February 03, 2020

Why is a landscape architect critical to a MH community's livability?

Resilient Communities

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A few weeks ago, I went on a tour through a mobile home park in the south of Minneapolis. Mobile home and manufactured home (MH) communities are commonplace in the United States. In fact, as of 2016, 22 million Americans live in manufactured homes.

Our tour guide, who is also a developer, gave us an inside look at why manufactured homes have proliferated so quickly—from their sturdy foundation, which supports the home's weight and protects it from extreme weather events like tornados. To the interior of the homes that mirror conventionally built homes except at a much more reasonable price.

I'd never been inside a mobile home or MH community, my only experience was from a distance, and I remember feeling unimpressed. The homes appeared small and cramped with no character or discernible features from one to the next.

However, a lot has changed in the past few decades. When I walked inside one of the homes, I was surprised to find a full-sized kitchen with stainless steel appliances, a spacious living room, and three bedrooms that each had a walk-in closet! And like their traditionally-built counterpart, design features such as finishes, flooring and lighting are essential parts of the build quality and interior layout.

After seeing these homes on site, and doing further research on the advances in the manufactured home industry, it's become increasingly apparent that it wouldn't necessarily be straightforward for someone to determine that these types of houses were built in a factory instead of on-site. The only aspect that would give pause would be the surrounding landscape and site in these communities, which has not kept pace with the increasing quality of the homes.

On the drive back from the site, I sat in the back of the SUV thinking of how this community could be revitalized to look more beautiful. I thought about how my colleagues and I, with experience designing landscapes and amenities for subdivisions, would begin to make this place more desirable and attractive, i.e. more livable for existing and new residents. The people that live in this community, and the millions of others who live in similar neighbourhoods, deserve to live in a better-built environment.

The livability of a built environment, including a manufactured home community, depends on a range of elements that include the natural environment, and the design and planning of amenities.

Natural Environment

According to an article by Madhuleena Chowdhury, titled: The Positive Effects of Nature On Your Mental Well-Being, the positive effects of nature on the mental well-being of people include the following benefits:

  • Nature helps in emotional regulation and improves memory functions.
  • Studies had shown that people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders showed significant mood upliftments (improvements) when exposed to nature.
  • Recent (study) revealed that being outdoor reduces stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

However, developments affect the natural environment by altering the existing landscape and sometimes destroying it. Sarah Coleman, in an article about livability and the natural environment, wrote how "land conversion for urban development can destroy habitat, and introduce anthropogenic disturbances and threats".

Fortunately, compared to traditional build homes, manufactured homes cause minimal disturbance to the natural environment. According to architect Andy Thompson, it's because they don't require permanent foundations, expensive infrastructure and landscaping, and roads are designed to preserve the natural features and hydrology of the site.

The natural environments will vary because they are located in different geographic areas with different climates and diverse landscapes. Some of these communities are located in more desirable locations, with more natural features that make it more attractive for people than others, while others are not.

The Pointe Dume Club of Malibu is an excellent example of a manufactured home community that is located in a stunning location in California, on the Western Tip of Santa Monica Bay. The homes located in this community have access to beautiful ocean views and surrounding mountains. Not to mention access to a beach nearby.

Unlike Pointe Dume, the manufactured home community that I visited is situated on land adjacent to farmer's fields, and it's close to the bluffs of a river valley. The site, at one time, most likely had stands of trees and native grasses and had most of its vegetation removed before development. While it was likely farmland with little vegetation left for them to work with, it's still crucial to restore the natural landscape and to maintain ecological zones that are good for wildlife.

The stands of trees and native vegetation that once existed on this site could be restored to an extent through tree planting in positions around the development. As well, some lots could be set aside for a small park that could have natural vegetation planted to bring back the natural character that once existed. I realize that this would decrease the number of lots available to locate a manufactured home. However, it would improve the livability of the community and positively impact the bottom line for the developer.

Three steps a developer should consider to improve the design of the community by focusing on the natural environment are:

  • Preserve native vegetation and trees, when possible. And if they are removed, plan on planting new vegetation in park areas and public spaces.
  • Celebrate and protect the existing natural features, by not obstructing good views to the landscape, protect features like rock outcroppings, and incorporating the topography into the site design; doing so will add character to the community and nature.
  • Design the layout of the community of homes to take advantage of the climate; by positioning homes to take advantage of the sun for warming during the winter months for locations in colder climates, and adding vegetation around homes to reduce the heat in warmer, summer months.

Design and Amenities

The exterior design of a manufactured home and the layout of the community are essential elements that affect a community's livability.

In the mobile home community in Minneapolis, the exteriors of the homes were finished with vinyl siding and trim. Some of the units even had muntin bars in the widows. However, at the same time, the front facades, including details and finishes appeared bland in comparison to typical site-built homes.

Moreover, the main street, which wound itself through the development with homes located on either was devoid of sidewalks. Sidewalks are significant safety features for communities.

Architect Andy Thomson advocates that manufactured home communities should be developed through architectural guidelines, and I agree. The exterior and interior finishes of these homes could also be regulated through guidelines, allowing for consistently higher quality and aesthetic throughout the community.

When I think about improving the livability of this community, I focus on the health and enjoyment of the people living there. Communities should be designed or redesigned to be walkable, accessible and safe. A percentage of the land in a manufactured home community should be set aside for public reserves (parks), playgrounds and community spaces for healthy living activities.

Engaging a professional landscape designer, like a landscape architect, to design these amenities should be considered in the development process.

A professional landscape architect can provide a lot of expertise in ensuring a community has public space and amenities and the means to access these things. Using their knowledge of plants and design an existing community could be revitalized in stages, and follow a plan and design guidelines created by a landscape architect. Phasing the improvement of these projects could help the developer afford to implement it within their community.

Eleven considerations a developer could engage a landscape architect to help improve the livability of an existing manufactured home community are:

  • Regulate the design of manufactured homes in a community by using architectural guidelines
  • Landscape around the entrance signage and invest when possible in creating an entrance feature.
  • Plan to build a multi-use pathway for both pedestrians and cyclists through your development that gives residents an opportunity for an active lifestyle.
  • Install benches in public areas and off the pathway for people to sit.
  • Plant more trees and use native vegetation in landscaped areas to improve the aesthetics of the site.
  • Set aside some land for a community garden or community greenhouse.
  • Build playground/s for the kids and active spaces such as sports fields for all residents.
  • Design a sports field or sports court for development.
  • Build a small park with native trees and vegetation.
  • Have landscaping requirements for homeowners for their lots.
  • Install lighting throughout the development that has a character that reflects the design intent of the development.

Located in the San Jacinto Valley of Southern California, there is an excellent example of a manufactured home community that was designed and developed with livability in mind.

The Lakes at Hemet West is a gated community, designed as a retirement community, with lakes, walking trails, mature trees, a nine-hole golf course and community facilities that provide residents with healthy living activities. These include swimming, gym facilities, bocce ball, shuffleboard and pickleball courts. It offers retirees with a "whole life" by designing their community around the natural environment.

With mountains surrounding it, and providing many amenities and facilities for the enjoyment of its residents, it has become a model example of how a manufactured home community can be designed with liveability in mind, and not just for the number of units.

Conclusion

Designing manufactured home communities to become more livable offer a tremendous opportunity for developers to market their products to a more significant market of consumers than had previously been the case, like for retirees and people who are looking for opportunities to live closer to nature.

Making manufactured homes more attractive, with more details and improving the layout and design of these communities will ultimately make these communities more liable and will, in turn, attract more people. The demand to live there will increase, which will help offset the costs to developers and help them develop more of these types of communities.