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It's so much more than density

The notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. While it would be great if it were that easy, building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.

Our many thanks to the people of Pennsylvania who turned out in huge numbers last week to hear the Strong Towns message. That was an incredible trip and it has left me enthused and optimistic. Later this week I'm going to recap the press coverage we received and share some of the feedback, so check back for that. Pretty amazing stuff.

During the Q&A portion of a Curbside Chat I field a lot of the same questions from place to place. One of the most frequent goes something like this:

So what you're talking about here is density, right? We need more density?

Oh, if it were only that easy.

Density is a metric. As applied to the urban planning realm, it is either the number of units or the number of people in a given area. As a metric, it is fairly one dimensional. That makes it fairly dumb.

How do you want your density? Photos of Fort Myers, FL, by Russ Preston.I'm generally asked the density question by one of two types of people. The first are the conspiracy prone, those that believe that density targets are mandated by the UN and that, once we get the high speed rail lines built, people will be rounded up into high density encampments in the name of sustainable development. I actually have sympathy for people with this belief (so long as they are not mean) because it must be awful to live with such unfounded paranoia. When I suspect this is where the question is coming from, I point out that I never mentioned density (or sustainable for that matter), am not advocating for more density and don't think that density is an answer to any of the questions I've raised.

The other type are the planners zoners and their surrogates. It is they that I am going to spend some time on here today.

For the modern day planner zoner and many of those they work with on planning zoning boards, there is a base assumption that the enormous complexity of the built environment can be simplified down to a handful of variables. Setback, parking, FAR and density, just to name a few. By tinkering with the dials a little, the planner zoner can fine tune things to achieve an optimal outcome. Where they fall short, it is generally the cause of a bad developer, poor political leadership or unexpected market conditions. 

Note that the approach -- both in terms of what insiders believe they can do and what they have historically failed to accomplish -- is mirrored in the economic realm. The idea that our enormously complex economy can be simplified down to a handful of variables and that, in any given crisis, one need only increase or decrease the liquidity of the money supply to create some linear response is widespread. That intelligent people can do foolish things when blinded by their own hubris is not just possible, it is to be expected.

I'm not sure why planners zoners are generally so keen on density, but they are, to the point where it often comes across as an obsession. I have a theory. I think a lot of planners zoners yearn to be spatial planners. They go to school to build great places. They get out into the real world and are given this ridiculously blunt instrument -- zoning -- and are frustrated that they can't wield it to create Paris. Few stop to ask what zoning regulations were used to create Paris (hint: there weren't any). Density, especially when given as a bonus for attainment of certain performance objectives, is the closest thing a modern planner zoner gets to their professional roots. We all suffer the consequences.

What planners zoners don't grasp is the difference between correlation and causation. When I say that everyone in human history that has died has, at one point in their life, drank water, that is a correlation. It does not mean that drinking water causes death yet, we can look and there is a clear correlation. While that is an absurd example, it reveals a larger point.

A strong town -- a productive place -- is generally of a higher density than an unproductive place. That financial productivity, however, is not caused by the density. There is a correlation -- as productivity goes up, so does density -- but one does not cause the other.

Need I point out the obvious and bring up Urban Renewal? This is a sin for which the planning zoning profession has never fully come to grips with in much the same way that today's communists have not come to grips with the Soviet Union. It just wasn't done right is the whisper among friends, never that the fragility of the concept itself should be questioned. If modern Germans are expected to remain vigilant against even the hint of ultra right Fascist thought in their society, modern planners zoners should be forced to annually visit their nearest housing project to lay a wreath or plant a tree and absorb the public shame that should be theirs.

I think there are a couple of other insideous reasons why planners zoners have a fetish with density. The first is that it fits with Euclidean precepts, which are themselves amazingly discriminatory. A high density tower separates people vertically by class the same way that standard zoning separates them horizontally. I've never heard of a tower with some $75,000 units next to some $5,000,000 units. Zoning allows planners zoners to hyper separate everyone into pods defined by price point. Higher density just increases the palette of options for accomplishing this.

