Regenesis aims for distinct local identity
- Published: March 13, 2008
In order to move forward, according to Regenesis consultant Ben Haggard, a community must look back and let its ecological and cultural identity inform its goals for the future. For the Rio Vicente neighborhood of Silver City, N.M., that meant recognizing its artistic heritage to build a dense, mixed-use hamlet centered around a thriving glass and pottery ware production center. For the Three Canyons development of Patagonia, Ariz., it meant seizing on its phenomenal animal and plant diversity and using the development of a community to finance the protection of 1,600 acres of pristine desert habitat. And for Sunrise Valley in Washington City, Utah, it meant creating a walkable destination village with a local CSA organic farm and farmer’s market and a wetland wastewater system.
As part of its goal to define an overall vision and land use plan for Yellow Springs, Village Council at its meeting Monday, March 17, will consider using the consulting services of Regenesis Group, Inc., a regenerative development firm based in New Mexico. Haggard came to the village last month to speak about the process Regenesis uses for community planning.
Development in its ideal form, Haggard said in an interview on Friday, should “charter developers to manifest the will of the community.” Although in the past century developers have gotten away from the community’s needs, Regenesis works to get community members thinking about “who they are and how they need to grow themselves, manage themselves and become a healthy economy.”
The process used by Regenesis often starts with a multi-day design charrette, or forum, with developers, planners, engineers, and government and community representatives, on the ecological and cultural patterns that have created the community’s identity. According to Haggard, the Regenesis team believes that these “core organizing patterns” represent who the community is and can be used to guide where the community should go from here.
“The idea is to reveal something so self-evidently true that people can work together to pursue it without undermining each other,” Haggard said.
In McAllen, Texas, a city of 500,000 in the delta of the Rio Grande along the Mexican border, the underlying pattern Regenesis helped to uncover was “the spirit of non-apartment.” The strong tendency toward racial integration, business and commerce-oriented population and periodic rebuilding from floods and wars that had always occurred in the city defined its identity as a place that uses its strengths to rebuild and prosper.
The city then used that sense of place, according to assistant city manager Wendy Smith, to design a 69-acre multi-use public/ private center for McAllen that would replace a raw water reservoir. The group was deliberate about planning just the right ratio of public park space, loft living space, and office and retail space that “at the end of the day, revenues from sales and property tax and leases would make money and allow the project to be sustainable,” Smith said. Located in the middle of a triangle that includes an airport, convention center, and the second highest grossing mall in the U.S., the property now has the best use planned for it, Smith said.
“People are excited; it’s an ambitious plan, and through our creativity and resourcefulness, it will be a fantastic project for the entire region,” she said. “I think it will set a standard for environmental and economic sustainability for other projects we do in the future.”
Regenesis has worked with much smaller communities in a similar fashion to come up with solutions that meet the needs of that particular area, according to Haggard.
Regenesis began with a visioning process for a development called Three Canyons in Patagonia, Ariz., an area of about 2,000 people that is at once an enclave for artists and environmentalists and a home for old-time ranchers. Bringing community voices to the table through a charrette, Patagonia recognized that the Sonoran Creek Desert where it is located has always attracted an incredible diversity of wildlife, supporting half of all the bird species of North America, according to Jeffrey Cooper, Patagonia’s former Nature Conservancy manager.
Residents of Patagonia have developed a keen awareness of the ecological richness there, where an office for the National Audubon Society is located, as well as Native Seed Search, an archival bank for ancient Native American seeds that helps support indigenous farming methods. And they were also aware that conventional development methods in and around Tucson, an hour north, have reduced the land’s ability to retain water and thereby threatened the area’s natural diversity, Cooper said.
But Three Canyons would be different. The developer, together with the community, chose to establish an 1,800-acre protected ranch for 198 new adobe and straw bale homes, on which 90 percent of the land would be under easement as an organic farm, an orchard, public parks and an oak planting area. In addition, 1 percent of each land purchase would be used to finance a non-profit organization called La Semilla, whose mission would be to educate future property owners about the sensitive ecology of the area and teach them how to be good stewards of the land.
The system they created, according to Cooper, would keep the town from “being overrun by developers and changing the indigenous community” and it would “make us stronger and clearer about who we are and where we are going.” Though only one house has been built so far, Cooper, the first director of La Semilla, couldn’t be happier about the outcome.
“It’s been incredible seeing the community working with the ideas and tools Regenesis created so that decision-making becomes productive and regenerative for the land,” he said. “Through the process I came to believe that a healthy landscape and a healthy community are one in the same.”
The process that Regenesis helped start in Patagonia was also exciting to Haggard, who is a board member of La Semilla.
“La Semilla is a community stewardship organization so that the community becomes a partner in managing this land as a common resource,” he said. “And we use that coming together as a lab and training method to build more consciousness of what it means to live in community in this place.”
In a more recent project in Silver City, N.M., Regenesis helped conceptualize a 109-acre planned unit development (PUD) known as Rio Vicente. The aim of the project was to regenerate the health of the area’s natural grasslands and restore the social and economic aspects of the neighborhood, according to Charlie Dean, principal of the project’s planning firm Community By Design. Regenesis performed the initial site assessment and helped “tutor the developer” on how to approach land and community stewardship for that site, Dean said. Then together with Community By Design, the team sketched out a permaculture plan for a community that would be sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Using a concept called co-housing, the planners designed a plat for 300 units on commonly-owned land with private home ownership, in which homes are often clustered around common facilities such as a kitchen and dining facilities, laundry room, pool, child-care center, gym, office space and gardens. And rooting the community to be an economic center, planners went back to Silver City’s identity as an arts and cultural center with thriving cultural enterprises, Dean said. The community would help boost the manufacturing of existing art products such as ceramics, glassware and bronze cast sculptures created by a local foundry.
According to the plan, the residents would also be responsible for maintaining the natural ecology of the site, Dean said. By getting rid of the invasive junipers, better managing over-grazed land, and simulating the effects of fire as a life-giving tool, the site could be returned to a natural grassland. The gray water system planned for the plat, as well as swales and check dams, will reduce runoff and help to retain water on the site and encourage natural growth, he said.
According to Peter Russell, the community development director for Silver City, the PUD is the first ever proposed for Silver City. And with 54 acres of open space, 25 acres of mixed-use land use and 30 acres for residential use, the community is excited to have a creatively-planned and environmentally sound place to live and work, he said.
The YS community advantage
When Haggard visited Yellow Springs last month, he took a particular interest, he said, in the village’s century-long experiment with the concept of community. In planning for a sustainable community, Yellow Springs in many ways is ahead of the process in that residents here, thanks to the influence of Arthur Morgan, are already schooled in both thinking about community and dialoguing about it, he said.
But the village still has an opportunity to come together to establish an overall framework based on its rich identity and sense of place within which to integrate its community life with plans for economic development and managing the land as a living system, Haggard said.
Building the identity and the framework, or goals, is just step one of creating a sustainable town, according to Haggard. Next comes integrating the problems with solutions practical for the community, followed by the need to sustain those solutions in an environment that is constantly evolving, he said.
For some municipalities, the process Regenesis used to help plan a community was invaluable. According to Jim McGuire, the director of economic development for Washington City, Utah, the charrette and visioning process for Sunrise Valley produced a plan for a 203-acre mixed-use community with a wetland wastewater system fit for people walking along a town center lined with shops on the first floor and apartments and residences above them. The design with three parks and an organic farm and market was meant to draw people together as well as attract outside people to the town as a destination village, McGuire said.
“Regenesis helped the community distill the potential for the valley and was probably one of the very best things that could have happened,” he said.