Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 36, Fall/Winter 1994
Desert Architecture III: Building a Sustainable Future

Sustainable community planning

by Kenneth N. Clark


The energy crisis of the 1970s brought the industrialized nations of the Western Hemisphere face to face with a new reality: their cities, especially those in the United States, are poorly positioned to deal with a growing population in a future of diminishing fossil fuels.

Attempts by architects and engineers to design for this new reality have led to a renewed interest in the potential of solar energy and energy conservation to meet the needs of an uncertain energy future. The worldwide experiments of the late '70s and early '80s brought about an interesting juxtaposition of high-tech/low-tech engineering solutions, as well as a new attitude about energy responsibility in architectural design. A common ground for these diverse attitudes to saving energy was to examine successful historical precedents for clues to low-cost, energy-saving design strategies. Possibly the most enduring results of the energy crisis have been the continuing experiments with alternate sources of fuel (primarily solar and wind), alternate types of building construction (adobe, rammed earth, straw bale, and others), and the many and varied energy-conservation programs sponsored by local utilities.

But have we, as environmental designers, really learned from the energy scare of the 1970s? Or have we once again become consenting handmaidens to economic and development interests? In the United States, where nearly 60 percent of the energy consumed goes to transportation, it is imperative that we combine land use and transportation design to achieve a sustainable balance. Superficially, the specter of dwindling energy resources has been pushed aside by development of more energy-efficient automobiles and by government assurances that we have, by political means, secured the sources of fossil fuel energy.

The western U.S. city

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The low-density U.S. city of the second half of the twentieth century seems particularly vulnerable in the on-going battle against diminishing energy because of its traditional marriage to the automobile. The fast-growing cities of the American West have inherited the urban morphology tradition of a previous time and place and, often, of a completely different climate. The outstanding examples of the Arizona cities of Tucson and Phoenix over the past three decades clearly show leapfrog development based on land speculation and almost total reliance on the automobile. The U.S. planning tendency to separate land use from transportation design makes holistic design for energy conservation difficult. This piecemeal decision-making has produced artificially large suburban infrastructures, which are energy-wasting rather than energy-conserving. This type of city, now standard in the American West, will be especially vulnerable to any future energy shortage.

What can we do as planners of the built environment to anticipate the inevitable next energy shortage and the functional brown-out our overextended cities will experience? It may not be too late to seriously consider our options while we still have the relatively cheap energy to do so. The key seems to be in searching for a balance between resource use and conservation in the designs and plans we propose. In order to rethink the future of the Western city, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the attitudes of two decades ago, but on a larger and more inclusive scale.

Planning sustainable communities (the term in vogue for the 1990s) requires a new and more holistic way of making design/planning decisions. Sustainable design implies that energy conservation cannot be confined only to individual projects (buildings, complexes, or highways), but must be achieved through a carefully coordinated resource management plan on either the municipal or regional level. Achieving meaningful energy strategies may entail regional planning and management for the common good that seem to fly in the face of all-American individualism. We will need to consider strategies that are overarching and sometimes threatening to the status quo. Fortunately, a few communities already have experimented successfully with energy conservation on the community or regional scale. Outstanding communitywide conservation work has been done at Boulder, Colorado, and at Davis, California. One of the most interesting energy conserving community projects, the Civano Solar Village near Tucson, Arizona, gives us clues about how to reduce energy consumption by more than 50 percent through carefully coordinating site design and land use.

Recent developments in energy-conscious planning

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Researchers Victor and Aladar Olgyay anticipated the 1970s energy crisis by at least two decades in their earliest published energy-conserving guidelines for house design: "The Temperate House" (1951) and "Bioclimatic Approach to Architecture" (1953). These were followed by the important Application of Climate Data to House Design (1953)and the articles "The Theory of Sol-Air Orientation" (1954a) and "Environment and Building Shape" (1954b). Aladar Olgyay's comprehensive Solar Control and Shading Devices was published in 1957, followed by Victor Olgyay's textbook Design with Climate (1963). The last-named book expanded the concept of climatic design to include the urban form and, as such, remains the basic reference for most energy-conscious architects and planners. In a time of acceptance of universal neighborhood layouts and international architectural styles, Olgyay's works provided some of the very few bright moments in several decades of conspicuous design executed with little regard for energy consumption.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several guides to designing energy-conserving houses and other small buildings appeared, including R. Parachek's Desert Architecture (1967), D. Wright's Natural Solar Architecture (1978), J. Cook's Cool Houses for Hot Suburbs (1979/1984), and D. Bainbridge's Village Homes: Solar House Designs (1979). As important as these works were to architects and engineers of an emerging solar age, they rarely went beyond proposing energy strategies at the scale of the individual building.

