Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


That includes the cul-de-sacs and the zoning that keeps things nicely sectioned.

Think in the more general sense of the business model. What is the most efficient way to pass the liabilities of a new development on to the public? You build the absolute cheapest of everything in the shortest possible time. That includes the houses you build in order to earn your profit. They have to be the cheapest possible so you can move on to the next development quick. This may exclude the New Urbanist developers who are civic minded and build good developments simply because that is what they like personally, but the past few years have shown that these developers can't keep up with the pace of growth and are still only a drop in the ocean of urbanization.

And where do the developers get the capital to finance the cheap houses they build? They get it from banks who pass on the long-term liabilities to semi-public organizations like Fannie Mae. But the topic of financial morphology itself is fascinatingly complex, and I've been struggling to write something about it for some time.

Do they? Or do they only assume the long-term liabilities of the small part of the development they regulate - the roads, sidewalks, sewers, and other parts of the public ROW?

Why does the city assume all the long-term liabilities of the developments if the developers aren't building what you want them to?

Begging your pardon, but they aren't. I'm a planner. They don't build what I want them to build. If they did, I wouldn't be in this field or reading this blog. I would much prefer that all development happened incrementally, but it doesn't. And who has power over that? Only the developers.

Your response to these questions is oddly conspiracy-oriented.

They're both the same system Patrick.

Of course developers build some things to government specifications - the width of the road, the design of sidewalks. But it is hardly apparent that the reason we now build large Planned Unit Developments instead of incremental buildings is because of planners. Nor does it seem that planners are responsible for the fact that developers now sell identical homes instead of undeveloped lots or that our neighborhoods are filled with cul-de-sacs.

So why do you blame planners? Why not blame the developers for building such crap?

I don't understand your question. Developers are just building what the planners want them to, creating infrastructure to regulations in order to turn them over to the authorities and paying themselves with the buildings they can sell. They are like any government contractors, except the government doesn't pay them in cash, it pays them in privileges.

Are some big developers using their weight to influence what those privileges are going to be? No doubt, but that is the same as in any industrial lobby. That doesn't mean they have the power themselves.

"...At which point they may become historic cities the likes of which people always built before the modern planning process."

What an exciting and hopeful idea!

But on another note, have you addressed anywhere why you blame planners and not developers for the modern development process, that is, why we only build large developments?

"The problem is, outside of Manhattan the typical dumb parking requirements and other zoning laws force conformity and car-dependence."

Boris, I must disagree. As an employee of an architecture firm that designs all new branches for a certain bank, I know that the suburban form of big bow stores and other buildings is not decided by local regulations, but is in fact generally what the store owner wants. The owner wants the lowest-common denominator, and the owner wants a very ordinary store.

Much more likely is that the Home Depot in Manhattan is a response to strong local regulations and very high land cost, and that Home Depot made an exception for the sake of having a store in Manhattan. But you won't magically have better form by removing regulations. You may have smaller parking lots and less landscaping, but otherwise you'll still have buildings, floating in parking lots, in shopping centers. The market has decided the form, and the form has bowed to commercial demands for big signs, easy auto access, and low overhead.

"The employees of that particular Target–even the management–couldn’t decide to paint a mural, or allow for public art displays."

Why not? Any claims that suburban superstores can't change are negated by my personal experience. I live in Manhattan, a 10-minute walk from a Home Depot which has none of the usual suburban amenities- standalone building, enormous parking lot. It is built inside a large building and looks nothing like your typical suburban Home Depot. Superstores can, and do, evolve, according to conditions. The problem is, outside of Manhattan the typical dumb parking requirements and other zoning laws force conformity and car-dependence.

I see Mathieu's point about "place" intuitively and don't understand what there is to disagree about. To see some recent conversions from a "dead zone" to "place" take a look at some new projects done by the NYC Dept. of Transportation.

"Place has to come before people, and people fill up a place with their creativity. This is how all traditional cities were built."

I think that before developers began developing, places were created by the people that built them as they needed them. Now, developers create generic places that will appeal to a safe (as in guaranteed) population.

The reason that sprawl is so unappealing is not due to the lack of space, or even place. The issue with sprawl is that spaces are well defined and meant to be permanent. The affluence of sprawl demands this high level of definition. There are no vacant lots or unkept yards.

Yet the affluence is an illusion. Though the spaces are clean, maintained and landscaped, they are (with many exceptions) standardized. One landscape firms tends to a whole neighborhood of lawns. The traffic engineering handbook defines every road and parking lot in the country. Sprawl doesn't lack canvass, it's just all been painted with the same picture.

Sprawl is terrible because it shuns creativity in favor of conformity. Better to have something that looks nice than have something different.