The other insidious reason is that it is ultimately acceptable. This may seem crazy to most planners zoners because density is almost universally opposed by the public, but that opposition is to density in my neighborhood. If you're telling me my city will grow by 1,000 residents and I can either have some apartments or townhouses in my neighborhood or a tower in some other neighborhood, I'll gladly inconvenience someone else. It is easier for planners zoners to fight one big battle in one neighborhood than to have many smaller skirmishes across the entire community.

Only in the America of the Suburban Experiment do we culturally expect that, once a home is built, the neighborhood around it should remain ever static. The traditional development pattern and the success of prior human settlements were based on the notion that neighborhoods, particularly those near the core the community, would continue to gain value and mature over time. We'd have much less anxiety over density today if it meant a single family home being converted into a similar-looking duplex as opposed to a project to remove two homes for an apartment complex. 

Ultimately, the notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. Building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.

It would be much easier it that weren't true, but unfortunately we've already exhausted easy.


We've actually been discussing the density issue over at the Strong Towns Network. You can join us there to be part of that conversation and many others.

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Reader Comments (26)

The pattern used to arrange buildings, streets, and parking is more important that density it yields. It is possible to produce the same number of notes found in the Moonlight Sonata by placing two cats on a piano keyboard.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterR. John Anderson

I think you're oversimplifying the arguments for increased density, and conflating "allowing" density with "requiring" density.

Density might not be the sole cause of productivity, but it's not merely a byproduct. There's a bit of a feedback loop here, where a productive place draws more people to it, and the increasing density allows the people there to become even more productive. So density should still be a goal, but I would argue in terms of "allowing" it rather than "requiring" it. In many cases, our zoning codes are so backwards in the density they allow (height limits on major commercial avenues, unneccessary setbacks, mandated off-street parking in row home neighborhoods) that adding density into the code needs to be a major priority.

I'm sure there are planners and zoners out there with an unhealthy fixation on density. But I would guess that this is more of a lack of creativity and the proper language, rather than any sort of malice or arrogance. I think the language of traditional development has been lost, and no one knows how to talk about narrow streets and a pedestrian-oreiented environment anymore (except Nathan Lewis). So when we look at a successful place and want to emulate it, we see "hey, look how much denser this is than my negihborhood", but we overlook that the streets are half as wide and the buildings have no setbacks and that everything is oriented towards the street.

Your point that density is a metric, and that there are many ways, good and bad, to acheive the same "density", is important. But I think you're being too harsh on planners who are faced with backwards zoning codes that have to be fixed first.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Yowch. I'm worried this post won't hold up.

Quick thoughts on a mobile device on the way to work (I.e. apologies for bluntness and typos):

1. I think you're trying to say Toderian's "density done well", Placemaking above blunt numbers. But this comes across as attacking a straw man.
2. Odd to praise Haussman's strictly controlled Paris in this context. Not modern zoning, but definitely not emergent/organic and plenty 'renewal' demolition.
3. Not sure towers in the park density (which seems to be your straw man) is much more than Paris.
4. Compact, walkable building-arrangements are often illegal: fixing that means permitting more density. Cant be a byproduct if it's banned.

"We'd have much less anxiety over density today if it meant a single family home being converted into a similar-looking duplex as opposed to a project to remove two homes for an apartment complex."

This is the money quote. Those who say you mean more density are right. But you assume they mean the apartment (straw man) not the duplex.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterneil21

I like "fine-grain" as a descriptor better than "dense". Multi-use, multi-story, complex. A successful place will resemble and should resemble a swath of forest or meadow and not a corn or soybean field. One disease wiped out all of our elm trees. One beetle is doing it again. Had we planted a variety of trees we'd have fared better. As someone interested in preserving good places - and using them as catalysts for better future development - zoning is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, zoning is critical in getting the overlay of a historic district. On the other hand, the places most worthy of preserving have been those places arising before zoning. Hmmm.