A parallel and complementary energy direction, emphasizing the larger community or regional scale, appeared at approximately the same time. Often acknowledged as the first published report of a community's attempt to conserve energy were The Davis Experiment (Duffield 1977) and A Better Place to Live (Corbett and Corbett 1981). Other publications, such as Duffield's Solar Energy, Water and Industrial Systems in Arizona (1973), the American Planning Association's Energy Efficient Land Use (1979), and Energy Efficient Community Development Techniques (Crane et al. 1981) also served to explore energy conservation on a larger scale.

E. G. McPherson's important Energy Conserving Site Design (1984) and P. Paylore and K. Clark's Desert Housing (1980) were the first among recent publications to consider the questions of land use and of buildings in a holistic sense, bringing us back to Victor Olgyay's initial concerns. Several important recent works, led by S. Van der Ryn and P. Calthorpe's Sustainable Communities (1986) and J. Corbett's Land Use Strategies for More Livable Places (1990), have called for a more global view of energy savings through holistic design.

Clearly, the 1990s' sensitivities to environmental/resource conservation and efforts to save energy through communitywide programs supports a rethinking of our role as designers of a sustainable environment. The worldwide Green Architecture movement of the current decade has taught us how to expand our design responsibilities in terms of conservation. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro served to focus attention on the importance of international cooperation to assure a sustainable world. Environmental concerns raised during 1993 U.S. Congressional deliberations prior to passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) drew attention to the need for a resource-planning agenda that transcends political boundaries. Redefining energy conservation through a holistic planning process is the only logical means to achieve sustainability in a future of limited resources.

A holistic approach to planning and architecture

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McPherson and colleagues (1984) present us with a valuable listing of energy-conserving options for the community, neighborhood, cluster, and building, as well as further savings to be achieved by their efficient operation and management. Categories presented for energy conservation are:

  • functions (mix of uses, location of uses)
  • services (public safety, communications, waste collection, delivery)
  • systems (circulation, utilities, lighting, access, heating/cooling, water, electrical, stormwater)
  • site features (land form, landscape planting/materials, water areas/ways, pavements, parking)
  • buildings (arrangement, location, basic design/construction, fenestration, lighting, HVAC sources/operations, water systems, electrical systems, appliances/mechanical).

Given this listing of potential energy-conserving opportunities, it becomes increasingly clear that an integrated holistic approach is required for achieving real sustainability, since decisions in any individual category may negate energy savings in another. As a general approach, McPherson suggests several objectives for developing energy- and resource-conserving environments. First, we should explore alternative means to reduce our dependence on the automobile as generator of lifestyle and urban form. Second is the need to increase local employment and local production of consumer goods accessible to all income groups. Next, we must be as self-sufficient in energy production as possible, including a well-considered water management strategy. As part of any plan for sustainability, agricultural production must be considered a primary use rather than as provider of a reserve zone for future housing development. Further, we must reconsider the delivery of educational and governmental services in a more efficient manner.

In sum, the design of the physical environment should reflect a healthy and nonconsumptive social attitude implemented by way of a participatory planning process.

Civano: Tucson's solar village

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The guiding plan for Civano Solar Village, a project now in the land-acquisition phase of development that can be expected to be the premier example of a resource-based planned community in the United States when completed, was crafted by a consultant team directed by Wayne Moody, principal project manager for Community Design Associates of Tucson, working under contract to The Planning Center and in cooperation with the Arizona State Land Department and the Tucson/Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission.

The master plan for Civano Solar Village, to be located at the eastern edge of the Tucson Basin in semiarid southern Arizona, proposes an 820-acre mixed-use community of 2,500 dwelling units organized around three neighborhood centers, a community school (kindergarten through eighth grade), and a visitor center and conference center with hotel. Forming the village center will be 285,000 square feet of retail/commercial space. Immediately adjacent to the village center will be a light industrial, office, service, and research zone designed to generate 1,500 jobs. Consistent with its location at the base of the roadless Rincon Mountains, the Civano community plan incorporates 400 acres of public open space and recreation areas.

Although each parcel will be accessible by automobile, the primary internal circulation system is designed to encourage both bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Provisions have been made for a future internal community tram system. Civano is linked with the existing regional bus system, bicycle trails system, and recreational hiking trails system.

Residential units will be clustered in small developments around the Village Center and the adjacent Employment Center. The highest residential densities are within one-quarter mile of the Village Center and decline with distance from it. Residential densities range from a high of 35 units per acre at the Village Center to one per acre at the periphery of the development. This is in marked contrast to density patterns in traditional neighborhoods.

