Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity


If more houses are built in a neighborhood it may be that there is a real need for more houses. In Cornell the problem wasn't only that there were too many houses but that shops that were put there by the developer to respect the plan failed. I saw the same thing happen in mixed-used neighborhoods in France. Why would anyone risk building another shop?

What we've found since modernist planning processes were widely adopted in the mid-20 century was that any space that somehow escaped the control of the authorities would become a spontaneous town, so there is nothing inevitable about sprawl. It is a choice by the authorities. It is a choice to give developers and property owners certain incentives. It is a choice whose consequences are not very well understood, and this is why this website exists, because it's possible to make a different choice if we understand the consequences.

What's not possible is to attempt to replicate spontaneous cities without changing any of the planning process. Cornell is only one failure amongst many others in that experiment.

Why do we plan villages/neighborhoods which historically evolved on their own? Because the conditions under which they evolved no longer exist. The 'feedback' is simply not there to create an element such as a town square because the demand for a local market and gathering place is not as high as it needs to be to make that happen. Elements which used to evolve as necessities are no longer necessary, and while they may be used and even desired, the grassroots support needed to create them from scratch simply does not exist. It is only after those elements already exist, that modern uses are applied to them and the community utilizes them. In other words, people will use what is there, but are not (in this modern climate) disposed to going to the lengths necessary to have elements created from nothing. Current cultural patterns in North America support the exploitation of the most easily accessible elements, not the more time and labour intensive ones. This is one of the reasons why, as a general rule, people will build new subdivisions from inferior materials rather than restore older residences - it's simply easier; easier to find funding for, easier to customize, easier in terms of time consumption. If we build villages with features people want, and they are easily utilized, people will use them. If we build subdivisions with empty lots to be filled in later, people will think "it sure would be nice to do something with that lot" and then just grumble a bit when it's simply used to build more houses on - which is yet another reason to support the transect zones of the sky method (in my opinion). Obviously, there are no universals, and there are some locations in North America with dynamic, involved populations which do provide feedback and actively restructure their environment - I am generalizing here to capture the overall climate and issue.

Some retail has succeeded in the space for which it was planned, so it's not true that retail cannot survive on simple catchment of walkable sectors. (And isn't walking the point of a New Urbanist development?) There just isn't as much of it as was planned. Planning retail for some other location will just replace one error for a different error.

In a traditional city there is no strict demarcation of "retail" and "non-retail" sectors. Commerce sets up where it makes the most sense for it to be. So a few very local services will build in between houses, while large shops will build along major integrator roads. There will be other uses randomly sandwiched between shops, with the frequency inversely proportional to propensity for commerce, and particular categories of commerce, of the space.

The mistake of the plan is defining a land use in the first place and building out the blocks too densely so that there remains no space to fill in late-stage additions to the neighborhood. Traditional cities don't grow in solid blocks but in gradients of increasing density. That's the source of their complexity.

Judging from Cornell's layout, it seems that Cornell's failure is due to its location of retail spaces inside the neighbourhood, away from the distributor roads that form the perimeter of the development. This is a common failure of almost all suburbs, villages and neighbourhoods developed around the same time period - it fails because retail cannot simply survive on the sole catchment of its walkable district in a low-density environment; it relies on passing traffic.

Planning documents now reflect this, and support retail development on the distributor roads (which can be easily laid out in a new urbanist manner - nil street setbacks, on-street parking with rear service access, etc).

Distributor roads are also excellent and direct carriers of transit routes, and retail development provides a good buffer to residential uses behind, as well as significantly increasing opportunities for a permeable road layout. And it provides a fantastic treatment of what would otherwise be a traffic sewer, which is how Cornell's perimeter roads are treated.

Did people move there wanting to live in a village? If that were the case there is no lack of villages looking for people to come back. In fact, people moved there looking for a suburb within the greater metropolitan area. Nothing wrong with that, if people are looking for a suburb might as well make it a better one.

Can a plan ensure that businesses will set up shop there? Can it control economic forces that historically have taken decades to generate the current conditions?

New Urbanism is an intelligent design, creationist view of communities, that their genesis does not require evolution. In the same way, new urbanists come up with transects, which achieve through infallible directives what land economics would achieve in a much longer period, a density gradient from a designated centre outward. This is something that has always puzzled me. Why would you want to re-create in the lab the feature that is primarily responsible for sprawl, the density gradient from the centre to the expanding edge?

Rather than growing sprawl in the test tube using artificial land economics, why not grow medieval walled towns, using artificial brigands and wolves?