This, of course, brings us back to the problem of the suburban Target. It can never become a place because Target will never let it. Places are special and Target has a brand to manage.

The way that corporate structures are set up, it would mean that a non-user of a space (the Target overlords) would have the final say over the space around it. The employees of that particular Target--even the management--couldn't decide to paint a mural, or allow for public art displays.

Our built and social environments are indeed intertwined.

I did not propose to remove sidewalks. In the pictures I showed of places in the 19th and 18th century buildings all had sidewalks. The difference was that their purpose was not to carry pedestrian traffic, which is what they are meant to do today, but simply to act as a boundary between private and public space.

I can't speak for Ethiopia because I have never been there, however from your description it sounds as if place is overcrowded, implying that there is not enough of it. It is the very opposite of the luxurious open spaces in the pictures I showed. That is not a problem with any of our modern sprawl cities. In fact crowds are what most place-oriented enterprises like shopping malls attempt to create.

Of course there will not be a lot of pedestrians moving through Target place in Cupertino right away because, as you understand, there are not many networks that have been created based on this possibility. It took time for La Défense to form its internal networks as well. But any city that begins its growth has very little traffic despite the fact that the network structures are already in place, and how are pedestrian networks to form if there is no pedestrian space? Place has to come before people, and people fill up a place with their creativity. This is how all traditional cities were built.

"If you approach urbanism from the perspective of creating certain behaviors or certain patterns, you are no different than the dogmatic planners who followed Le Corbusier’s prescriptions." I agree with you. But I also firmly believe that large amounts of open space unactivated by people are dangerous and hostile for the reasons described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. So I do not think that providing the same amount of "place" around a Target in suburban California will produce results as amiable as La Défense. There simply aren't enough robust networks of people around.

Of course, the reason I don't believe such places will ever be activated enough to be safe is that most people will continue to drive around in their cars. And even if we were to convert the entire public right-of-way to free-form place, most people would continue to drive in cars. If you want an example of this, consider Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where there are far, far more pedestrians than cars, far fewer instances of any sort of traffic engineering, and almost no traffic laws. However, pedestrian life is utterly miserable, because the presence of cars is overwhelming.

There are many places in the world without traffic engineering. Consider the quality of pedestrian life they have.

If the whole street were safe, I would probably still walk on the sidewalk because they are safe, comfortable, wide enough to walk two abreast, and free from the occasional oncoming car. I like sidewalks, and I find them useful to urban life.

Why would you want to entice people to stroll around? People should be able to do what they want. People don't stroll around at La Défense, they go about their business or they hang out. The dense networks of La Défense are internal networks, people moving around within the neighborhood. The presence of Paris has nothing to do with it. The fact that they can do that is exceptional for Paris' endless first ring urban departments. Nothing is expected of them. There's room to move however you like.

This doesn't exist in a parking lot, where the ground is marked and sliced up into pre-defined parking spaces, and the lot is separated from the rest of the city by a grass berm with only a few small entrances. And for walking in the street, would you really prefer to walk single-file on a sidewalk if the whole street was safe?

Place is much bigger than what's around the Target store. It has to exist from anything to anything in the city, connecting them so it is possible to move around freely. The place I designed in my example is not "around" the Target store. It is between the different buildings and it connects them.

Before traffic engineering no one thought of enticing people to stroll around or play in the street. It was just understood that you could do that there, and people used the space to do it amongst the many different things they could do.

If you approach urbanism from the perspective of creating certain behaviors or certain patterns, you are no different than the dogmatic planners who followed Le Corbusier's prescriptions. You only want to engineer a different style of controlled behavior. The result of this for an increasing number of New Urbanist developments is that the neighborhoods are deserted of people.

I tend to agree with Bruce. You can't create a place by simply removing everything. People will not automatically populate open space. La Défense works because it is in Paris, a dense city with existing social networks, but those results are not reproducible in low-density American suburbs. Replacing parking with pavers at a Target will not entice people to stroll around.

"You do not need to remove cars to make a good place, you only need to remove the exclusivity for cars." I would argue that parking lots fit this definition very well. They are for both cars and people. I learned how to ride a bike in a parking lot. I used to play roller hockey in parking lots. But that doesn't make them places. In fact, the existence and uniform badness of parking lots seems to disprove your point entirely.

I am sympathetic to your idea that places are better when people are allowed to act freely in building and moving. But I disagree with your description of "place," and I certainly disagree with your diatribe against sidewalks. I, for one, have no desire to walk down the middle of the street.


I just found your blog, and I've really enjoyed what I've read so far, this post in particular!

I think the point you made about the conversion of streets to mechanical traffic funnels is extremely relevant, and the idea of 'space subtraction' is very insightful as well.

