Achieving Livability in Libertyville

Heather Smith's picture

Sarah Susanka kicked off the School Street open house weekend by lecturing to planners about how to achieve big dreams with not so big designs.  Although many of her ideas about space were taken from her popular books,  “The Not So Big House,” she led off by discussing one of the core elements of New Urbanism: aging in place.   Susanka highlighted the importance of visitability and aging in place.  From a personal standpoint, she talked about how her 80 year old parents in Los Angeles are terrified of going to a nursing home and being surrounded by old people. She said, “the young generation is losing something precious”, because the elderly are tucked away in a nursing home and not able to interact with multiple ages.  To achieve aging in place in the School Street show house she incorporated a first floor bathroom, a ramp to the side door and a first floor guest room that can be converted to a full time bedroom. 

Susanka addressed the fears and costs of aging in place head-on.  She said a lot of people are reluctant to talk about this, but aging in place will incur some home renovations.  She mentioned clients who thought they had prepared for everything but still had to do major renovations, due to unforeseen illnesses so it is important to plan for those costs.  She also said that it is simply not possible to do everything to prepare, but that resilient communities that do basic items right like planning for ramps and putting short blocks in place with walkable amenities nearby can build lifelong neighbors and neighborhoods.  The School Street project is a great example of livability because you can “walk or walker” your way to Main Street in a few minutes.  


Why Beauty Matters

Susanka discussed details such as beauty, size and scale, saying that “Beauty is the most sustainable thing you can do in the long term.”  She argued that beauty helps hold value and preserve neighborhood vibrancy and character.

Her presentation illustrated a larger point, which is how to connect the house with the larger community.  She mentioned needing at least two vibrant hubs in the community so that people can have a “promenade” to walk on.  A hub could be a school, workplace or community center.

She citied CNU’s Athena medalists Christopher Alexander and Prince Charles as significant influences in her design process, saying it is incredibly important to connecting the public realm with beautiful details.  In particular, School Street synchronizes the front porches so that one can have privacy, but also view other porch and public realm activity.  The garages on School Street are on the alley so that the front sidewalk and street promenade is not broken by curbs and driveways. 

Susanka also applied the details to her homes.  She made a concerted effort to eliminate formal spaces such as the living room by putting the kitchen or hub of the space near the front porch where it can be enjoyed in nearly all climates, saying, ”if you don’t see a space you aren’t likely to use it.”  

She also intentionally made the mud room beautiful with light and angles, saying “why do people make their everyday front door just a pass through?”

This unlikely project is selling out even in a shaky housing market.  Units have sold for $500,000-$800,000. This shows a growing demand for new urbanist development.   When John McLinden, the developer was asked about the property amenities he said “Milwaukee Avenue is the best amenity” referring to the stores, shops and transit along the main street nearby.

In Susanka’s world, beauty is not just an abstract idea but a working principle to make communities more valuable and more functional.  And it is selling out.

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