I don't see zoning going anywhere soon. The big banks have gotten into the real-estate business. Its no longer a local endeavor. REITs are underwriting developments that 30 years ago wouldn't have gotten an investment bankers assistant out of bed. As such, REIT's need to be standardized and packaged so they can be traded in a market. Zoning is to real-estate what the 19 Standard Real Estate Products are to building finance. Without standardization there can be no trade between market actors. A trader in light-sweet crude can't tell you what the market in Bakken Shale Tar Sands is going to do even though the two are in the the energy business and not only that, the oil business.

Zoning adds one more layer of standardization. "In this zone, these 3 uses are permitted utilizing these 4 types of buildings...In our experience, this scenario, across markets has produced X ROI and is thus a maximizing application of surplus capital....Lets invest!" Small, alternative, local, "sustainable" (although, I'm sure sustainable as a homogenizable concept is being studied for packaging and trade as we speak) and quirky development can't get off the drawing board because they don't meet certain standards defined by people with little to no connection with the place the development is designed for. If they do get off the drawing board they're financed at higher rates of interest making them riskier investments making them less likely to look good on a historical P&L sheet across a wide spectrum of investment opportunity.

Zoning is the hand-maiden to all of this. Change zoning to reflect the will and needs of the community you'll be needing to change the nature of financing what is built on those color coded forms on the "zoners" map hanging up in City Hall. I don't how you do that; but I bet a good way to start is to start small.

PS: What do you think Reason's response would be to someone who brought up issues of Redlining, block-busting and segregation (segregation resulting in hyper density due to confining large groups to relatively small plots)? I mean, I am in agreement that what the gubmint did was awful. And, since our federal govt. is the way it is, our renewal programs were doomed to the sort hackneyed failure they were. But, they were a response to generations of what seemed intractable problems. Had we had no bank redlining - thus any enterprising person irregardless of race, religion, creed etc could've gotten a loan to fix his/her place up; had we had no segregation (quite often in big northern cities a de facto, vs. de jure segregation) cramming folks into a space too small for their numbers and inadequate public services and immoral real-estate agents stirring up fear and driving down prices thus distorting the market then no government would've been necessary. However, we all know that wasn't the case. Would we have, could we have, should we have just dealt with the inevitable inequalities (in a society that proclaims equality as a public virtue) and social problems such realities wrought? Urban renewal was a massive failure. Was it a failure that was inevitable by virtue of government involvement (and should we ever keep in mind that the gubmint is afterall made up of "We The People" struggling to perfect our union).

Thanks, and once again good stuff.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMitchell Brown


I'm not denying that our cities need to become denser, that density needs to increase. What I'm suggesting is that, if we identify density as the problem/solution, we are missing pretty much everything.


January 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

I have to agree with Tim. Ease up on the planners.

When you are talking about great places, they are unique and outside of any zoning code. No documents or guidelines can capture the vision that creates great places. It has to come from a few exceptional individuals. How do you codify that?

Just narrowing streets, changing the zoning, etc. will not generate a great place. You have to start with something. A bar. An entertainment venue. A historic building. Something. And it generally takes a seed from the private sector to get people to start coming to that place. As it becomes more popular, it builds and grows. Then you can get some public investment to create streetscapes, public art, more walkable area, provide financial incentives to encourage new businesses in that great place, so on and so on.

Zoning is what it is. It's intent is not to create great places. It's intent is to prevent terribly incompatible land uses from being located too closely together. Just out of curiosity, can anyone name a great place that originated as the result of zoning?

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Oh my, Jeff, I'm so happy that you said this. I could not disagree more.

I think it is a colossal misunderstanding to suggest that a few exceptional individuals are needed to make great places. It is wrong to even think that an exceptional individual or two can make a great place. If this has ever happened -- and I'm not sure it has -- it would be the exception, not the rule.

