At Pringle Creek Community in Salem, Oregon, bike paths weave around 250-year-old oak trees, ducks and children splash in a meandering stream, and residents of energy-efficient homes gather in a central hall to take salsa lessons, enjoy meals made from produce grown on site, and throw neighborhood parties. Three miles from downtown, this new suburban development “is an experimental model in sustainable living,” says Margaret GanderVo, Community Manager. “It’s designed to be a comfortable, modern development that emphasizes interacting with other people and the landscape.”
With gently rolling hills bordering wetlands, the location is part of a former 275-acre mental health care facility for the developmentally disabled that was decommissioned in 2000. In 2004, a local company, Sustainable Development Inc., bought 32 acres of the land and worked with Portland-based firm Opsis Architecture to create a master plan for the site that centered around “35 Sustainable Goals,” including building streets of net-zero homes, creating a solar-powered bio-diesel co-op gas station, and helping revitalize the natural environment.
There are 137 residential lots on the property, designed to contain a mix of housing types—including row houses, live-work loft apartments, traditional single-family homes—and to incorporate earth-friendly aspects, such as green roofs, day lighting, rain screens, and solar panels. “We want to build a variety of homes to attract a variety of people,” says GanderVo. “Different housing sizes and layouts helps bring a good diversity in age, income, and background.” The architects also built a LEED-platinum cottage as a model for going green without sacrificing style.
Community gathering spaces “create another way of living in the suburbs,” says GanderVo. “Instead of coming home and pulling into your garage, the idea is to be engaged with your neighbors.” Painters Hall, an existing 1930s building, was transformed into a simple modern meeting place. Solar panels on the roof provide more than enough energy for the building (extra energy is funneled into the development’s geothermal heating system, designed to heat and cool 70 homes and 7 commercial spaces), making Painters Hall a net-zero energy building. Inside, people sip organic coffee in the bustling café, join in monthly community farm-to-table dinners where dishes like squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and blackberry sorbet are served, and attend educational workshops.
Nearby, two 1930s Lord & Burnham greenhouses were refurbished into over 6,000 square feet of solar-heated gardening space where residents now grow produce such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and greens year-round—some of which becomes part of salads and sandwiches in the Painters Hall Café. A neighborhood chicken coop, beehives for honey, and a composting program round out the offerings.
The landscaping takes a similarly sustainable approach, concentrating on the particular needs of the locale. Since this is the rain-drenched Pacific Northwest, through a smart combination of porous paved roads and sidewalks, storm water swales, and planted strips along streets, 90% of all rainwater filters into the ground and returns to the aquifer. Native grass species such as Oregon grapes, shrubs, and wildflowers make up the majority of the landscaping. Few of the site’s many fir, sequoia, and oak trees were cleared as part of construction—and 12 acres of the community is dedicated to parks, open space, and community areas.
The only downside to this impressive plan is that the pace of construction is happening more slowly than originally anticipated. Since the designs were finished just as the housing market crashed, only 10 homes have currently been completed. But more houses are under discussion, the café has extended its opening hours, and there are regular tours, workshops, and community parties—and there’s every indication that the development will continue to grow and thrive.
Perhaps most importantly, “people are using the community the way it was intended,” says GanderVo. “They know their neighbors, they watch out for each other, they’re really active. It’s a different and more conscious way of living.” Making this a truly sustainable community—in the most fundamental way.