I saw the PDF for the sky method floating around the Pro-Urb list a few weeks ago. It's fairly close to my vision of an emergent urbanism, although I don't understand why you complicate things with transect zoning. An emergent process will create a transect all by itself, as seen from the image of Tultepec in my previous update.

What we've learned from these New Urbanist experiments is that only time can make a normal neighborhood.

Sorry, I hit Submit too soon... I meant to add that the Sky Method is my best take on using New Urbanist tools such as the Transect to provide a framework for growing a town. It was developed for a corner of DPZ's Sky in the Florida Panhandle that was so remote from the rest of the development that it couldn't be a normal neighborhood... so for today, it could only be conceived as large lots. But when you take away the limitation of time, then it's able to grow into a full-fledged neighborhood.

"If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work" ~And if you don't follow the plan, then you'll never know whether the plan would have worked.
With that being said, you raise an intriguing point about the way we attempt to build finished cities today, rather than growing a town. I personally thing that this was a necessary intermediate step to get us started back to real town-building. If you allow links in comments, then go to http://www.originalgreen.org/OG/Resources.html and click on The Sky Method. I'd love to know what you think.

Let's not "blame" anyone. New Urbanism is not a pact that you enter in. It's supposed to be a better way to grow a town. If it doesn't work, then it doesn't work. It's not the developers who were not committed enough, or the residents who refused to take the bus. It's just the plan that didn't work. Let's learn from it and try something else.

New Urbanists want to make another Savannah. If you look at the original plan of Savannah, it was just a bunch of identical rectangular lots with the same tiny shacks on them. It grew into Savannah by feeding back on itself. (All historic cities were built that way.) The problem with the plans the New Urbanists have been making is that they try to get everything right at once - assembling the right mix of uses, the right transportation, and the right density - when in fact the problem may be that there's too much density and not enough room to grow over time. They are stitching up a Frankenstein monster, and trying to persuade a developer to shock it to life with a high-voltage dose of speculative capital, instead of trying to grow a new town.

What about the transit service? If it was supposed to be a transit-centered community, did the transit agency support the vision by providing service to the community center? If the transit never materialized, you can hardly blame the residents for defaulting back to their cars.

In Avalon Park the developer subsidized new businesses with profits from housing so that his development would look like a mixed used neighborhood. That may be committed but it's certainly not intelligent.

The developers in Cornell decided that it wasn't intelligent to stay committed to a plan that made no sense. They switched back to sprawl because that's what is most natural in that system.

Most likely they developed sprawl (I haven't seen it) because it's their default setting. It takes an intelligent AND committed developer to change their status quo.

Certainly the developers developed sprawl, but that's a non-explanation. Why would they do that?

Christopher Alexander wrote an entire book about the reasons plans are ignored, The Oregon Experiment.

It's no mystery to figure out what happened, if the original story is accurate (no reason to believe it's not)... the developers reportedly ignored the plan and built decorated sprawl. On the one hand, I'd like to see Andrés go back and straighten things out. On the other hand, where's the confidence the developers will follow the plan this time when they didn't before? Building a real town requires more commitment and intelligence than building sprawl... That's why there is so much sprawl and so few real new towns. Hopefully the meltdown will change that equation.

Thank you Mathieu. I agree with Den here that this is definitely one of the most exciting urban blogs on the web. I'm so happy that you not only point out whats good and whats bad, but also actually try to get to the root of WHY things are the way they are and how we can develop methods to create the cities and neighborhoods we want.

Den, here in Seattle I have found myself wishing for in-street development as well. I mean, what better way to stop unwanted vehicle traffic then to simply block the street.

Very interesting point of view and I totally agree. This is probably the only approach that can improve the situation on the Southern hemisphere, where 70% of the cities is unplanned, and where the explosive emergence of slums make them spin out of control.

I've just come back from Dubai.

'Dense' is a misnomer. In mid-2008, Dubai was a city of 1.4 million. In early 2009, it is down to fewer than 900K (best guess). Traffic is gone. Tenants are gone. Buyers are gone. Speculators are gone.

Even at 1.4M, the word 'dense' did not apply to Dubai because the Al Maktoum family intended to build a city for 10 million. 10 million probably seemed irrationally exuberant in 2008, but in 2009, it seems delusional.

In a country where it is 45 degrees for six months of the year, it is impossible to walk 100 meters from building to building. 10 million? On par with New York and Paris and the other great cities of the world?

