The TH Interview: Stacey Frost of Urban Re:Vision

"A block is to the city as a cell is to the human body."

stacey frost urban revision portrait photo
Stacey Frost is an interesting woman, to say the least. When this former cattle rancher, neuropsychologist and options trader decided to focus on renovating historical buildings, she became acutely aware of the need for greater sustainability in the urban environment.

The result was Urban Re:Vision, a two-year, six-part international design competition to stimulate innovative thinking about the components of a sustainable city. After collecting hundreds of original ideas, Frost set out to make her vision a reality.

Last month, a design charrette was held in Dallas, where Urban Re:Vision is leading the creation of a fully sustainable city block, complete with on-site energy, food production and affordable micro-lofts. TreeHugger: Urban Re:Vision had a big year in 2008, holding the last of six international competitions to redefine the way we build our cities. What were your goals in holding these competitions and what has been accomplished through them?

Stacey Frost: Our goal for the series of competitions was to gather as many ideas as possible, looking at all aspects of sustainable development. We wanted to allow people to share and collaborate on these ideas with the hopes that some of them will become a reality, inspire innovation, and set an example of what the future holds.

Through each of our competitions, we were often surprised at the caliber and approach that entries took — and that for each competition a theme emerged that was unexpected. We have gathered hundreds of inspirational, and realistic, approaches to creating a new way of building sustainably.

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TH: What led you to the idea in the first place? How did the idea to hold a series of conceptual competitions take shape?

SF: As a mother, I had concerns about how our environment, and specifically the homes and buildings we live in, can have such an affect on not only the environment, but the health of those who live in that community. I wanted to look specifically at a city block, so that we can see the perspective of one small unit starting to affect its surrounding areas, and creating true change.

At Re:Vision we decided to take a look at the various aspects of the city block one at a time (energy, transportation, commerce, community and construction) so we could allow important ideas to reveal themselves. Using the entire city block to launch the contest would have been overwhelming. The specific contests helped lead us to the point where we could apply these ideas collaboratively to a specific site.

vertical interlock entry image

Detail from a competition entry entitled "Symbiotic Interlock - Towards the Vertically Interconnected City."
TH: In early December, TreeHugger reported on a design charrette that was held in Dallas, with the participation of the city's mayor, planning officials, architects and others. Can you provide us with some behind the scenes insights about that event?

SF: The Dallas charrette was a very rewarding and challenging event. Rewarding because we were able to gather a substantial group of experts who were fully engaged, and excited to be contributing and collaborating. It was only by bringing these folks into one room that we were able to come up with some of the guidelines and challenges for the block's development. We brought together such a diverse group of people who each have their own goals, jobs and agendas, and it was incredibly rewarding to see that they were able to come together and effectively collaborate on Re:Vision's project.

Some of the challenges included continually encouraging them to work out of their comfort zones, and asking them to be open-minded about the possibilities. There was a bit of resistance at first, but by the end of the day we had the entire group working on specific challenges and objectives as one group, and we were able to create a valuable set of guidelines and objectives for the site competition.

In addition, I think its important to acknowledge how many heads of departments were willing to take off an entire day. They are passionate about their city. They are proud of their city. The Mayor's office and all the departments are committed to a long-term vision of sustainability for Dallas. It's not just lip service. And when push came to shove, they were not only willing but highly able to work together. They were open to outside expertise. They were excited about implementing innovation. And they are completely supportive of the concepts presented to them. I think that says a lot about the power of local government to create change.

TH: What are your plans and hopes for the next stage?

For the current competition - Re:Vision DALLAS, we are very excited to see what sort of ideas and proposals are presented. We're especially excited because this is our first site-specific competition, and we expect to receive not only entries from students across the globe, but additionally professional and well-established firms. So the mix of ideas should be quite inspiring!

We're hoping that some of the entries will encourage others to realize the possibilities of sustainable development, and what direction our building industry can begin to move. We hope that this first city block in Dallas will prove to be an example of how cities should be approaching building, planning & developing for their communities, and that cities across the country will begin to encourage this type of development.

What is unique about this site-specific competition is our project brief and the Framework that supports it. We've spent two years gathering information and worked with Rocky Mountain Institute to create a Framework, a definition of sustainability, that pushes the envelop in ways that haven't typically been included in architecture. We're asking for a level of integration and efficiency that begins to make development a restorative gesture, rather than a destructive one.

This challenge asks designers to truly develop ideas which will respond to the existing challenges of today—scarcity, economy, equality, education, environmental responsibility—all in a beautiful and practical way. It's an opportunity to take what we have available now, that wasn't available even 5 years ago, and incorporate it into our building and design practices on the scale of a city block.