Great places -- places that will endure through the ages -- are the result of many, many individuals acting independently. There were certainly great individuals in some places that created loose frameworks or reasons for gathering, but every great city is an organic collection of smaller, successful places. It is far more Darwin than Caesar. More organic than managed.

I think planners often like to envision themselves as the "exceptional individual" you allude to, the smartest person in the room, the one who has thought through the implications and knows what needs to happen. That's essentially the modern incarnation of the planning profession. Zoning is their weapon, density their best sword. This is the American 1950's top down mentality run amok.

I agree with you on zoning not being a tool to create great places. I'm a minority of AICP's that hold that view, however. The profession deserves some ridicule. They are not only not the smartest person in the room, the room would often be smarter (or at least make smarter decisions) if they were not there.


January 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Chuck, you're really hung up on this image of the modern planner as a wanna-be Robert Moses. I'm sure there are some like that, but you're painting with a really broad brush. My recent interactions with City Planners here in Philly (as part of our master planning effort http://www.phila2035.org) have shown me that there's a lot of planners out there focused on the small, incremental changes that are feasible now.

Maybe they would try to emulate Ed Bacon if they were able, but the budgets just aren't there anymore.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

And zoning is an important tool, if only because it isn't going anywhere.

I guess in the abstract sense, I'd rather be in a city with very little to no zoning, where folks were able to develop whatever they wished. But we don't live in that world, so identifying problems in the zoning code, and remapping neighborhoods to allow more, traditional-styled development becomes a very important task in a modern master planning effort.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Tim -- Help me. Give me an example of a small, incremental change being advocated for by your local planners. Not trying to put you on the spot but understand what you are saying. I'm seeing this in a few places, but it is a very few places. -chuck

January 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Can we get rid of zoning?

I think that might be a good future blog post. I tend to believe that it is more likely to become irrelevant and ignored than it is to be rescinded or replaced, but I could be wrong. In reality, even progressive and competent cities today ignore large portions of their zoning codes as a matter of routine business. I see a future where zoning continues to fade into the background, an unfunded vestige more easily ignored than repealed.

January 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

I'm going to grab one of the most recently completed district plans (The Planning Commission here divided the Master Plan up into about 15 Districts for more targetted outreach and planning.) Here's a link to the Executive Summary of the Lower Northeast District plan.

They call out 8 main recommendations in the Executive Summary. I've summarized them below, and tried to label which I think are "small", "medium" and "big" efforts.

1) Develop a health and wellness center through a public-private partnership adjacent to the Frankford Transportation Center. (BIG, both money and complexity)

2) Rezone commercial properties along the Castor Avenue Commercial Corridor to increase
density and encourage mixed-uses. (MEDIUM, more complexity than money)

3) Complete an analysis to understand the evolving travel patterns in Northeast Philadelphia (BIG, this is a token recommendation towards extending the subway system into Northeast Philadelphia)

4) Realign the intersection of Oxford and Frankford Avenues in order to simplify pedestrian
and auto circulation (MEDIUM? I'm stuck here. It seems like a targetted investment of the Strong-Towns-type to me, but it's a bit more substantial than restriping.)

5) Create a greenway along both sides of the Frankford Creek from Castor Avenue to
Torresdale Avenue, complete with a recreational trail, riparian buffer, and stormwater
management infrastructure where space permits. (BIG, there's nothing public there today)

6) Renovate Hedge Street Playground in Frankford:
• Decrease the amount of impervious surfaces;
• Increase opportunities for active recreation; and
• Formally connect the park to Orthodox Street. (SMALL)

7) Prioritize the preservation and rehabilitation of the following buildings and sites through
local historic designation, adaptive reuse, and increased awareness:
[Long list....] (SMALL)

8) Initiate the following public realm improvements in the Frankford Gateway Focus Area:
• Streetscape improvements along Church Street and Torresdale Avenue, including
landscaping, lighting, and signage; and
• Vacant lot improvements, including public art, at the five-point intersection of Church,
Waln, and Tackawanna Streets. (SMALL)

What do you think? Naturally, being a Master Plan document, there's some dream stuff in here. But I find that we're balancing our big dreams with smaller, more acheivable targets.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim


Tim, I have a ton of respect for you and your thought process here. I don't want to bash these concepts and I certainly don't want to come across as the negative curmudgeon. To be frank, though, none of this feels like the right direction to me.

