Just a quick blog post to publicize an upcoming event here in Towson:
The speaker at the Town Hall meeting will be Steve Mouzon, AIA. Mouzon is a principle of the New Urban Guild, and also heads an initiative called “Original Green“, which will be the spingboard for his talk.
I met Steve Mouzon over seven years ago when I was working as the architectural project manager for several buildings at The Waters, a development outside of Montgomery, Alabama. At the time, I was a bit skeptical of the whole New Urbanism thing, but was doing my best to learn and meet the requirements of the community. During one of our meetings, I asked why the speed limit on the road was 18mph instead of 15mph or 20mph. Mouzon’s response was simply that the road was scaled for 18mph and that speed worked best for the walkability and environment they were trying to achieve. I didn’t buy it, but moved on . . .
Little did I know, that question would lead to my “Aha moment.” I love to drive fast . . . but the next time I went to a meeting on site, I looked down at my dashboard — I was going about 18mph. Suddenly I realized that there was science behind the madness. Through subsequent conversations and meetings, I discovered that each New Urbanism development was a “lab” to try new ideas. The early versions, such as Seaside, had a lot of experiments. Some worked, and some did not. Learning from there, the next development tried a new set of experiments. Now, after 30 years of experiments, a science has emerged to support the system . . .
Simultaneously, environmentalists have pursued greater efficiency in buildings for even longer than New Urbanism has pursued its goals. Not until Energy Star, USGBC’s LEED, and similar programs emerged and gained influence in recent years did these “sustainable” efforts begin to gain traction . . . Unfortunately, so much of these programs are about living the same way we always have, just doing it more efficiently. Mouzon calls this “Gizmo Green.”
Mouzon has since married the two pursuits together to create an initiative called “Original Green.” The basic premise is that we should pursue a lifestyle that is more efficient, not just make our stuff more efficient. How can we live more efficiently? Eighty years ago, people consumed less and thus lived more efficient lifestyles. They ARE the original green. Smaller, more compact homes use less energy. Living closer to our workplace requires less driving. Shopping closer to our home requires less driving. Creating pleasant public and outdoor spaces means we are not shut up in mechanically ventilated buildings as frequently. Just getting outside and walking or biking from place to place will increase our health and decrease medical costs. And the list goes on and on . . .
If you are in the area, I hope you will join the discussion!
For more information and to RSVP for planning purposes:
In my last post, I wrote about how several of the local communities around us are built to look exactly the same, but minor details result in a wide disparity between the quality of the neighborhood. As stated in that post, time has yielded an even wider disparity, as a variety of socio-economic, family, and other factors have caused the differences to compound. The result is over a 50% reduction in home value for an identical townhome less than 3 miles apart (or double the value if you go the other direction).
As I think about our local communities from an architectural/planning perspective, I can’t help but also look at them through my Christian perspective, as well . . . Specifically, I have been trying to contemplate how my spacial observations can be applied to churches and establishing new churches.
Interestingly enough, the townhomes in Towson were built just slightly before the time of the last significant church planting movement in the United States — The post World War II era. Drive down any long-established street in America and you will likely pass multiple churches that either were started or significantly expanded somewhere in the 1950’s or ’60’s. There’s a myriad of reasons for this, most of which are related to post-war boom, upward mobility, and suburban expansion.
Like the townhomes in Towson, a vast majority of these churches looked and operated exactly the same, in accordance with their theological or denominational identity. Each church had specific programming that was a carbon copy of the material provided by the denomination. These similarities are humorous at times. When I go in to a church to help them renovate, even the carpet color communicates which theological or denominational identity the church favors. At the time, this uniformity was seen as a positive to help an increasingly mobile society find a familiar church home in a new community. The premise is good, but the extent of implementation caused significant problems for the Church.
Just like Towson townhomes share uniformity inside the walls with surrounding communities that are vastly different, churches deal with the same issue. You can make it look the same inside, but if the surroundings are different (which they always will be), the end result will be different. When the end result is different, you will deal with different problems, different rewards, different personalities, different interests, and the list could go on and on. In the end, you can’t expect churches that are dealing with such differences to all be successful when approaching faith in the exact same way. The core beliefs can (and should) be held in common, but getting to those beliefs and then living them out can be dramatically different.
Throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, church planting began to become common again. This time, instead of denominational models, other identities were carbon-copied, such as “seeker sensitive,” “Purpose Driven,” etc. The results were effectively the same, but realized in much less time . . . a bunch of very similar churches reaching less and less people. Even today, we fight the urge to follow the same pattern. Every church wants to be “missional” or “organic,” which at its roots is a good thing and encourages more unique involvement in the community. But we tend to copy other church’s ways of being missional, which defeats the purpose entirely.
Ultimately, we can learn much from successful churches. But those lessons can not be limited to the “Floor Plan”. We need to step outside the walls and see how the church is situated in the community, how the community interacts with the church, how the scale of the church (not the building, but the programming, philosophies, etc) shape and fit the local culture, etc. We need to understand the culture in which they are operating. We need to now the type of people they are reaching, and whether or not it reflects the true community around them. When we understand some of these things, then we can learn a lot to apply to our local contexts.
Next time, I hope to apply some of these principles on a more personal level . . .
Sorry for a delay – our home internet has been down a few days. Let’s dive in . . .
My last post was mostly just a catch-up, but also set the stage for where we’re going . . .
I’m not exactly an early adopter, but I tend to adjust to new ideas fairly quickly, especially when I see value in the idea. As an Architect, I was not an early adopter in New Urbanism. However, some personal experience with a development outside of Montgomery, Alabama, caused a dramatic shift in my thinking. I am now a significant proponent of many ideas coming from the movement.
Following that change in thinking, before our family relocated to Towson, we noticed key factors in Towson communities that illustrated New Urbanism ideas, despite being built decades before New Urbanism existed. We scouted multiple neighborhoods in Towson, several of which are townhome communities. One thing about Towson townhomes — most of them have the same layout, no matter which community you are in. However, there are dramatic differences in the communities, and the resulting home values highlight those differences.
Some of these differences have, over time, become the result of socio-economic factors. However, I believe those factors are results and not causes. Despite identical interior floor plans on the inside, when you walk out the front door, there are dramatic differences. The most successful townhome neighborhoods have a very small street scale. Homes are a closer to the street. The exterior facades have slightly more variety. Mature trees remain and are replaced when they die. The streets themselves are quite narrow, usually one-way with parallel parking on both sides. In these neighborhoods, kids are out playing and people are out walking and talking. As street widths increase, tree density reduces, and homes get pushed away from the street, the success of the neighborhood reduces, and so does the home value. The chances of seeing someone outside dramatically reduces. The same exact size townhome, built within 10 years of each other, with the exact same upgrades, less than 3 miles apart can fetch literally twice the price from one of the lower neighborhoods to the highest neighborhood. A significant factor is the quality of the schools each is zoned for, but I would argue that the quality of schools is an affect of the socio-economic factors, which is an affect of the quality of community, which is a result of the quality of space.
When we moved to Towson, we lived in a mid-rise apartment building . . . which was in reality a micro-city to itself. As long as we lived in that building, we could look out of our balcony and see the community all around us, but it seemed like an unreachable place, despite being just down the street. Several other people we have met felt the same way, so it wasn’t just us.
In May, we were finally able to escape from the microcosm of the apartment and purchase a local townhome. While we were not able to afford a home in the top neighborhood, we found a home on the best street of a mid-range neighborhood. We only moved 8 blocks, but life has changed dramatically. After 3 years in town, we suddenly feel like part of the community. Within weeks, we met several neighbors, became a part of the community association, and have completely transformed our lifestyle. I personally believe the spacial dynamics of our street are a key factor in how quickly we have become a part of our community.
But community is so much more than houses, streets, and generic people that populate them. There are much deeper dynamics that lead to experiencing life in true community. Some of those factors are “station in life” (are you single, married no children, married with children, etc.), type of employment (bluecollar/whitecollar, similar factors), and simply being available. For us as Christians, we also believe true community can not be fully achieved without a deep spiritual connection, rooted in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
After moving, we discovered a family 2 doors down has a little girl almost the exact age of our older daughter, which gave us instant play dates. As it turns out, the parents are vibrant Christians, which instantly bonded us together. Despite choosing our townhome partially because of an open back yard, we spend a large portion of our time playing in the front yards, running across 3 properties. The result is meeting numerous neighbors as they walk up and down the street.
