remain in their community. Diverse modes of transportation, including walkable communities and access to mass transit—the model for the infill TOD—promote wellness and allow residents to avoid the time and expense associated with long drives to work.

Public/private partnerships

A case in point is 5th Street Crossing, a 3.4-acre redevelopment site located adjacent to the City Hall and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) stop in downtown Garland, Texas. Developed as a public/private partnership with the City of Garland, this project contains 189 housing units comprising three-story urban housing with six ground floor “flex” units (residential/retail/office) and 7,500 square feet of neighborhood-scale retail. The project includes a shared parking garage used for municipal parking and residential housing; on-street angled and parallel parking is integrated with an urban streetscape to provide ample retail parking. The city owns the parking garage and the land. In addition, the building itself is on a long-term lease from the city. ##The project is a bold move for the city —one of the first new apartment complexes in quite some time— and an important catalyst for change in an aging urban downtown. Pedestrian and vehicular connections are developed with the neighboring DART Station, the Garland Performing Arts Center, City Hall, the Public Library, the new Dallas County Community College and the historic urban plaza located downtown.

The development’s urban block is designed on a human scale, while mixed-use facilities are inserted in the program as an embodiment of the urban fabric of the community. The building’s design embraces this diversity of form so each component offers a different scale for different users: resident, shopper and visitor. The planning process closely involved the community to maintain their support. In addition, a public green space was created on the north side as an amenity for the community, a buffer between the residential units and the DART rail tracks, and a pleasant pedestrian route between the DART station and the new community college.  

Flex units

The six live-work flex units located on Austin Street are intended to be flexible for use as a residential loft, small professional or retail business, and they were specifically designed to address the common problem of retail and office space rentals lagging behind residential occupancy.

The flex units are sized at 750 square feet, 633 square feet and 1,103 square feet. Designed to the exact footprint as the studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom residential units above—but left as open floor plans—upon finish-out the retail/office space each has a finished bathroom and a rough-in in the wall for a kitchen. This enables these ground-floor spaces to be used as an office or retail space with a restroom, as a residential unit with the addition of kitchen cabinetry and appliances, or left as an open space for another purpose. With at-grade entries, storefront windows, and boxes for retail signage, the spaces can readily be converted from residential to retail units as the retail component “takes off.” With starting rental rates ranging from $908 for 750 square feet to $1,215 for 1,103 square feet, these spaces are being offered at a lower rental rate than traditional retail or office space.

The Garland model of a public/private partnership is being replicated in the nearby city of Carrollton, where a new rail station will open in 2010. Positioned on six acres of land adjacent to both the historic Carrollton downtown and the rail station on DART’s future Green Line expansion, this project is a catalyst to spur development in a neglected, yet much loved portion of the city. The first of three stops in Carrollton, this will be the gateway to the city, and will provide 295 residential units and 10,500 square feet of destination shopping in a development that enhances and supports the current walkable community by linking the downtown with surrounding residential areas.

Here, too, the city will own the garage and the developer will contribute the mixed-use component. Similarly, Cityville Southwestern Medical District (SWMD), Dallas is a mixed-use TOD infill development comprising 265 units, 15 townhomes, and 40,000 square feet of retail on a 5.7-acre parcel of land adjacent to the site of Parkland Hospital.  The first of several phases of a complete urban renewal of former greyfield factories, it is adjacent to a future DART light-rail station and across the street from the site of the hospital’s new expansion.

JHP worked with the developer, FirstWorthing, to rezone the site and develop a planned district, which enabled development of a high-density, mixed-use development with shared-parking reductions. In turn, the development/design team worked with the City of Dallas Economic Development Office and Planning Department to develop a tax increment financing district (TIF) that will infuse approximately $10 million for infrastructure improvements.## As these examples illustrate, a building or a development must be more than just a structure or a collection of structures on a site. Whole Community Design starts, centers and ends with the people who live and work there. When projects such as these are undertaken in partnership with a city, the outcome is not only a place that people will want to live, work, and play, it is also an economically viable solution.

Jonathan R. Brown, MACM, can be reached at  Kirby Zengler, AIA, can be reached at For additional information, please visit