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The word 'granular' is used to describe something that is made up of multiple elements. If the elements are small, we call it "fine-grained," and if the elements are large, we call it "coarse-grained." These are terms typically used in economics, computer science and geology. For example, in computer science, an algorithm is fine-grained if it is divided into many small steps, and coarse-grained if it is divided into few large steps.
But we can also use these terms when talking about cities. I use "granularity" to talk about how the ownership of a city is divided, particularly in terms of the size of the lots that city blocks are divided into. On the right, you can see this illustrated.
There's a big difference between these two types of development and one will create a far better outcome for our cities.
We can also talk about the granularity of an economy; an economy is fine-grained if it is made up of many small businesses and coarse-grained if it is made up of a few large businesses. (Of course, most economies are somewhere in between.)
Having a fine-grained economy made up of many small businesses is generally preferable over a coarse-grained economy made up of fewer businesses because it implies a more resilient economy (if one of the businesses fail, less is the effect on the overall economy) and more distributed wealth (the profit and ownership of the businesses are divided among many, rather than in the hands of a few.)
Cities are the physical manifestation of the economy and our built environment speaks volumes about our economy. It is easier to see this in smaller towns where the economic model is simplified; you can easily spot the difference between a small town dominated by a few large stores and a small town dominated by many smaller stores.
There is often a correlation between the environment that we physically see and interact with, and the underlying economics that built it.
Although much of what I write about could be applied in suburban areas, this article will deal specifically with urban areas. Urban areas — especially downtowns and neighborhoods dominated by apartments and condos and navigated primarily on foot — create a fundamentally different day-to-day experience than auto-oriented suburban areas. Our sense of scale and place changes when we are walking (where there is only so far you can reasonable walk, and you are exposed to your environment) compared to when we are driving (where we can drive for miles with little effort, and we have little interest in how the realm outside of our car feels as we are confined inside.)
Older urban areas in the United States are typically very fine-grained:
While newer urban areas in the United States tend to typically be very coarse-grained;
The Benefits of Fine-Grained Urbanism
Fine-grained urbanism is preferable because it implies:
- Diverse ownership. Each individual lot typically has a different owner.
- Lower cost of entry. If we ignore the underlying price of land (small lots in general should be cheaper because you are buying less land), it takes less money to build a shop or a home on a small narrow lot, than building an entire apartment complex.
- More destinations within walking distance. An important part of good urbanism is fitting as much as possible within walking distance, so naturally, fitting more in gives you more choices to walk to.
- Greater resistance to bad buildings. Bad buildings can make less of an impact when they are limited in size.
I am going to cover each of these points in detail.
Diverse ownership and lower cost of entry go hand in hand. It takes a lot of money to build a huge building. Ignoring land costs, this building could easily cost $30 million to construct:
$30 million is far more than the typical middle-class person could afford.
In contrast, any of these townhomes (also ignoring the land costs) could probably be built for less than $200,000. They are basic brick cubes with doors and windows:
Here is a slightly denser urban street, that should still be reasonably affordable to build:
Urban development should not be expensive by itself. I worry that the high cost of entry brought on by coarse-grained urbanism is leading to economic polarization where only those who already have money can invest and create more wealth, and everyone else is a mere consumer. On a personal level, I would love to one day purchase an empty lot in an urban area and build my dream townhome.
If we consider each building a destination, fine-grained urban areas are naturally more walkable because we have more destinations within walking distance than coarse-grained urban areas in general. When your lots are only 20 feet wide, you are naturally going to have a destination (a building, an office, a shop, etc.) entrance every 20 feet along the street:
In contrast, with coarse-grained urbanism we have one or two destinations taking up an entire block:
Fine-grained development also limits the impact of bad buildings. A property owner that builds a dull or ugly building, allows their building to become run down, or abandons it, negatively affects the streetscape. However, we can minimize the overall impact to the streetscape if the ugly or derelict building is just one of many along the block.
There are places where fine-grained development is impractical, such as high-rise central business districts where the economics of the place make really tall buildings feasible (and really tall buildings require large bases) or when there are other engineering constraints that require a large amount of startup capital.
Some things naturally require a lot of space like sports stadiums, warehouses, movie cinemas, schools, museums, factories, supermarkets, and high-rises that require a large base. Large buildings are not bad when we use them in moderation.
The worst-case scenario is when a single building takes up an entire block with a single entrance:
When we remove the destinations along the street, we kill it. We end up with a dead street — unsightly, unsafe, uninteresting. Even if you have nice architecture, the lack of the number of destinations to attract people really affects how interesting and alive the street feels.
