Die Hard: 7 Ugly Sins Killing Your Community

American culture has rejected sustainable community development for too long. Even though many of us want to make our community stronger, the historic heart of our towns is often weak and perforated - due to the sins of our fathers. Some of us are guilty too! Like a dead whale launched to the beach by a tidal wave, many of our communities' best properties lie broken, abandoned, and steadily decaying. How did things get this way? 

Whalers on South Georgia Island 1912. National Archives UK.

Whalers on South Georgia Island 1912. National Archives UK.

Through my work as the staff architect for the Oklahoma Main Street Program, I have come to find resonance inside the bowels of the past. Often far from revitalized, our historic downtowns broadcast a town’s self-concept - just like a neon sign. 

But neglected downtown property is not the only whale-sized issue weakening our communities. More expansive development has cut open our bellies, forcing us to devote too much energy to expanding infrastructure. Culture has given up boutiques for big boxes. Fast food service and home building have way too much in common! Nothing seems to be built to last anymore. Even worse, America's sprawling development patterns have given us all more isolated lives, and the Internet of things (IoT) has compounded the disconnection of our souls.

Note: This is first post in a group series called #ArchiTalks. This month’s topic is “Ugly”.

Due to these unsustainable development practices, many feel the American dream fading. These problems should be faced both individually and collectively, and winning the battle can only come through a radical change of  heart. 

So, let’s butcher this beast of a problem and look inside. Seven ugly sins brought us into this vortex, and now we must escape. If we do not become more sustainable-minded, the currents of popular culture will take the helm; we will crash on the beach and die an ugly death.

Image from page 16 of "Just So Stories for Little Children" (1902) by Rudyard Kipling.  

Image from page 16 of "Just So Stories for Little Children" (1902) by Rudyard Kipling.  

Ugly Sins & Sustainable Virtues 

There are 7 deadly sins, and 7 heavenly virtues known in the Church, so let's twist this axiom to expose how there are both ugly sins and sustainable virtues in every community. It is up to us all to be the change we want to see, and advocate for sustainable develpment practices in our homes, neighborhoods, and downtowns.  

Glossy Architecture

We need to temper our desire. Glossy architecture is a little like pornography. They are both hyper-real to our senses. We receive a chemical payback for simply wanting things and consuming images with our eyes. Shame, shame!

Why not lead others toward a more collective satisfaction? Remodeling an almost-perfect home, instead of wanting a whole new one. Adding a small playground for a handful of neighbors with small children, and allowing neighborly relationships to flourish. 

Being satisfied and purity of heart are the paradigm shifts we can all use. We don't need the gloss when daily reality becomes an exciting adventure!

Mono-block Subdivisions

All-You-Can-Eat is no substitution for a fresh bowl of greens and a nice cut of meat. Similarly, seeking mixed-uses that offer both quality and variety will yield a much better solution in long-term community planning efforts. 

Many of us could be more sustainable by rejecting the cancerous urban sprawl of subdivisions spreading out further onto our surrounding green fields. Even worse is that most new home developments offer lower construction quality than the historic and mid-century homes found closer to the heart of town. 

Renovating and remodeling a home in an established neighborhood usually offers a better-constructed home. Also, there is built in community profit that comes with the center of town's density and higher use. Their municipal services are at the ready. 

Being close enough to perhaps walking your children to school, make a fast trip to the corner store, or recreation at a nearby community park or library offers a much higher reward than the alternative.It keeps us connected to the community. 


Auto-Centric Development

Our municipalities have been sold a bill of goods for too long. They often focus on all the zeros guaranteed by Mr. Big Box's model.  

For far too long it has been an easy model to let large chains simply build wherever they want, and get the red-carpet treatment.

To offer a pad site at an industrial park, or extended utilities for another big box, the City only has to brush off the hidden infrastructure costs, negative impact on local businesses, and the health of the community-at-large, right? No big deal... We need to require more. These corporate titans can (and will) work through city zoning and design review provisions if your municipality requires it. If they are not interested in working within the constraints that fit your community's plan for sustainable development, then let them go. 

There are studies (like this one from Joseph Minicozzi) that show that a municipality gets more than seven times the return for every acre on downtown investments than it does when it breaks new ground out on the city limits. If you have not seen this study, there are lots more good stats to support the case for reinvesting in the historic Main Street district first.   

We all know that big-box businesses are white whales. Even if they are too large to bypass or kill completely we should steel our minds on the cyclical economy that buying local achieves. When feasible, why not check with a local business before going the whole hog at Wal-Mart. Even better, champion walking or riding a bike to your nearest corner store or pharmacy. We can all use a little more exercise in our daily lives

Bad Property Owners

Balancing fair policy and profits is not easy, but municipalities need better ways to protect our common future from lazy intentions. 

Vacant and dilapidated buildings cause blight. Blight is bad for the neighborhood - no questions asked. 

