The “Triple Bottom Line” in Michigan’s coastal communities - Element 2: Community design

Design and size of business and residential structures can improve the quality of life for coastal residents and provide numerous economic and environmental benefits in Great Lakes coastal communities.

Efficient use of land in coastal and waterfront communities requires appropriately-scaled designs of structures that can reduce encroachment of development into natural areas as well as reduce infrastructure and maintenance costs. For example, large amounts of compact development may be placed near one another and prevent unnecessary growth into environmentally sensitive or culturally important areas. These compact buildings cost less to construct and may reduce the cost of providing services like electricity, gas, water, or garbage pick-up.

As noted in the introduction article to this series, each community has different needs that prevent a “one size fits all” approach to identifying the “correct” size and design of buildings. Determining the appropriate size of buildings depends on the intended use of the building; and choosing the correct size and design requires understanding the current and future needs of the intended occupant of the building, as well as the vision of what community members what their community to look like. Only by knowing what is currently needed and what the expected, future need is can the appropriate number and type of buildings be decided.

The triple bottom line must be continuously evaluated when constructing appropriately-scaled structures in coastal and waterfront communities, as it is easy to forget about the impact on one of the elements when focusing on another. For example, attempting to simply maximize the total number of buildings or population may have serious implications for quality of life and the environment. The more densely populated a coastal community, the more lives and property are in contact with the coastal environment. The increased interaction can result in greater amounts of lives and property being damaged from coastal storms, which requires building storm and flood-resistant buildings in low risk areas. Additionally, protecting natural areas is more than just about minimizing land consumption; increased density in these communities increases the likelihood that Great Lakes water quality is negatively impacted. Appropriately managing storm water runoff is vital when designing coastal and waterfront communities.    

Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant are actively involved in projects that seek to protect the environment, improve the quality of life, and promote economic activity in Michigan’s coastal areas. This article was adapted from Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities, a report created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International City/County Management Association, and Rhode Island Sea Grant.  The document can be accessed at:

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