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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens

David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens

I met Chansee in the heart of Harlem entering the apartment building that she was just about to move into.

19-ish, just out of foster care, slight and with wide vulnerable eyes, she obviously hadn’t had an easy life. (She almost laughed in my face when I asked her if she was getting any support from her family.) But she said she was going to take the opportunity she was being offered and use it to succeed in her life, knowing that her new home was no ordinary apartment building.

When I asked her what was special about it, she replied, “I’ve never lived anywhere that had a garden. It’s so peaceful, like it’ll be a good place to get away from some of the stress in my life.” I got the impression that Chansee had had quite a lot of stress in her life.

Chansee was moving into the revolutionary David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens development in Cental Harlem. It’s a joint project of Harlem

David and Joyce Dinkins

David and Joyce Dinkins

Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI) a consortium of ninety local churches and mosques that works for affordable housing, together with Jonathan Rose Companies, one of America’s leading green developers. Dinkins gardens is one of the first developments in the country, combining low-income housing with state-of the-art ecological design.

The building has solar panels on the roof, used green building materials including recycled glass, and individual unit ventilation systems, which means that air goes in and out of each apartment without circulating bad air and smells from all the other units, a major cause of asthma and sickness in poor housing.

There’s a roof garden on the third story. The thickness of soil helps insulate the building and improve energy efficiency. The garden at the back of the building has smooth rocks that you can relax on and plots where the residents can grow greens and squash. There are classrooms in the basement where a local college teaches construction trades training courses. In summer they move the classes to the garden.

Indeed, multiple-use spaces is a hallmark of the development company’s approach. Jonathan Rose, the founder explains to me that that enables you

Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose

to build high-density, reducing sprawl, but that it also creates multiple, criss-crossing relationships that build community. Contrast that with suburban development, where residential, office and retail functions are segregated and no one knows their neighbors.

Rose gives me a ten minute hurricane of a PowerPoint presentation beginning with a photo of ragged climate refugees in Africa that he took (“When I don’t turn out my lights, I’m hurting them”) and moving to pie charts showing how suburban sprawl is one of the leading contributors to climate change in America. (“When you factor in transport and houshold use, average suburban housing use four times more energy than urban multifamily green developments.”)

With US population predicted to rise by 94 million over the next few decades, Rose believes that cities are the only place to build housing for those people if we are not to irretrievably wreck the climate. Yet this housing must also foster the innate human needs to live in community and in connection with nature. “A green urbanism is emerging that addresses these needs”, Rose explains, “creating buildings that are filled with light and fresh air and gardens that are tended by the hands of their residents.”

Jonathan Rose identifies as a “Jubu” and counts the Dalai Lama among his friends. He established the Garrison Institute, a Buddhist retreat center on the Hudson. He avers that Buddhism permeates his urban design work, particularly the principles of the interdependence of all things, human interconnectedness with nature and of doing no harm. Rose draws inspiration from Tibetan city designs that embody these principles. He believes that insights gleaned from ancient wisdom must help shape the future of our cities.

The future of inner cities may well look like the Dinkins Development. Chansee is excited. We should be too.

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