The final icing on the cake for cementing us in the community in a short time was the dreaded Derecho storm that busted its way through Maryland in late June. The storm knocked the power out on our street during the hottest week of the summer. Some people chose to go stay elsewhere. Many of us escaped to our yards and got to know each other in the process. The homes across the street got power on a few days before us, and one generous neighbor (also a Christian), allowed us to run 250 feet of extension cord across the street and up the sidewalk to power 1 window AC unit in our home and a deep freeze in our neighbor’s home.
Shortly after this, we moved some of our chairs from our back porch to our front porch, and regularly sit outside with empty chairs, waiting for a passing neighbor to come sit and commune with us. Yes, in a walkable community, it really is that simple.
I admitted to a local pastor yesterday that we are still longing for a depth of personal relationships we have somehow missed most of our lives, but we feel like God has called us to this place, and the blossoms are now fading in order for the fruit to develop.
Next time, I hope to put out some thoughts on how to apply some of these concepts from spacial communities into spiritual communities, namely, the Church.
This post is an introduction/back-story of sorts, catching everyone up on the past 3 years, so that future posts can make more sense and have a greater impact . . . I hope you enjoy!
Our family has now lived in Towson, just outside Baltimore, for more than three years . . . But if we are honest, we only really started to feel like a part of the community for the past three months . . .
When we packed up all our belongings in July 2009 and headed up I-85 from Auburn, Alabama, I was an unemployed, unlicensed architect with dreams of planting an awesome church that would transform the region . . . We rented an apartment sight unseen off the internet, getting a good deal because it was scheduled to be renovated in less than a year (think about how creepy that could have been!) Within 6 months, our lives had changed dramatically. I became a registered Architect. I began working for Curry Architects, a Baltimore firm that moved to Towson 4 months after I began working for them. Finally, a large part of our church planting dream died, simply because our dream wasn’t compatible with the culture God sent us to. We began helping a local traditional church with leadership and ministry transitions.
Throughout 2010, our life continued to change dramatically. I designed a stadium for Stevenson University, a project that continues to receive widespread attention — something I never thought would occur in my architectural career (It also gave me an excellent relationship with most of the Baltimore County building code officials). We moved to the top floor of our apartment building into a renovated apartment. One of our cars was totalled and we became a 1-car family. Our second child, Holly was born and spent 2 weeks in the NICU due to a collapsed lung. A vast majority of our developing friendships were with people with little or no relationship with the church, a vast contrast to our previous lifestyle. I began preaching pulpit supply at various churches around the region.
2011 was much less eventful . . . Most of the developments in 2010 simply developed further in 2011. Curry Architects became one of the first Baltimore architecture firms to feel some sense of recovery from the Great Recession. I began contributing to the Greater Towson Committee. We continued to develop the friendships we could, and had to let a few go that didn’t seem to be headed anywhere. While we continued to try and help the traditional church, several factors led us to realize that our influence was used up and we needed to bow out gracefully. As I learned more about Baltimore, I was more and more thankful we hadn’t pushed forward with our original church planting vision. Instead, we continue to learn the culture and community, beginning to shape a vision for the type of church that God wants to use to reach people in this area. I preached at several area churches, allowing me to refine my preaching style to fit me better and to communicate better to the local culture.
Despite over two years in the area, and a growing network of relationships . . . we still didn’t really feel a part of the community. It wasn’t until May 2012 that our roots began to grow deeper and wider . . .
And that is where I will pick up next time . . .
It’s been well over a year, so this blog has been essentially dead.
Lately I’ve been pondering a number of things. I’m going to try putting them into words here on my blog …
As I move forward, I make no promises on the frequency of posts … But I do have one goal: make as many posts as possible be a bridge between my Christian faith and the Architecture/Construction world I spend most of my time in … My hope is that all of my readers can get something out of each post.
I hope you old readers come back and join me with my thoughts and ramblings!