Incorporating minimum maintenance standards - especially in the historic Main Street district - is as simple as having your City Council adopt any applicable portions of the ICC International Property Maintenance Code. But, having real teeth and enforcing the code stringently (and regularly) is how the City can become a change agent for more sustainable community development. A public-private partnership is fundamental in any community revitalization work. 

Ideally, a 'vacant building registry' would be supported by your state government. Oklahoma is a strong 'property rights' state, and a move to do this in 2013 was stopped in the state house. The City of Detroit had to get really tough on vacant and dilapidated property.

The problem became so big that they could not even budget to demolish all the property left for dead. Owners had given up and moved on. Through tough property maintenance codes,  aggressive legal action and the creative use of a land bank Detroit City has effectively saved many important buildings and neighborhoods that would have otherwise become a large burden of dangerous blight.  

Inappropriate Materials

Have you ever wondered why some of the coolest buildings in town seem to be covered in layers of cheap materials from the home store? Even more puzzling: why replace original character-defining elements such windows with unsustainable options like vinyl versions? I have just about seen everything, but I still get a sad laugh of surprise at some of the "fixes" that have befallen so many gentle giants in the historic district. 

Not only do these materials sacrifice authenticity, they lead to the perception of blight. Even worse, they invite moisture and nesting critters to take advantage of the "newly renovated" accommodations. 

I have seen that removing layers of inappropriate materials often reveals original materials still intact, and that can be a great find. Working with your municipality to pass a historic preservation ordinance (HPO) is a great first move to protect your town's cultural heritage. This will help keep future work in conformance with historic preservation standards and sustainable community development principles.

Many of Main Street organizations across Oklahoma have formed volunteer "Facade Squads" of individuals that volunteer to remove sheet metal with a property owner's permission. These kinds of collective community action can do more than a million bucks in restoring pride to a historic downtown. 

Many communities have developed incentive plans facade renovation, too.  These are usually some type of matching grant funded through donations made to the Main Street 501c3 nonprofit organization, and paid out to property owners upon successful project completion. Of course, it is wise to require adherence to your town's historic design guidelines. So, pitching in with a little elbow grease or even a few bucks can play a big roll in restoring pride in the heart of town.  

Inefficient Buildings

You might think that historic buildings are inefficient compared to modern construction, but you are mostly. Mostly because PHIUS+ Passive House Certification and other high-performance building standards are the greenest ways to build new construction today. 

However, the fact that most of us live in a leaky, older home can be a good thing. Believe it or not properties built before WWII (but not excluding those built up until the mid-1970's) are almost as energy efficient as today's new construction. Even better is that they have a lot of potential to reduce energy use through simple retrofits.  

If you are interested in the truth of  life cycle assessment (LCA) regarding historic buildings versus new green construction review this report from the Preservation Green Lab. Except in rare cases, the report outlines how older properties that are retrofitted with modern energy conservation measures will far outperform any demolition and subsequent new "green" construction. 

There are incentives and rebates out there that can help with the $$$ necessary to make energy retrofit projects feasible. First, try your utility providers, and then refer to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency®.  


The most insidious of the 7 ugly sins of community development. 

Antonyms:  interest; care; concern; feeling; passion; sensitivity; sympathy; warmth!
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition Copyright © 2013 by the Philip Lief Group.

Have a Heart & Don’t Be Ugly

Suffering from these ugly sins has surely been causing a slow demise, and reversing inertia is challenging. It's important to believe that under the surface, in your community, there is a greener paradigm waiting to be discovered and we all play a part. Keep in mind that many hands will make light work, and it may only take your action to inspire another to do something positive as well. 

Captain Ahab may not have killed the beast, but it was not for a lack of heart! No, you cannot abandon ship. Our voyage is up against the bulk of humanity. It is not for the faint of heart, but we can do it together! Once sustainable community development gets in your blood, battling ugliness, complacency and ignorance can be a lot of fun. ARRR!

Full album stream of MASTODON's 2004 'Leviathan' LP.  (Heavy Metal)

Welcome to ArchiTalks

“Boulder Man” by Richard Bock at Frank Lloyd Wright's home studio in Oak Park, Illinois.  
Photo © John Delano of Hammond, Indiana

This post marks Green Heart Town posting with #ArchiTalks (Google Search) for the very first time. ArchiTalks is a collaboration of practicing architects that blog from all  across the world. One day each month, we will blog on the SAME topic on the SAME day. We hope this can give you more insight into the multi-dimensional field of architecture.

This month’s assigned topic was "Ugly" and it didn’t take very long for my ideas to begin percolating. I am not sure where it came from, but I immediately felt that the topic needed to feel a bit dark

To see how the other architects responded to  our "Ugly" theme, follow the links below. 

#ArchiTalks 30 Contributors: 

Moby Dick (Graphic Novel)
By Herman Melville