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Smart Growth Developer Creates Sense of Community with Pocket Neighborhoods

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  June 19, 2012 10:06 AM

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By Cindy Atoji Keene
Long-time building developer Dan Gainsboro wasn’t always an advocate of new urbanism: the movement in the market away from subdivisions and towards smaller, downtown living. But four years ago, Gainsboro flew to Seattle to view a cluster of cottage communities and to talk with architect Ross Chapin, the brainpower behind these pocket neighborhoods. The cozy developments triggered his imagination: walkable streets, close proximity to transit, and smaller, smarter homes that create a sense of neighborhood. “For many, McMansions are losing their appeal,” said Gainsboro of Genesis Planners. “I wanted to create more thoughtful places to live where people have a sense of belonging, not isolation.”

Gainsboro, 53, has spent decades designing and planning buildings, including campus centers, hospitals, and homes, but his first foray into sustainable neighborhoods is the Concord Riverwalk project, a cluster of 13 two and three-bedroom cottages and townhouses with shared gardens, walkways, and parking. “The principles of smart growth allow for compact, eco-homes that encourage meaningful social interactions,” said Gainsboro, who said he wants to build not just places but create a sense of placemaking. “Placemaking happens in a public place or a community that fundamentally responds to what people want and need,” said Gainsboro.

Q: What challenges did you face during the design and permitting process for Concord Riverwalk?
A: Most zoning bylaws are antiquated and don’t contemplate cottage community developments but favor large-acre remote sites. So it’s a matter of educating the planning board and staff and also addressing fire safety, stormwater, sewer, and utility concerns. The houses are 15-20 feet apart so these are tightly knit communities near the town center or train. Such closeness to your neighbors is probably not for everyone but I believe it’s a model for how a lot of development should be happening.

Q: These are net-zero energy homes. What does that mean?
A: The homes are capable of producing, at a minimum, as much renewable energy as they consume over a course of a year. They’re super-insulated, extremely airtight buildings with 3-4 times more insulation in the walls as compared to typical homes. The small footprint homes have highly efficient pumps capable of heating and cooling the air and photovoltaic arrays that convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Of course, getting to net zero is very contingent on occupant behavior, so if there is a huge flat screen TV in every room, and plugs in every outlet, it’s not going to happen.

Q: How did you get interested in design and construction?
A: The creation of communities for me personally dates back to when I was 6 or 7 years old, and I would go back into the backyard and imagine creating different buildings. Now that I’m grown up, the building part is straightforward; this isn’t rocket science. But I’m finding that the social engineering element is challenging: understanding how to design a sense of place and of purpose where people want to live.

Q: How do you balance community and privacy in these homes?
A: The spaces are layered from private to public, so you can choose to interact with neighbors or not. The construction is more thoughtful, so no one is looking at a bathroom from the living room window, for example. There is a high probability for a serendipitous opportunity to bump into neighbors at the mailbox or community gardens, which are also added by design; they’re the new so-called “golf course.”

Q: Is this the beginning of smart development communities throughout the state?
A: My vision is to do a half dozen or more of these in the next 5-10 years. We are in the process of identifying new sites along the commuter rail corridor.

Q: You talked about placemaking – what are some special places for you?
A: One of them is the outdoor courtyard in the Boston Public Library. You feel in your bones that you are in a special place.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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