We could have a longer conversation, and perhaps should in a future blog post, but I'll just comment on one in the short time I have here.

3) Complete an analysis to understand the evolving travel patterns in Northeast Philadelphia (BIG, this is a token recommendation towards extending the subway system into Northeast Philadelphia)

This is emblematic of the planning profession today. First of all, it is an analysis of an unknowable. A complex system that we are going to pretend to understand. This is being done in service of an enormous public investment, one that will be speculative and thus need justification from a model. It will, at best, be a snapshot in time, and it will justify not only a myriad of expenditure, but corresponding zoning changes and other regulatory reactions.

None of this is organic or, to use modern planning vernacular, sustainable. This is all part of the big machine, of which "density" is a key metric. I'm not a supporter of the big machine. And I don't pretend to be able to know or understand what the planners working in this model do.

I'll try to comment on some of the others later. I may actually need to do a rewrite of sorts of the From the Mayor's Office series but instead focus on a comprehensive plan. My idea of a comp plan and the current profession's idea is very different.


January 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Chuck, I sent this on to a few planner friends, and have already been having email chats with them.

I think the notion that density is a byproduct, not intentional, is too mind-blowing.

But you can't have a city in which density is a byproduct, because density is explicitly disallowed, except in the neighbourhoods the rich people don't want to live in.

Whether a great city is a result of a few supercitizens, or a freak incident outside the realm of planning, both would be aided by planners getting out of the way.

So, on your writing list, can you add Performance Zoning?

In Vancouver BC there are thousands of much-derided Vancouver Specials, which are built to contain as much volume as is possibly allowed by the zone. This makes for houses that can be very ugly, and have very weird designs, since they are built by the demands of the setbacks, not by architectural taste. The attempt to regulate the "character" of the neighbourhood backfired.

Since I want to live in a world that may still be recognizable to our children, I think a lot of the performance zoning should focus on sustainability...

10% of energy used generated on site (even better than a maximum kw/sq. m.)
10% of calories consumed grown on site (both of these first two imply a Right to Light requirement, which limits heights)
Noise and air quality regulations, but other than that, no restrictions on business.
Compostables managed within the neighbourhood.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

First, I'd say density is not so much a byproduct, but a characteristic of places which did a lot of developing before the automobile-centric age arrived. Europe, US East Coast cities - these have very dense central cores because that scale/distance was required by the transportation available.

Second, I'll admit my own limited experience with city planners supports Chuck's portrait of them, so the zoning - or whatever regulations we have no matter what they're called - has to be administered by this group until this sort of job doesn't exist any longer. Density has to be part of the picture - permitted or encouraged - rather than legislated out of existence. Allowing or encouraging infill and a mix of uses also has to be part of the picture - if the zoning only permits 4 dwelling units per acre and nothing but single family residential, you know the city is going to spread out fast, become less walkable and connected because the distrances increase, etc.

Third, change requires time, vision, leadership and money. I know you can see change starting to happen, Chuck - Strong Towns is gathering steam because of your vision and leadership, "placemaking" is becoming a commonplace term, form-based codes are being adopted...the policy and regulation landscape has evolved a great deal in the 15 years I've been involved. The physical landscape will follow when, in particular locations, there are elected officials, city staff and private investors who manage to share a vision for improvement and follow through over multiple election cycles.