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Above: Detail from an entry entitled "Reconnecting Communities Using Digital Technology and Public Space."
TH: Let's fast forward a bit - it's May 2009 and a winner of the competition is chosen. The city of Dallas has on its hands a very challenging, forward-thinking, complex proposal for a fully sustainable city block smack in the middle of town. What kinds of challenges do you foresee in the implementation stage?

SF: I think some of the challenges for the implementation stage will be to make sure that all of the appropriate parties (government, community, business) are collaborating and compromising as necessary to move the project forward. There will need to be a consensus on the goals for the project, and additionally an agreement that each party will deliver on what they have agreed to and promised as it relates to the city block being built.

As far as working with Central Dallas CDC [the nonprofit developer chosen to construct the block], it has been invaluable to work with an organization that knows the city and community so well, and has already established the goals needed in order to move this project forward. It is essential to get the city and community's support when creating a project like this.

How often do you have a developer who is willing to commit to a design he hasn't even seen? How often do you have a developer whose values are sustainable and affordable housing for all?

It is an honor to work with Central Dallas CDC. And quite frankly, this project would never have been possible had it not been for them. We're talking about a leap of faith from a true thought leader just to get the project off the ground. And on top of it, the support of the Mayor and the City!

Yes, the project will be cutting edge. Inspired. Innovative. Intimidating even.

But this group of people are exactly the right group of people to get the block built. Our responsibility is to demand that the entries meet the requirements of the project brief—the major one being that it be economically feasible. If we can get the economics right, they will do the rest.

TH: Can you paint us a picture of what it would be like to live in a fully sustainable city block?

SF: Residents will live within a community where they can not only walk to get food, but there is individual as well as community space to grow your own food. Water will be re-sourced, the building you live in creates its own energy, materials used will be sustainable and non-toxic and transportation options will be convenient and close-by.

There will be plenty of bike pathways and green space providing adequate areas for outdoor recreation. A natural result of this type of "landscape" is a tighter sense of community among residents. Local business will be encouraged and supported. Schools will be within walking distance.

But it does not mean living on an "island" within the city. This block is intended to be a beacon of sustainability in Dallas. There will be practical transportation options to deliver citizens to and from art centers, parks, the airport, sports facilities, and other areas of interest.

A significant portion of the residential living spaces will be set aside for affordable housing providing a economically diverse community. Residents will enjoy the benefits of living in a small town while enjoying the amenities of a cosmopolitan city. All while living a lifestyle which is more environmentally sound, self reliant and stable providing a community which considers the lives of future generations.

And not to be overlooked, is the fact that human resources are available and optimized through inclusion of multiple trades, and the provision in the design for creative spaces. It's beautiful and there is a sense of ease and freedom, because how people move through a space throughout their life cycle has been considered in the design. Relationship is valued and technology is used to foster community rather than create isolation.

TH: When will the whole thing be built and lived-in?

SF: We cannot predict when the block will be built, finished and lived in until we have the final designs but the goal is 2012.

TH: How will you decide, for example, who is eligible to live in the rent-controlled units? Is there a risk that high demand will drive up prices in the units that are marketed on the free market?

SF: The affordable housing units will be run through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas' Affordable Housing Program.

It is not likely the affordable units will be compromised by market demand costs. The intent of the project is diversity of use, people, function and affordability. These are written into the covenants of the project.

TH: Assuming that everything goes well, how will Urban Re:Vision spread the model of the sustainable block to other cities? How would this mesh with the plans afloat for a Green New Deal?

SF: Re:Vision's goal is to continue to pursue other cities who are open to having a sustainable city block, and support the goals of sustainable community development. The sustainable city block in Dallas is intended to act as a template for other blocks and bigger cities. If you think of this city block as a cell of a bigger organism (the city), then imagine that cell duplicating again and again. This is how we see this one city block making a bigger impact on other areas of Dallas as well as other cities throughout the US and beyond. Re:Vision's plan would definitely mesh with the Green New Deal in that it would not only create new jobs in the energy, transit and education sectors, but it would begin to shift how cities rely on fuel.

We hope to facilitate the collaborative aspects of sustainable design and to continue to share all that we learn.

Images courtesy of Urban Re:Vision.
More Urban Re:Vision:
Re:Visioning Urbanism: Sustainable City Block to Rise out of Parking Lot Behind Dallas City Hall
Urban Re:Vision's Re:Construct Competition Winners Announced at West Coast Green 2008
Urban Re:Construct Competition Challenges Designers to Rethink the City Block

The TH Interview: Stacey Frost of Urban Re:Vision
"A block is to the city as a cell is to the human body." Stacey Frost is an interesting woman, to say the least. When this former cattle rancher, neuropsychologist and options trader decided to focus on renovating historical buildings, she became

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