Light Imprint: Integrating Sustainable and Community Design

By Thomas E. Low, AIA, CNU, LEED DPZ Charlotte Architects and Town PlannersOur desire for community is clearly shifting away from the conventional auto-centric suburban model towards a more walkable, compact, connected, mixed-use, mixed-income and human-scale neighborhood model. As this transformation takes place, how will we give added consideration to environmental factors without compromising urban design priorities such as connectivity and the public realm? Additionally, what design approaches will enable us to respect terrain, natural drainage, topography, and other geographical conditions, while giving priority to public space? How can we draw on ideals from history and apply them to our future? Light Imprint, a green approach to neighborhood design, provides one answer to balancing climate concerns and the needs of increased populations, while still creating great places to live. An Essential Part of CommunitiesWell-designed multi-housing as part of a community is key especially when considering that demographic projections. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Millennials (born 1977-1996) comprise the two largest American generations.  Both generations are entering life stages where urban living, from village center to a reviving downtown core, is increasingly attractive. This type of convergence is unprecedented.Metropolitan regions across the country must begin to address these projections.  The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) realizes if Atlanta is to remain a relevant region in the 21st Century, it must proactively provide choices for Baby Boomers and Millennials.  These choices must expand to include age-appropriate dwelling units within pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use, sustainable, light imprint environments.  It is within this framework that the ARC – working with the AARP and the EPA – initiated a massive regional planning design charrette in February 2009 to develop models to proactively steer Atlanta’s outward sprawl inward towards existing urban and suburban locations adjacent to urban centers.Balancing multifamily housing density with environmental needs can be complicated but there is abundant precedent.  We can learn from older civilizations such as the Roman’s lessons for water and city building.  The Roman’s systems for delivery and drainage are sophisticated due to the intrinsically green early construction methods for paving, channeling, storage, and filtration.  More recent history from the late-19th Century and early-20th Century offers civic design lessons from the city beautiful and city practical.  The city beautiful built on the Renaissance model to daylight water and celebrate it with public fountains.  The Progressive era city practical introduced modern engineering methods for efficiency and sanitation while balancing the community quality.  And, of course, today’s New Urbanism offers many examples and lessons on towns and town making principles. An Ecological SolutionOne ecological solution that is compatible with successful urban design is Light Imprint. It employs New Urbanist principles to create compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. To this, it adds a tool box of techniques to manage stormwater and natural drainage—an ever-present environmental challenge that plays a major role in shaping cities and towns.   This stormwater management system reduces the anticipated infrastructure costs of a community. Light Imprint is based on transect-based environmental metrics not found in other strategies. Light Imprint Handbook:  Integrating Sustainability and Community Design, written by a group of urban designers, organizes more than 60 tools and resources in a simple, useful form. Light Imprint can easily calibrate appropriate stormwater management tools for projects. For example, for a New Urbanist multifamily building as part of a town center, pervious pavement and underground storage is one solution.  The result is not only lesser environmental impact, but also more efficient land use and savings to the bottom line. For example, the implementation of a natural drainage system on one 300-acre mixed-housing project reduced engineering expenses by 31 percent.  Savings to a multifamily section could be similar if considered as part of the overall infrastructure design.We have put together an interactive database at that includes case studies, a way to analyze savings from Light Imprint techniques and allow municipal staffs, land planners, architects, property owners, environmentalists, development teams, engineers, and land conservationists to select different variables. These variables include urban to rural transect zones, soil hydrology, slope condition, climate, initial costs, and long-term maintenance factors. Once variables are submitted to the database, a customized pallet of tools specific to the project’s needs appears. This valuable database will provide a simple solution for session participants who are overwhelmed by the massive surge of green information. A multifamily developer can benefit from a combination of Light Imprint and New Urbanism because they fit hand to glove.  Other planning and environmental approaches may not be as compatible.  Light Imprint projects are designed to use natural drainage, traditional engineering infrastructure, and infiltration practices. The Light Imprint tool set offers a range of environmental benefits, while significantly lowering construction and engineering costs. Light Imprint is not limited to a single approach for an environmentally sensitive development. Rather, it offers a set of context-sensitive design solutions that ultimately work together on the community level.  From a standard size multifamily building lot infill general neighborhood location like the Mansion Flats and multifamily building as part of the town center core Condominium “6-pack” building in Habersham, South Carolina to an overall community master plan like Griffin Park, Greenville County, South Carolina, Light Imprint offers tools and treatment trains to address the infrastructure needs. In order for the multi-housing industry to remain competitive, it must provide products that care about providing a high quality of community life, a more sustainable approach to development, and that ultimately are delivered more economically. Light Imprint is helpful for providing livable, sustainable, and economical solutions.Tom Low is the Director of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company’s Charlotte, North Carolina office, which he opened in 1995. Low has managed and completed more than 100 town planning projects over almost two decades with DPZ winning awards from the American Planning Association, the American Institute of Architects, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Agency for Smart Growth Achievement, the American Business Journal, the Downtown Development Association, and the United States Green Building Council. Low is actively involved with projects, research, and education. He gives lectures and conducts workshops on town planning, planning history, sustainability, light imprint, and school design. Since 2005 Low has been Chair of the Charlotte Regional Civic by Design Forum.