No, Dubai was never a truly 'dense' city. It was merely a vision of rampant, rapacious, speculative modernity, a sanitized Vegas Meets Singapore.

It is a City of Ghosts at the moment.

Excellent post! This blog is the most exciting urban writing I have found on the web.
As a Portlander I would like to add that ankeny is a great street, and I only wish there were more like it in this town. A smaller Right-Of- Way would be welcome in many places. I've often thought it would be great to build right in the center of certain too- large streets, replacing a massive traffic sewer and pedestrian impediment with two comfortable little lanes. Using the rules you've outlined in this post such a thing could be done well, and not overdone.

That seems to be a charming little street ideally suited for residential use. Would you be kind enough to translate the jargon for our international audience?

We actually had this in some American cities, for awhile. In those days it was legit to create a "half-street" on the edge of your property, so if the standard municipal cross section was a 60-foot ROW you could put a 30' ROW on the edge and call it good.

Of course developers often took advantage of this since it allowed one to devote less land to streets. And in some cities the adjoining property owners never formally platted, resulting in little short links of extremely narrow streets and alleys.

Ankeny in Portland is one example.

Great post. Do you know of any cities or towns that currently use the proscreptions and prescriptions that you have identified?

I am not sure that making large-scale changes to the fabric as easy as small-scale is a good way to produce communities. How easy should we make the large-scale changes like Griffintown?

As you've noticed from other comments, the large-scale developers and their lawyers feel strongly about their property rights, and will quash attempts at a Chris Alexander style of generative rule book. Comprehensive plans are a pre-emptive attempt to mitigate the damage that the people with lawyers might think of bringing down on a community. Until we run all the lawyers out of town we can't risk giving growth much breathing room.

Small anecdote: I live in an older central community. When a developer tries to shoehorn more square feet of floor space onto a lot than zoning allows, I tend to come down on them at committee. They are trying to maximize their revenues at the expense of the relatively poor neighbours. But when my next door neighbour wanted to build an addition, cutting down some wonderful trees on our property line, I said yes. What with their kids and a new one on the way, they needed an addition to keep living there.

The difference (or my rationalization)? The first is an anonymous corporation trying to attract short-time dwellers to what they hope will become a trendy area for couples. The second is a family taking root in the community. There is more to a sense of place than required setbacks and floor area ratios, but right now they are necessary tools.

Leadership is not the exclusive province of the government or the president. (Often the opposite is the case!) The land owner can also be a community leader if he recognizes what processes produce a great town.

Being close to family and friends is the normal state of things, but hating a place for itself is not. An enterprising people will set out to improve that place. When the planning process disallows it, the hate makes it unsustainable. Many of the communities in Europe do not have very attractive economies, but love of place makes sure they keep their people. That love of place was built over many generations of individuals improving their community.

I must admit that I'm puzzled by another part of your comment. Why do you believe that equally enabling small and large growth implies a constitutional challenge on the rights of land speculators?

As a (formerly, by choice) working planner in the States, I agree with hengels. We don´t move like sheep only searching for work. People in the States often move to be closer to family, to be in regions they enjoy living in, to be around people with similar values and interests, etc. The ´urban fabric´ will never be as elastic as it´s inhabitants, unless we come up with radically new building materials and infrastructure.

The assertion that ¨Once the plan has been set, there is no repealing it¨ it not accurate either. I often have seen General and Specific Plans change, not always for the better, but often to reflect reality. A community may envision a certain amount of commericial or restuarant space, but that is no gaurantee that there is enough market demand to support these land uses envisoned by the community.

The idea that ´A good growth process makes it equally simple for any member of the community, big or small, to transform its fabric´is very academic. The consitution of the US, and established case law, grants strong rights to private landowners (speculators included). The notion that a strong leader within the US will somehow drive top-down change is not really based in reality, Americans are hardly willing to tax themselves to adequately pay for public services, much less support the loss of additional private property rights. The notion that they would support a stronger central land use planning system is based in acedemic theorizing, not practical reality. For better or worse, strong private property rights are uniquely a part of American culture.

The study in the first link has some unsettling aspects that reflect social preferences-

1. More Americans would rather live in a place with more McDonald's than one with more Starbucks.

2. City dwellers are more likely to dream of living somewhere else

It also found political affiliation, sex and age strongly direct where people desire to live. The nice portion was that'

¨Wanting to live outside cities doesn't necessarily mean people reject urban lifestyles, however. The appeal of developments with an urban flair — ones that combine housing, stores and offices in a neighborhood setting — is growing.¨

Further comment

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