Finally, "the system" is not quite as monolithic as you imply, Chuck. From a distance, yes, it looks that way. But not every planner is zoner who applies regulations literally and for whom density is the end product. But I'll bet you've met people who have started to figure out how to plan, zone, build, etc. in better ways. These pockets of leadership and change can spread. Rome was not built in a day, as they say, but over centuries.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBetsey Buckheit

Without delving in to some of the longer discussions, I have a question (or concern) about the ability of places to evolve/mature over time under our current system. Not just our system of zoning that doesn't physically allow for uses to evolve, densify, improve over time. The advent of the 30 year mortgage (even 15 year ones) available to many (and certainly exercised by many) seems to have had a major impact on places not maturing very rapidly, or at all.

Chuck, you refer to places incrementally adapting to places as their value or productivity increases, and that it takes time. I would point to many places in the US like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, etc that have undergone this process in a relatively rapid timeframe. We're talking as short as 100-120 years in the case of SF and Chicago (after the fire).

Prior to the 1940s, most people did not own their own residence. Single family homes didn't widely exist, and I would suspect that the ones that did had a larger % of total being rented than today. To me, this sole-ownership model for a long period of time (30 years) keeps the use from expanding or incrementally changing. People can't always sell their home, even if it IS worth more now due to the property increasing in value. Real estate fees, closing costs, moving costs, and the intangibles of uprooting your life/family keep many people from choosing to leave (unless they simply can't afford the tax increases anymore). It just seems like this length of time people invest themselves in owning property to live in discourages investment in the way you describe. I would also play devi's advocate and say that this stability in living space has been a relative positive for Americans. Traditional loans with fixed interest rates fix payments over the long haul - no changes to rent. I would counter my own little argument by saying that personal/professional mobility is hurt by locking in to one place and there is a monetary liability in owning a home, so seems like a possible wash. Anyway.

Obviously zoning keeps people from choosing to do things like rent out a basement or room above the garage in many cases (or building more on their lot due to parking minimums, setbacks, and lot coverage reqs). But I would also argue that the American psyche has largely evolved to not WANT to do those things, even if they could I talk to enough people, watch enough HGTV, etc who all believe that a single family home for themselves (for the next 30 years) is what they want and why they purchased it in the first place. I'm not saying it's right, just what I've observed. Even the recent trend of people my age shifting preferences toward city-dwelling may only be a temporary shift as a large share of them still admit to wanting long-term single family residence when they start families. I'm not saying SF homes and productive places are mutually exclusive, but it is harder to accomplish, IMO.

I would say one step in helping the market make its own decisions better could be helped by abolishing many of the tax breaks found here http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/federal-involvement-in-real-estate.pdf that allow the market to afford styles/locations of homes they otherwise couldn't afford. $450 billion a year, wow. (obviously not all homeowners deducting interest live in unproductive places but the share is certainly higher). Add in immense infrastructure payments and debt taken out to support this pattern as you have a recipe for people choosing a different lifestyle than they currently do.

Sorry for the long comment.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Also, to make a case for density for density's sake outside financial productivity (assuming it's done right and not towers in a park style density that negate the ability to get around in any menas but a car):

Environmental and health benefits. If you zone, prepare, plan for density you will get natural environmental benefits. Shared walls/floors between units decreases heating and cooling losses per residence. More option to walk, bike, or take transit to destinations. If a place is designed to be dense enough for what I'm talking about, transit is not only financially self-supporting (the way streets with market priced parking can be for cars), but more environmentally friendly.

Those reasons above can also prove to lead to a healthier lifestyle including more natural exercise and activity as part of a daily routine. Without getting in to causation and correlation, it would be hard to argue that more walking/biking/standing and less driving are not at least in part a cause of lower stress and obesity levels.

I obviously understand that I am in part making your point by saying density may not be the answer but more a financial and lifestyle viable place brings in higher levels of density and will achieve those things as a byproduct. And zoning for higher density (straight population per sqft) is not a measure to use as it can be done so many different (wrong) ways. But if you target higher densities to achieve viable transit and spaces that will be used and work to find a form-based ocde that allows for density levels you think will achieve those, that's not necessarily a bad way to go.

