March 02, 2020

What can we learn from the humble trailer parks?

Resilient Communities

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I have many fond memories from my childhood of running around and playing in a local trailer park with friends who lived there. Until recently, however, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about trailer parks through the lens of a landscape architect.

When Westphal Associates, a firm specializing in Manufactured Housing Communities, joined the Nadi Group of Companies this year, it piqued my curiosity to look more deeply into why I enjoyed my time there so much as a kid.

For clarity, I use the term trailer park because that’s how I remember people referring to their neighbourhood at the time. However, even though the terms manufactured housing community or mobile home park may have different cultural connotations, they are still synonymous with a trailer park.

Living in central Winnipeg, it is easy not to think about trailer parks as they are located on the outskirts of the city. Yet, growing up in Brandon, a small prairie city, trailer parks are more visible and integrated into the fabric of the city. Especially where I lived.

Within a one-kilometre radius of my childhood home, there was a wide variety of housing types including, single-family homes, townhomes, apartments and a trailer park. Obviously, all the kids that lived in these different housing types went to the same school, so all my childhood friends hailed from very different demographics and income levels.

I always enjoyed visiting trailers and admittedly, was a little jealous of my friends who lived in them. There were always kids in the streets—whether it was at the central greenspace or roaming around on the unestablished network of paths behind the trailers—it always felt so lively and active compared to my quiet suburban street.

Of course, everything looks great through the naïve rose-coloured classes of a child. We can’t deny that there is a real stigma around trailer parks that “prevents us from seeing a modest but otherwise pleasant [neighbourhood].” But I am a landscape architect and am not here to comment on some of the less desirable aspects of the trailer park industry.

As a designer, there are lessons we can learn from trailer parks. Andres Duany of DPZ CoDESIGN asks, “have you ever been to a trailer park? They are somehow highly sociable. In the end, what we desire is not great frontages per se—but whatever is in the service of social space”. So what are the design tools at play in these neighbourhoods that create close-knit, social, child-friendly communities?

Increased Density


One of the first things you will notice when you enter a trailer park is the highly efficient use of space. These compact neighbourhoods are “often subject to uniquely liberal land-use regulation, with minimal setbacks, fewer parking requirements, and tiny minimum lot sizes”, resulting in relatively high population densities.

New World Economics calculates “if you had 70% home plots/15% roads/15% shared amenities like parks and squares, 1000sf plots, and 2.5 people per household, that works out to population density of 46,000 people per square mile”. That’s 177 people per hectare (p/ha).

For comparison, the central Winnipeg neighbourhood of River Heights measures 28 p/ha and the newer suburban development of Bridgwater Forest in the south end of the city measures at just over 8 p/ha. Density alone does not make a thriving community, but it does bode well for walkability and potential for social interaction and engagement.

Narrow Streets


Trailer parks are not subject to the same bylaws as other types of residential developments, which allows the developers to build narrower streets than what would otherwise be allowed. While this is most likely done for cost and efficiency, the neighbourhood reaps the rewards of a narrower street width because it acts as a calming device, slowing down traffic.

As trailer parks are mostly privately-owned neighbourhoods, vehicle access is usually limited to a few entry points. As the street network is not well connected to the surrounding areas, there is little reason for outside vehicles to be driving in the community resulting in streets with fewer cars.

Because the vehicles are all local traffic and are driving slowly, the street becomes a place for everyone. There is no need to install expensive sidewalks when the street is a safe place to walk and even play. These might be the last streets that you can actually play a game of road hockey on and get away with it in our vehicle-centric culture.

Nolan Gray from Market Urbanism explains, “by combining these liberal land-use regulations with narrow streets shared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities.” 

Short Setbacks


Homes are positioned much closer to the street than a typical single-family residential development further contributing to the social nature of the street. No long driveways and expansive front lawns are separating the houses from the street, so it becomes much more of a shared space rather than a place no one feels they have ownership over.

It is not uncommon in a typical suburb for the homes to have a two to three car garage that protrudes past the front of the house that doesn’t add any life to the street, just a wall of garage doors. However, in trailer parks, not everyone has garages, but if they do, they are usually much smaller and positioned in-line with the home or even set back. This results in improved sightlines along the street and doesn’t give visual priority to the cars, or car-related infrastructure of the neighbourhood.

Side entrances


The layout of trailers in a community varies greatly, but often the homes are positioned on an angle and not perpendicular to the street. This results in the front facade and one side of the trailer to be visible from the road, which significantly increases the potential for eyes on the street.

Many single-family homes are laid out in a way that focuses on the backyard, while trailers do not have a choice but to take advantage of their long sides and focus on the street. Of course, this decreases the potential for privacy. Still, it also dramatically increases the chance of citizen surveillance (nosy cat lady who watches the comings and goings of the neighbourhood) and the potential to create an atmosphere of safety.

Trailers are constructed off-site and transported on a truck, which means their built form will inherently be long and thin enough to be transported down a highway. Due to the width, the entrance is positioned on the side of the home to make efficient use of space. You would think not having the front door facing the street would remove the activity from the shared street, but the opposite occurs.

The side entrance becomes a social space, not as public as a front porch but not as private as a back yard. Without much of a back yard, the outdoor deck and yard are positioned on the side of the house. So, all of the barbequing, cocktail hours, games of fetch or even vegetable gardening that would typically be hidden behind a six-foot fence in the backyard are now visible and add life and energy to the street.

Conclusion


I have explored some of the design components that make a trailer park highly efficient but also a liveable community. This includes increased density, narrow streets, short setbacks and side entrances.

A community does not become more liveable because of the consistency of cultured stone on the house facades but because of the social interaction and social engagement of the neighbourhood. Not all neighbourhood character is defined through the aesthetic but instead is defined by the people, their social energy, and how they use the space.