November 1, 2011
Lessons of Place
Where we live teaches us about our world. What kind of world do we really want?
Your eight-year-old son runs into the kitchen holding a tomato he just picked from the plot you and the kids have been working this summer in the nearby neighborhood garden. As he gives the luscious red fruit to you, you can still feel the sunshine warming your hands. Your ten-year-old daughter likes to spend time at the nearby creek, observing the aquatic life while dreaming of becoming a marine biologist. And you are about to walk over to the community center to discuss climate change with your neighbors. No, this is not some utopian dream or a saner The Truman Show; people actually live this way in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, in a place called Pringle Creek Community.
I came across the Pringle Creek story last month at Greenbuild in Toronto, where the United States Green Building Council’s conference and trade show was held—for the first time in its ten-year run, outside the United States. As expected, the 23,000 attendees learned about the many ways that Americans, Chinese, and others around the world are opting to live sustainable lives, with the aid of architects, landscape architects, designers, planners, policy makers, manufacturers, and developers. From using software that provides feedback on our personal and local energy consumption, to the next generation of economic development that’s expected to focus on abundant natural resources like the Great Lakes region’s fresh water supply, there were many hopeful stories.
Perhaps because I’ve been railing against the old-style New Jersey suburb where I own one of those ticky-tacky Frank Lloyd Wright–imitation houses with a chemical-dependent lawn (that I let go to seed, much to my neighbors’ chagrin), Pringle Creek had the most resonance for me. Unlike my subdivision and thousands like it, with names like Lakefront Drive and Piney Woods Court—guilty memories of dead lakes and decimated woodlands—there is an actual creek in Pringle Creek.
And that’s the point of this story, told by the architect, James Meyer of Opsis Architecture.The development is in a region known for its benign climate, long growing season, and abundant rains. Recognizing these resources is key to the design of Pringle Creek. In addition to “passive” open spaces, as Meyer called the undisturbed wetlands around the creek, there’s “active” open space created for community gatherings. In a highly detailed report, the architect talked about making sure there were “opportunities for spontaneous hellos.” He emphasized features that usually aren’t part of our current cost-accounting system: watching sunrises and sunsets, listening to birds singing in old-growth trees and on green roofs, rainwater disappearing under porous pavements and replenishing the aquifers, streets designed to calm traffic, and homes where the occupants can “age in place.”
This is not the age-segregated, sanitized world we’ve made for ourselves, where fruits and vegetables taste like the cardboard they were shipped in. Pringle Creek is designed to teach kids and their parents that nature needs time to grow things, that cultivation is a fruitful human occupation, and that life is an endless cycle—lessons we all need to learn.