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Not to harp on minutiae, but your point about Paris is dead wrong. I've studied Haussmann extensively, and modern Paris is absolutely the product of strict government regulation. In fact, contemporary critics (Camillo Sitte, etc) attacked Paris and its imitators (Vienna, etc) while praising Italian and German cities that developed in the medieval era with narrow, winding streets, compact squares, and points of interest like monuments and fountains.

However, Parisians have always been comfortable with FAR more government control over property rights than American governments could ever hope for. Parisian planners legislated heights, building materials, alignments, balconies, etc. However, what happened at the center of blocks was often chaotic, unplanned, and unlegislated, since government planners only cared about outward appearances.

To answer your point, it IS theoretically possible to create such places through zoning control, but only with authority verging on the totalitarian.

January 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoland S

Chuck, I love the "zoners" instead of planners! Municipal planners seldom create plans, after all... instead, they administer zoning. I'd encourage you to continue using this term in hopes that it becomes part of the lexicon. I'll help out by doing the same.

January 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Mouzon

Chuck, you're zeroing in on one of the biggest ones! Even I admitted what it was. I labeled these as "small", "medium", and "big" to be honest about what's included in the new plans, and to highlight which portions seem to reflect a smaller mindset. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on those.

I think we're running up against the limitations of how your Strong Towns framework can apply to cities.

Now, I was really glad to hear you address this idea up front at the Philly Curbside Chat - that "Strong Towns" is just name, and the ideas are applicable at all levels, from neighborhoods to whole cities. I agree with that, and I think there's a lot of room out there to apply this type of thinking in our local neighborhoods, for those of us who live in very large cities. But reading your reactions here, I'm starting to think that you haven't fully consider what challenges there are at large scales.

Philadelphia is a city of 1.5 million people. There are almost 450,000 people in Northeast Philly alone. That would be a large city itself in any other area. At this scale, major investments are necessary. The poorly designed (read: Stroad-heavy) road network in Northeast Philly is built for suburban living, despite some fairly traditional rowhome and mixed-use development in the Lower Northeast. And the little transit service that does exist is poorly organized and underprovided.

There should be discussions and arguments in the medium to long term future (and I hope the City will) about what type and level of transit investment Northeast Philly needs. What's there today is clearly inadequate, though. And to help determine this, to help quantify where the challenges are, we are going to need to "Complete an analysis to understand the evolving travel patterns in Northeast Philadelphia". What I think you're not granting here is that there's a whole bunch of room for nuance between the MPO's black boxes and having no travel demand modeling at all.

The old plans for a subway in the Northeast don't reflect any sort of Strong Towns thinking. They were proposed before there were even neighborhoods up here! Trying to lead growth is problematic, I agree with you there. But I think there's an opportunity now to study where the transit needs are in Northeast Philly, and start to target some transit improvements. Increase frequencies; realign routes to be more direct; add bus shelters and passenger information. As these investments start to work, then it becomes more evident where heavier investment is needed: busways, or light rail, or even heavy rail someday.

(The light rail project in Ottawa is a good example. They are converting the central portion of an existing busway into light rail to greatly increase capacity. I know it's in a much larger scale than you usually deal with, but it's still an incremental investment in response to growth, not trying to lead growth.)

I don't think we're all that far apart here, and I'm much more cynical about our master planning efforts in Philly than I may be letting on. But the point I'm trying to make is that, when we're dealing with things at the city level, where hundreds of thousands of people and jobs are involved, the scale needs to change. I think the framework can still hold -- incremental investments in response to where growth is occurring -- but we need to accept that big projects, supported by some level of central planning, will eventually be necessary.

(And in retrospect, this is pretty long. Last paragraph covers the gist!)

January 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim
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