I've recently been writing about some similar stuff, and I've coined some terminology (or at least independently theorized, let me know if you've seen something similar!) that I find useful in describing the kind of stuff you're talking about! If you're interested, you can read these on my blog, it's a three part series, but part 3 has a summary of the first two that could save you time :)

Part 1 - http://www.neohouston.com/2009/03/property-value-theory-part-1-people-pr...

Part 2 - http://www.neohouston.com/2009/04/property-value-theory-part-2-interface...

Part 3 - http://www.neohouston.com/2009/04/property-value-theory-part-3-places-th...

Basically, in the terminology I've been using, the boulevards you loved retain an excellent interface while accommodating a vehicle conduit, but the side streets have too much conduit and not enough interface.

Fun stuff! Again I really enjoyed this post, thanks for writing it!

the principles you talk about are quite similar to the ones on which the swiss "zones de rencontre" are based:


In a "zone de rencontre" all street furniture related to traffic is removed. Both cars (whose speed is limited to 20 km/h) and pedestrian can use all of the space.

I think you're making things much more complicated than they need to be. The point is that open space by itself is a valuable land use, and that buildings connected by open space are what forms urban space. It doesn't matter how many buildings there are, in what density or in what configuration.

You don't need to add trees and benches. You only need to remove roads, parking lots and grass berms and replace them with nothing.

You've hit on something good here. I too think a systematic approach to de-sprawling and re-placing is needed in the American metropolitan periphery. But what good do a few trees and benches do next to a drive-up bank? They will not spontaneously turn it into a sandwich cart, or turn the mega-store into a neighborhood plaza. Rather, we probably need t0 use new buildings *as ways of defining space*. Add shallow buildings to the arterial street frontage to reduce the apparent width of the street. Add paths through the large site, that connect across the minor roads to adjacent sites. Then, and only then, place your innovative adaptation of parking blocks *inside* the larger, well-defined space left inside the megablock. This way, you've created a small neighborhood, and it's one that people actually have to walk through, since their cars are there. What was once a parking lot becomes an outdoor extension of the mall; pushcarts set up there instead of being (ridiculously) placed in a mall's fake internal 'streets.' Moreover, it could actually be done: as malls vie for fewer customers who they want to stay longer, the convenience of parking becomes less important. In this vision, the walk to the car becomes part of the trip itself - just like in a real city neighborhood. This could slowly make the suburbs into the kinds of places where single-car and no-car households could live and thrive.

It would be nice to continue this line of thought with analyses of specific urban patterns and how the emergent process you describe formed or influenced the pattern.

There are ways to describe and explain processes that are unpredictable, so it is possible to design a town without it being "finished." From there it is possible to show how any random configuration of that town out of the infinity of possible configurations meets the standards of the authorities. Each spade of earth can be turned with full confidence that things will work out.

A TND is sprawl. It's enlightened sprawl, but it has the same unsustainable features. It's not going to be persuasive enough to roll back planning to the past. The new science doesn't roll back planning, it drives it forward. That's why it will work.

But predictability means doing precisely what you don't want to do, which is to design the finished town from the beginning.
Unless, of course, an area can "escape the control of the authorities," as you've noted. Those are the only rare instances where anything, TND or sprawl, can avoid the fate of having to design the completed town before a spade of earth is turned.

Predictability is the greatest difficulty because predictability has been the characteristic of a "scientific" process since Descartes. That is the revolutionary insight of Wolfram, that by insisting on predictability when doing scientific research scientists are only selecting problems to be solved based on predictability, and in so doing are avoiding a scientific study of the enormous body of physical phenomena that isn't predictable.

Why shouldn't authorities insist on predictability? That is what has been considered scientific for centuries. Predictability means progress. It certainly isn't by creating failed TNDs that they will be convinced to give up on scientific methods. However if we can redefine what is scientific and show them another way to understand the processes of urban development, they may well be willing to switch to other processes in order to jump on board a whole new, forward-thinking scientific paradigm.

So what do we do... throw up our hands and just do sprawl, or try to re-learn how to build real incremental places again? This "building the finished town" thing has been a necessary re-learning step, IMO. And also the only thing we could do, given municipalities' current insistence that developers show the finished product in excruciating detail before getting an approval to turn a spade of dirt. It is only after 30 years of the New Urbanism that we've built a big enough body of work that we're even BEGINNING to get a tiny fraction of municipalities to even listen to proposals for building incrementally. I believe that you and I both, Mathieu, would like to see this be the default condition. But the planning disasters of post-WWII have so screwed things up that any form of unpredictability has been rendered strictly illegal. Try to do otherwise in most places and they'll send the constables out and shut you down if you're a developer. So building the completed town has been a necessary intermediate step to regain trust.

Further comment

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