Back in 2011, I attended a Congress for the New Urbanism Council in Montgomery, Alabama. I was a relative newcomer to the CNU and found the entire experience to be an exhilarating overload of new information.
One of the presenters at the Council was Victor Dover of the firm Dover Kohl and Partners, one of the country's most respected names in town planning. He's also a genuinely kind person who did a lot to encourage me back when the Strong Towns movement was just a guy with a late night blogging habit.
It was with some astonishment then when I was recently pointed towards this short video of Victor, at that same Council, talking about incremental development, some of the shortcomings of New Urbanism up to that point and some challenging ways for us to think about the future. It is simply an amazing clip and reaffirms to me all the ways he and some of the other New Urbanists have, and continue to, inspire me.
I've had the video transcribed for those of you that want to excerpt from it.
When you take a hard look at the things that have been built according to the excellent New Urbanist plans, orthodox plans that were designed by the best practitioners, the implementation is still a little coarse. The buildings are too big, they’re too long, and the increment of investment is too great.
In traveling you can’t help but go back and forth between the newest development and the historic city next door or the historic neighborhood next door or down the street. Immediately you notice that the increment of development was smaller. In the bad old days they were accomplishing the fine-graininess that New Urbanists talk about.
And I look at what’s been done so far, and this kind of beginning…“re-beginning”, as not living up to that standard.
You know, our new places… it’s not just the absence of patina. It’s not just because they’re not streaked and old, and it’s not just because the architectures are thin and weak. Those are certainly true. It’s the size of the pieces.
I don’t mean that you can’t have big buildings, big buildings are part of the norm. You should have big buildings and small ones. You go to some of these places and there are only big buildings, there are only long buildings. There are only block-sized developments, and you ask yourself, “Can’t we do what they did in all those historic places in the north end in Boston or on Beacon Hill, or in San Francisco, in historic- you name it…Old town Alexandria. Can’t we do what they did there? That is to achieve extraordinarily high densities and still have the texture and livability and joy that comes from building a lot of Small is Beautiful Projects.
There are a lot of obstacles to realize the goal I just said. There’s the increment of finances. The money seems to come in great big loads when it finally does come and has to be spent all at once on big projects. The projects seem to be scaled to the increment of the efficient parking structure. Well, we have to have the big parking structure, and then we have to have an even bigger block because we need to dutifully wrap it with the liner buildings with habitable space following the street. That’s all correct, but it results in super block developments, even from New Urbanists.
Then there’s the increment of transaction. That parcel, the redevelopment agency just decided to let go and that was the size of the parcel, so, BINGO. That’s the size of the transaction and VOILA that’s the size of the building.
I question this. I think, “Gosh. You know. They missed out on the opportunity to create more value by building a little, showing it and building the next phase at a higher price. At a higher level of luxury. A higher level of desirability because they built some and then added.
That kind of intelligent incrementalism isn’t creep, it isn’t excessive humility, and it’s what the New Urbanism was always supposed to be about.
So we needed to rediscover lots. We needed to remember how to build a building on a lot that’s self-contained and represents a small amount of risk, relatively speaking. Let a lot of people roll the dice a lot of times, and let some of them fail. Nature does it that way. That’s a lot of leaves on each tree just in case a few fall off. It doesn’t depend on one big green leaf to do all the work for the tree.
Similarly, cities have that same texture because we let a lot of buildings, a lot of investors behind them, try a lot or ideas and adjust to one another as you’re coming out of the ground.
This idea of tailoring what you’re doing according to what’s gone on around you or just before, is the way a jazz musician works in a combo. They don’t know what their buddy is going to play, but they listen. They compose on the fly, they adjust what they are about to do in real time based on context; based on sonic context.
On old Main streets, the person who built the next building was taken into account; the things that were going on, on either side or them or across the street. Amending and building local distinctiveness. These projects that have been built over the last 20 years, while they are spectacular successes, for the most part are lacking that, kind of, fine adjustment. I’m hoping over the next 20 to 40 years, we have New Urbanism that gets that right.