Not So Big Communities:
A promising vision for all ages

by Sarah Susanka

Ever since moving to the United States as a teenager in 1971, I’ve believed that there is a better way to shape our communities, towns, and cities than what is currently practiced in this country. I grew up in England, a country of small villages and historic towns built over hundreds of years, so when I moved here I found the American methods of construction, as well as the almost exclusive orientation to the convenience of the automobile, very limiting in terms of opportunities for human interaction.

In the world I’d come from, people of all ages lived in the village and interacted on a daily basis. There were also no retirement communities or senior centers. Seniors, or “pensioners” as we called them, were an integral and essential part of village life, like anyone else. Rather than being cordoned off to a separate community for those of their age, they lived amid and amongst the rest of us and could be seen sitting on park benches, walking their dogs, or chatting with one another outside the corner store. Though I’d never thought much about it as a child, these older members of our village played a large part in my upbringing. They were like caretakers in a way, always watching, offering encouraging glances when we were playing, and looking on disparagingly when any kind of fighting or emotional outburst was being displayed. They were passing along signals about what constituted appropriate behavior, and I learned a lot from them over the course of my early childhood.

By contrast, I vividly remember driving through a Los Angeles suburb with my parents in the early seventies, and wondering what would happen as one aged in such a place where everything is so spread out. How did anyone ever get to know each other here, when everyone was safely ensconced within their automobile? What would you do if you couldn’t drive? Where would you go? How would you get around without a car? How would you shop? What would you do all day if all you could see out your windows were your own front yard and the occasional passing car, with no way to regularly interact with the world? It seemed a pretty desolate future.

Back when my parents were in their 40s and 50s that vision was only a distant imagining, but now it’s a growing concern. Like so many of my generation, I look at the options available for seniors like my parents, and for myself a few decades from now, and I know unequivocally that these are not choices that either my parents or I would willingly make. My parents like their independence. They’ve created a home for themselves over the past 40 years that fits them to a tee. The available options, an independent or assisted living facility, or a retirement community, would mean a complete break with the past, with all the places and people they know. It’s the equivalent of extreme surgery just at the time in life when one feels the most vulnerable.

And the requirement that you then spend the rest of your days surrounded by people whose faculties and physical abilities are gradually waning seems a harsh sentence. Wouldn’t it be better to give those who are themselves aging a view into the lives of those who are just beginning their lives, to weave generations together, as was so abundantly present in the village I grew up in?

Why is it that our current development practices require that once we lose our ability to drive, we must also lose hundreds of other freedoms, simply because there’s no way for us to get around by foot since everything is far too spread out and inaccessible, with no public transportation system to help get us where we need to go? Why can’t we create communities where all ages of humans can thrive, no matter their ability to maneuver an automobile?

That’s the question that’s been uppermost in my mind recently as I’ve been contemplating ways to improve the quality of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods here in the US. I’m envisioning a type of community that’s informed by the same Not So Big sensibility as the work I’ve been doing in house and life design over the past few decades.

What does “Not So Big” mean?

I coined the term Not So Big to describe a perspective that focuses on the qualities rather than the quantities of space and time.

In terms of house design, this means a home that’s designed for the way we really live, with every square foot of space in use every day — a home that’s an inspiration to live in because it is beautiful as well as functional. A house that’s 5,000 square feet but sorely lacking in character and craft, for example, is nowhere near as satisfying to live in for most people than one that’s half that size but beautifully tailored to accommodate its inhabitants’ needs and aesthetic preferences.

And in terms of life design, this means a life that’s filled with the things we love to do, and with ample opportunity for the kinds of experiences that allow us to grow and flourish. A life that’s devoted to making it to the top of the corporate ladder at the expense of one’s relationships, health, and well-being, for example, may look successful from the outside, but inside can be empty of meaning, filled with stress and frustration. But a life that is spent pursuing the things you love to do, that has time built in for connecting with others and for taking care of oneself, is successful in the true meaning of the word. It feeds our spirits, and not just our bank accounts.

A Not So Big House is not intended first and foremost to knock the socks off the neighbors, and a Not So Big Life is not focused upon accumulation of money, power, and stuff, although it doesn’t preclude those things happening. It’s just that those things are not why you do what you do.

The Ingredients of Not So Big Community

So how can we translate this same sensibility to the places we share and call our collective home…our community? If we look at what we love about the hill towns and villages of Italian Tuscany, for example, or the well-weathered stone cottages of the English Cotswolds, there’s something timeless and at the same time deeply connected to nature that draws us in and makes us want to explore them and spend time in them. Most American towns and cities have precious little of these same qualities. And because of this, whole neighborhoods are regularly torn down, only to be replaced by the next new development trend, the next quick fix to house the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

We don’t have to continue this way. We can in fact build towns, neighborhoods, and homes that are every bit as lovely and inspiring as the European models we travel to on our vacations. We just have to recognize what it is that we like about them, and learn to emulate those characteristics in our new developments.

Ingredient #1: Beauty

At the root of the Not So Big sensibility is the notion that beauty matters and is in fact one of the most sustainable attributes a place or object can have. When something — be it a tool, a piece of furniture, a home, or a community — is lovely to look at, to work with, or to live in — in other words, when it’s designed to inspire as well as to function well for its intended purpose — it is not only a delight for those who use it today, but its beauty transcends time and brings that same pleasure to every generation of people who inherit it. The making of a place that’s beautiful, inspiring, and alive is the first step toward the realization of a new, more sustainable, and at the same time Not So Big form of community.