But we can easily imitate a fine-grained urban environment with "faux-granularity." That's when a large building is divided into many separate destinations at street level to give the impression of fine-grained urbanism. Here's an example at an outlet mall in Atlantic City:
Sometimes we need to build large buildings. However, we should resist blank walls, which can lead to dead streets.
Below is the Javits Center in Manhattan. They could have done some faux-granularity here. Instead we have a blank wall that takes up the entire length of a block. The result is a dead street, despite being within a short walk from Times Square — one of, if not, the most crowded places in the United States.
Dead streets are dangerous. They are the sorts of gray zones that Jane Jacobs talks about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Dead streets lack any sort of attraction to draw people. Not only are they unsightly, but the lack of people going about their businesses (eyes on the street) often encourages crime.
In contrast, here is an example of a large building that uses faux-granularity to add a reasonable number of destinations that keep the street alive:
This example is pretty inexcusable:
It's so easy to decorate the ground level of a parking structure with faux-granularity, and earn a little bit of extra rent for the building owner:
Ideally we would have true granularity (individual buildings that are individually owned), but short of that, we should aim for faux-granularity.
Faux-grained urbanism gives the feel of a fine-grained urbanism, and for all practical purposes, functions the same as fine-grained urbanism as far as being interesting, attracting foot traffic, and being highly walkable. However, it does have some shortcomings that we should be aware of:
- It still consolidates a lot of the land into the hands of a single owner.
- It is still a high cost of entry environment.
- It is up to the discretion of the property owner if they decide to be faux-grained or if they build a blank wall.
- There is no resilience against a bad building. If the building is abandoned or has to be closed down, the entire block closes down. If the building is cheap and ugly, the entire block is cheap and ugly.
We could certainly regulate faux-granularity, but I am against piling on yet another regulation to burden developers with. This would add yet another permit or approval process to go through, which adds to the overhead of development (extra permits and approval processes to go through). It's an example of treating the symptoms of disease instead of addressing the cause.
The Modern Coarse-Grained Tendency
There is a tendency for newer urban areas to be coarse-grained. Why?
I had a friend once tell me that size of the development generally describes the size of the capital; A person with $1 billion in capital does not want to do five hundred $2 million projects. This raises the question: Where are those with $2 million to spend? What about $200,000? Do a few at the top really own all of the wealth of the community?
I think a large part of the problem lies in how we go about selling undeveloped land. Back in my article, "Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit)," I talked about how Conway, Arkansas was selling its old airport:
The asking price of the 151 acre site was $9 million. They were selling it whole to the player with the best proposal that could afford it. The land isn't that expensive per square foot, but rather than dividing it into 10 parcels of land for $900,000 each, 100 parcels for $90,000 each, or possibly 1,000 parcels for $9,000 each, they sold it off whole.
I have noticed this is a trend around the country. Today, when a city finds themselves with a parcel of land they want to sell, they sell it all to the highest bidder or the bidder with the best plan.
A century ago, when a city found itself with land to sell off for development, they would plat the land and sell the lots individually:
It is easy to imagine that if they found themselves with 151 acres of land to sell and develop, the commissioners would have surveyed the area and drawn out a plat, subdividing the parcel of land into streets, blocks, and lots, and if possible, connecting the streets with any surrounding street grid. Most of the lots would have been purchased and developed individually — and only those that really needed more space would have purchased multiple consecutive lots.
Building Fine-Grained Urbanism
The most obvious solution for building fine-grained urbanism seems to be simply to plat out the land into smaller lots. When a city finds itself in the possession of undeveloped land, it should take its best effort to divide it up and sell it in the smallest lot sizes as possible.
An alternative would be for a private developer to subdivide the land and sell of individual lots. This is similar to how suburban development works.
We could use a similar approach, both to build entirely new urban neighborhoods (similar to how the railroad companies of the 19th century would found new railroad towns by subdividing and selling off land in the middle of nowhere) and also at a much smaller scale to subdivide already existing blocks. For example, a developer could buy a large lot, build multiple buildings, then sell off each building individually for more than what they could from building and selling a single building.
I saw this happening on a small scale when I was back in Australia where I grew up. My aunt and uncle demolished their suburban home and subdivided their lot into three. They plan on building three town-homes, selling two and living in the third.
A fine-grained environment is a health environment from an economic and urbanist perspective. Large buildings are not bad, and the best cities I have visited have a diverse mixture. We should do our best to make our urban environment fine-grained — with development using as little land as possible. However, on the occasions when we do need to build large, we should do our best to make the result faux-grained.
Treat land is if it is the most precious resource your city has. Never waste land or street space. Build real parks over greenspace. Create a place that is enjoyable and interesting — one that encourages entrepreneurship, where you can mostly depend on your own two feet for daily errands. That is how you create a successful city.