Getting Lean & The End of Block Development

Urbanism, noun.
1. The magic created by cities.
2. The magic that creates cities. 

Jude Stanion penned an urbanism call-to-arms at the Las Vegas Downtown Project blog this week. Stanion has some noteworthy pieces of commentary on the need for urbanism (including the definition above):

Cities are made of people. You can learn everything there is to know about peak traffic prediction, but you’ll still know nothing about cities. To me, Urbanism fills the gaps between our existing disciplines. Urbanism is too unglamorous for the architects, too messy for the planners, and too inconvenient for the engineers. But without urbanism, a city has no soul …

I agree. Urbanism gives a city (or town) a sense of place, or as Stanion puts it, a soul. It’s that unique “x” factor that makes a place something we love and cherish.

He continues,

The city’s secret is density. Every pound of CO2 emitted and every gallon of freshwater consumed supports not one life, but hundreds. Cities are incredibly efficient ways to heat, feed, cool, and heal huge numbers of people. Density allows for high quality of life for a fraction of the cost.

This is only partially true. The secret of a city is not density. It’s the urbanism itself, which must be, for definition sake, separated from urbanism. Why? Because good urbanism is what creates density. And, while density can be good, it needs to be the byproduct of good urbanism first. Density alone should be not a goal.

Let me explain.

In most major and mid-sized American cities, an apartment boom is underway and it looks a lot like this;

Big Block Urbanism1

And this …


It’s a mid-rise building that encompasses nearly an entire city block, usually developed over a surfacing parking lot or under-utilized former industrial site. There are countless more examples, even at the townhouse level (two examples from Minneapolis’ downtown: here and here). Certainly, the loss of a parking lot is nothing to shed a tear over, but this building typology, which currently represents our American view of ‘urban’, presents itself as somewhat problematic.

  • Development is expensive when we do it this way

One block. One developer. Lots of risk. To make it work, you’ll need to develop as much as possible with as much money as you can possibly find. In a Midwestern city like Minneapolis, it’ll cost you around $75 million (even when your developing over an abandoned car dealership). That’s a lot of money. There are too few companies that can make development like this happen. This inherently limits who can build, and what gets built. This destroys urban diversity.

  • Maintenance is expensive

Creating a large, block-sized building works when demand for rent is high and constant, or the condos have residents who can afford major assessments. You can charge a rent premium at first, but as large buildings age, they become much more difficult (and expensive) to maintain while the premium dwindles and new competition hits the marketplace. If the building, say over the course of 25 years, has residents in a condo association who can’t afford an assessment for water damage, what will happen? Will the city be on the hook for helping to repair the damage? [You can read about that story here].

  • Parking requirements added all at once

Even in neighborhoods with less restrictive parking ordinances, building 300 to 500 units at once is going to command the developing of parking facilities (whether by regulation or market forces). This leads to increased development cost and can translate to a lack of other important amenities, such as green space. Here’s an example of a “big block” development in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Marchmont neighborhood versus a similar style development in Dallas’ Uptown:


Notice how parking makes a difference? You’re exchanging concrete for something more worthwhile (cheaper, too). Smaller buildings typically have less of an impact on the parking landscape, even at similar densities.Note: the green square satellite image of Edinburgh (my old flat) is composed of a series of building, all similar in style, built at the same time, but distinct buildings of 4 stories each containing about 8 to 10 units each.

  • Monotonous streetscapes are almost always a byproduct

Even in a finely regulated mixed use format, large block products nearly always result in monotonous streetscapes. Building such an expansive building with such a tremendous amount of risk results in cost-savings measures. One of those measures is usually street level urban design. It’s certainly a set above a blank wall, but lacks the excitement and vibrancy that our cities so desperately need. Here’s the streetscape from the Dallas example above (thanks to the great Old Urbanist for the images):


This is density without urbanism, and it doesn’t help our places much.

Strong cities and towns need to create development models that allow our urban development to occur incrementally and on a much smaller scale. You need to be able to build something without having to secure $75 million in financing.

Here’s my proposal:

The city (in this case, Minneapolis) takes a municipal parking lot (here); and instead of selling it to one developer, it subdivides the into multiple parcels (for example). To promote development, the city could do something as simple as sell the parcels off at $1 (or even $100,000) and enact site-specific code (e.g.: height, urban design, etc.). Doing this with city land as a starting point, would be, in a way, incentivizing the mid-scale urbanism-centric development without the use of direct tax subsidies.

In a sense, we need to move beyond the scale of big. For urbanist development, we’ve lost the ability to do it well small. That’s what we need to bring back.

This proposal could even be taken one step further: what if architects, builders and developers could bypass most local zoning and building codes? I’m not entirely sure if it is politically possible in most places, but I’m confident it would aid in the developing of small, incremental buildings. There would need to be stipulations: it wouldn’t be “code free” per se, but more so a list of aims and objectives that would need to be reached. Aims and objectives would be things like good urban design, added street density, transit-accessibility, walkability and decent architecture.

In a sense, we’d be trying to achieve a version of Form Based Coding, minus the regulations that require a costly elevators for two to three story buildings. I’m certain we can come to a societal consensus on what’s a good code and what’s a bad code. My rule of thumb is when you look at a code you can’t immediate pinpoint who lobbied for it.

Stanion’s 500 word essay on urbanism, and the magic thereof, beautifully illustrates an important piece of our environment:

I believe that urbanism will save us, but that’s not why I’m an urbanist. I love cities not because they are efficient, but because they are magical: because you never know what you’ll find around the next block, or who might bump into you there, what you might say to them and how that might change your life. It’s the city’s magic, not mortar, that holds us all together.

Or, as I read it: Adventure. Surprise. Engagement. Interaction. Engagement. Urbanism.

All these things are possible with urbanism, but not necessarily with just density. Now, it’s our job to make that urbanism – that magic – happen.