Ingredient #2: The Lessons of New Urbanism

I’ve often characterized the Not So Big House movement as a perfect parallel with what the New Urbanists have promoted in terms of walkable, mixed-use communities and neighborhoods. the New Urbanism sprang up in the early 1980s to counter the trend toward urban sprawl, and is based on the characteristics and proportions of neighborhoods that were developed before the advent of the automobile. Over the past two decades, over 600 New Urban communities have been built around the United States, and the movement promises to continue to grow in decades to come. Now I believe it’s time to weave the tenets of both the Not So Big House movement and The New Urbanism movement together into a new vision for integrated community design.

Ingredient #3: Learning from A Pattern Language

Another important addition to the mix of ingredients for this new type of community are some of the key concepts from A Pattern Language.[1]  This weighty tome, first published in 1977, is a marvelous compendium of principles, or patterns, that govern successful building around the globe. The book begins with principles that apply to the city scale, with patterns named such things as “Lace of Country Streets,” “Mosaic of Subcultures,” and “Identifiable Neighborhoods”; and works its way down in relative scales, to neighborhood considerations such as “Degrees of Publicness,” “Main Gateways,” and “Hierarchy of Open Space”; then on down to the scale of the house, with patterns such as “Farmhouse Kitchen,” “Alcoves,” and “Sunny Counter.”

This book was pivotal in the development of my own architectural work and has much to lend to the discussion of sustainable community design. At the time of its release it presented a paradigm shift in the approach it recommended to design and construction, and it continues to provide a compass for those who want to revitalize our approach to the built environment.

Ingredient #4:
Aging In Place and Multigenerational Communities

As the baby boom generation moves ever closer to retirement, they’re looking for ways to age in place rather than to move to a community of people all their own age. Studies show that over 80 percent of adults want to stay in their own homes until the end of their days. To address this desire there are a number of new initiatives being spearheaded by AARP. One in particular is called CAPS, or the Certified Aging in Place Specialist program. With increasing numbers of designers now trained to help people stay in their homes as they age, there’s also an increased awareness about how we can make all homes and communities accessible, not only for those with age-related disabilities but for those with other types of disabilities as well.

Taking these understandings and applying them to the designs of new communities will allow people to stay in their homes for the full duration of their lives. By designing for accessibility without making those features look or feel institutional, we’ll be creating truly multigenerational communities that are sustainable for all age groups and physical abilities… a truly inclusive environment.

As well as the obvious features required for ease of movement and general functionality, there are the critical ingredients of walkability and visibility. We feel most alive when we can see others fully engaged in their own activities. Being able to take a stroll on fairly level surfaces, placing benches and sitting areas throughout the community, and having views out from every home to pedestrian walkways, green spaces, and everyday activities like farming, shopping, and playing, can transform one’s later years from isolated to alive and vibrant.

Although none of this is complicated to accomplish, there’s an immediate need to integrate these design characteristics into the communities being designed today to allow for aging in place in the future. It’s not rocket science, but if we put it off, we’ll be depriving generations to come of the type of aging experience that almost everyone today longs for.

Ingredient #5: Not So Big Living

This last ingredient, the principle tenets of Not So Big living that I describe in The Not So Big Life, is perhaps the most critical but least quantifiable aspect of community design. A big part of what makes neighborhoods that already have the magical quality of real community so special is the connection between human beings. There’s an authenticity and a genuine caring for one another that comes about as a result of a quality of interaction that’s almost impossible to define in words. It truly is a quality and not a quantity, with the central characteristic being one of real interest and attention, as opposed to social obligation.

A community can be so much more than we normally appreciate when the inhabitants share a common bond around the way they engage their lives, understanding that every activity and interaction is a kind of nutrient for one’s sense of well-being and personal growth. On the surface, everything looks very much the same as in any other community, but inside each individual who lives there there’s a depth of experience that is rare in today’s world. Although it is possible to live in a “Not So Big” way by oneself, it becomes a great deal easier when a number of people share the same aspiration and vision. They can support each other as they go about living their everyday lives, and in so doing become a community of true friends.

This process of Not So Big living is not connected with any particular spiritual tradition; yet it does acknowledge that we are spiritual creatures that crave a type of engagement with each other and with ourselves that is less superficial than we presently recognize and generally allow in conventional society. It’s a challenging vision to bring into being because it is so little understood or appreciated, but one I believe we are ready to entertain and live into over the coming decades.

Mixing It All Together

This vision for community design will, I believe, provide a new model for the kind of place that supports its inhabitants in living fully all the phases of their lives, from infant to elder. And it will do so in much the same way that The Not So Big House has provided a new model for house design over the past dozen years. It will be a community designed with true sustainability at its core, where people can live in harmony with their environs, with each other, and with themselves.

So how do we begin to make such places? Not So Big Community begins with the first imaginings about its form, and it is colored and shaped by the involvement of everyone who touches it, from the planners, designers, builders, and developers, to the long-term residents, participants, and caretakers. Community is not only a place, but also — more importantly — a process; and the more people who are fully and passionately engaged in its making, the more alive, regenerative, and sustainable that community is likely to be.
 


Sarah Susanka, F.A.I.A., is an inspirational cultural visionary, acclaimed author of nine books, and an architect who describes herself first and foremost as a student of life. She became a household name in the world of home design with her Not So Big House series, but the true magic behind her life story is revealed in her landmark book The Not So Big Life, where she unveils the process by which she lives her own life — a process she is adept at sharing with everyone interested in more fully inhabiting their own life and realizing their full potential. Visit her Web site at susanka.com/.


Notes

1 Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure, 1977).