An open space system, composed of a Resource Conservation Area of 300 contiguous acres, will form a continuous linkage system, enabling an open space/pedestrian linkage between each residential unit, the commercial center, and all civic uses.

Specific energy and resource conservation goals established by the Tucson/Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission guided all planning and design efforts. The major performance targets cited here are in comparison with actual 1989 levels for Tucson:

  • reduce energy consumption by 75 percent
  • reduce water consumption by 65 percent
  • reduce air pollution by 40 percent
  • reduce solid waste production by 90 percent
  • provide one job on site for every two homes built.

In a phased plan, the community will contain a balance of land uses at all stages. The Village Center and Plaza provide a central social and business focus and are linked to all parts of the village by pedestrian, bicycle, and community tram systems. Land use is distributed so that 50 percent of the residents and 70 percent of the jobs are within one-quarter mile of the Village Center. Thanks to an increase in housing densities, 37 percent of the site will be devoted to recreational, agricultural, and educational uses. Pedestrian, bicycle, and public transportation systems will be conveniently located to origins and destinations in Civano, reducing the need to rely on personal automobiles.

The residential development is oriented to maximize southern and northern exposures and access to natural breezes, thus maximizing the use of passive solar design for summer cooling and winter heating. In addition, photovoltaic solar arrays for energy production will be used to shade parking areas, large rooftops, and unusable areas within utility easements. Reclaimed effluent is to be used for all exterior irrigation.

The organization of each neighborhood is around a neighborhood center, with pedestrian/bike linkage to the Village Center. The smaller residential clusters (25 to 35 units) are each oriented around common pedestrian paths reflecting the natural drainage systems of the site. Perimeter automobile access will be permitted to each housing unit.


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Civano represents a departure from normal planning because it was conceived by means of a holistic approach to living in a future of limited resources. Its location near Tucson is particularly meaningful, since Tucson's suburban form mirrors that of many other fast-growing cities of the American West and elsewhere. Civano is attempting to show Tucson, a city located in the extreme climate of the Sonoran Desert, what form that city might have taken, given a holistic approach to land use and energy conservation. As such, Civano can provide a model approach for communities that seek to remain viable in a future of less plentiful energy.

References & further reading

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Bainbridge, David A. and Judy Corbett. 1979. Village Homes: Solar House Designs. Emmaus (Pennsylvania): Rodale Press.

Clark, Kenneth N. and Patricia Paylore (eds.). 1980. Desert Housing. Tucson: Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona.

Cook, Jeffery. 1979. Cool Houses for Hot Suburbs. Phoenix: Arizona Solar Energy Commission.

Corbett, Judy. 1990. Land Use Strategies for More Livable Places. Unpublished. On file City of Davis, California.

Corbett, Michael N. and Judy Corbett. 1981. A Better Place to Live: New Designs for Tomorrow's Communities. Emmaus: Rodale Press.

Crane, Carla et al. 1981. Energy Efficient Community Development Techniques. Washington: Urban Land Institute.

Duffield, Christopher. 1973. Solar energy, water and industrial systems in Arizona. Arid Lands Resource Paper No. 12, Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona, Tucson.

___. 1977. The Davis Experiment: One City's Plan to Save Energy. Washington: The Elements.

Erley, Duncan et al. 1979. Energy efficient land use. American Planning Association Report # 341, Washington.

McPherson, E. Gregory (ed.). 1984. Energy Conserving Site Design. Washington: American Society of Landscape Architects.

Moody, Wayne/Community Design Associates. 1991-92. Civano Design Guidelines: Achieving the Vision for the Tucson Solar Village. Unpublished. Vols. 1-8 on file Architecture Library, The University of Arizona.

Olgyay, Aladar. 1957. Solar Control and Shading Devices. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Olgyay, Victor. 1951. The temperate house. Architectural Forum 94(March:179-94.

___. 1953. Bioclimatic approach to architecture. BRAB Conference Report No. 5 (pp. 13-23). Washington: National Research Council.

___. 1963. Design with Climate. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Olgyay, Victor, and Aladar Olgyay. 1954a. The theory of sol-air orientation. Architectural Forum 97(March):133-37.

___. 1954b. Environment and building shape. Architectural Forum 97(August):104-08.

Olgyay, Victor, and Aladar Olgyay et al. 1953. Application of Climate Data to House Design. Washington: U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency.

Parachek, Ralph. 1967. Desert Architecture. Phoenix: Parr of Arizona.

Van der Ryn, Sim and Peter Calthorpe. 1986. Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs and Towns. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Wright, David. 1978. Natural Solar Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.

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Author information

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Kenneth N. Clark is Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Planning at The University of Arizona, Tucson.

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