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Is it possible to build densely in cities but also ensure access to nature? A terrific new development in the South Bronx, in New York City, is showing the way.

There was a time not that long along when the Bronx was literally burning. It was a place where, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, high foreclosure rates and tax delinquencies left the city owning much of the land. Much has changed since then, and increasingly the Bronx is a testing ground for ideas that merge poverty reduction and affordability, with what is green and sustainable.

Via Verde (Spanish simply for the “Green Way”), is one such inspiring example, a very unique affordable housing project, just opening its doors to new residents this spring. It all began about five years ago with a city-sponsored design competition, and with the winning design co-developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies.

I had the chance to tour the project in May, and to interview Jonathon Rose, Presidents of the Rose Companies, about the significance of this project. First impressions are important and a key aspect of Via Verde is that it doesn’t look at all like an affordable housing project. There is use of a varied set of materials, including pre-fabricated panels of cement board, metal and wood laminate. It is a visually interesting exterior. And the large windows and distinctive sun shades are also contrary to the usual look of housing for low-and moderate-income families.

Situated on a relatively skinny lot, running from north to south, the design response is a creative indeed—222 units in total, stepping up from three-story townhouses on the south end to a 20-story residential tower on the north, and maximizing sunlight as a result.

When fully occupied, more than 400 residents will live in Via Verde. And they will have an unusual green living environment. Perhaps most distinctive about this project is multi-layered green rooftops. Beginning in a grassy ground level courtyard, residents can ascend, first to an evergreen forest on the 3rd floor, then an orchard of dwarf apple and pear trees on the 4th floor, then onto extensive raised-bed vegetable gardens on the 5th floor. Higher floors have more traditional sedum-covered extensive green roofs. What results is an impressive set of connected rooftop community spaces, for gardening but also just for walking and strolling, providing attractive areas for residents to be and spend time.

A common question is whether the structural loads required by the trees and green elements posed a major problem? The answer is surprisingly “no”, as the building’s block and plank construction had only to be modified marginally: replacing 10 inch planks with 12 inch planks to accommodate the extra loads.

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And will these green features also help to build community? Yes, it is hoped, and there has already been some planning about how the roof spaces will figure into the life of the neighborhood. There is a plan to organize a community event to cut down one of the evergreens as the collective Christmas tree, and the planting of a new replacement tree, for example.

Growing a culture of gardeners and orchardists will be a challenge moving forward and Via Verde has enlisted the nonprofit GrowNYC to initially plant and care for the gardens and trees for the first two years. They will be engaging residents and holding gardening workshops with the goal of turning over the gardens and fruit trees to the loving care of residents at the end of this period.

For Jonathon Rose, Via Verde represents the new ways in which we need to design and work in the city, and especially the importance of integrating nature and density in cities. People in cities need that nature, Rose believes: “I think it’s because of the biophilic nature of people. We’re just seeing a hunger for it.”

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But is it enough nature? Rose admits that the rooftops—gardens, fruit trees, sedum—are a kind of constructed nature. “Buildings in themselves are not the solution to nature in the city. Nature in the city has to be nature,” Rose argues. He points to large green systems in which buildings (and cities) are embedded, and points to efforts to restore and clean-up rivers like the South Bronx as equally important. And New York has been doing many of these larger greening strategies, such as creating new waterfront parks, and planting a million new trees in the city.

There are also many features in Via Verde aimed at enhancing the health of residents. The relatively narrow building allows for fresh air and cross ventilation, and with ceiling fans no need for summer air conditioning. The stairwells were intentionally designed to be on the outside, and brightly painted, to encourage their use (and discourage use of the elevators). And there is some not-so- subtle messaging to residents such as the placard in the lobby imploring residents to “take the stairs—burn calories, not electricity.” There are stores and shopping nearby, as well as an onsite medical clinic and space for a community-based pharmacy.

From the beginning the project was conceived as a partnership with the city, and has been shepherded along by them (an important lesson). Via Verde was “deeply supported by all the city agencies who collaborated together with us,” Rose notes. This has been helpful arrangement when special waivers and approvals have been required. There is no parking provided by the project, for example, something that required a special mayoral override (and makes a lot of sense given the nearby access to very good transit).

There are other sustainability features as well. Much of the south façade is covered in angled PV panels, producing enough power for all of the common lighting. A large cistern collects stormwater fall in the courtyard and on the roofs and is used for watering the gardens and trees. And the apartments have low-flow water fixtures and energy star appliances and bamboo countertops.

It may be years before the health and other benefits of Via Verde can be demonstrated. There is in fact a research project underway, that will compare how healthy the lives and lifestyles of residents of Via Verde are compared with others who were unable to secure a unit there. And if the attractiveness of the project is to be judged by interest in by those who want to live there, it is already a huge success.

Early in the history of this project there were beautiful renderings of what the connected green roofs spaces and gardens would look like—Jonathan Rose like to say that the actual photos of these roof spaces are better than the renderings! After visiting the real thing, I think Rose is right.