Tag Archives: subdivision

Lake country

In the outskirts of Miami, ill-thought subdivision development codes require developers to build on-site water reservoirs. The result is a patchwork of unconnected pools.

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When the Dutch ran into similar problems they built canals and then built their cities around them. Shirking their responsibilities, the planners in Florida only build the standard road grid as the integrator, and transfer all other burdens upon land subdividers, who build at a scale unsuited to the required structure.

Also noticeable is the housing density of Miami increasing outwards, where the newest subdivisions are much denser than the older ones, inverting the natural and historic fabric of cities, and wiping away all established stereotypes about suburban sprawl.

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The development model is finished

An interesting graph on the state of the housing subdivision industry in America posted at the Daily Reckoning.

This is the lowest rate of development since statistics began in the 1950’s, which is to say the time when the modern development system was created. A new model of urban growth is now not only a better idea, it has become a necessity. Only those communities that adopt emergent urbanism will get out of this crash, and hopefully they will adopt this new urbanism deliberately instead of being swarmed with squatter settlement.

Squatter urbanism comes to America

In previous posts I argued that the only way a modern housing subdivision was possible was by the creation of a permanent, extreme housing crisis by the authorities attempting to control development. Now this housing crisis is catching up with American cities and a phenomenon that was until then limited to dysfunctional third world countries, squatter camps, is popping up all over the country.

From the well-kept interior of the Caros’ place, one can hardly see the jagged rows of tents and shanties on the vacant land around them. About 200 people have built informal habitats along the railroad tracks, primarily poor whites and migrant workers from Mexico.

There are many names for this fledgling city, where Old Glory flies from improvised flagpoles and trash heaps rise and fall with the wavering population. To some it’s Little Tijuana, but most people call it Taco Flat.

Just to the south, under a freeway overpass, there’s another camp of roughly equal size called New Jack City where most of the residents are black. Even more dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby, appended to the walls of industrial buildings and rising up the flanks of freeway spurs.

Fresno, which the Brookings Institution ranked in 2005 as the American city with the greatest concentration of poverty, is far from the only place where people are resorting to life in makeshift abodes. Similar encampments are proliferating throughout the West, everywhere from the industrial hub of Ontario, Calif., to the struggling casino district of Reno, Nev., and the upscale suburbs of Washington state.

In any other country, these threadbare villages would be called slums, but in the U.S., the preferred term is tent city, a label that implies that they are just a temporary phenomenon. Many journalists, eager to prove that the country is entering the next Great Depression, blame the emergence of these shantytowns on the economic downturn, calling them products of foreclosures and layoffs.

While there’s some truth to this notion, the fact is that these roving, ramshackle neighborhoods were part of the American cityscape long before the stock market nosedived, and they are unlikely to disappear when prosperity returns. The recent decades of real estate speculation and tough-love social policies have cut thousands of people out of the mainstream markets for work and housing, and the existing network of homeless shelters is overburdened and outdated.

People such as the Caros are part of a vanguard that has been in crisis for years, building squatter settlements as a do-or-die alternative to the places that rejected them. This parallel nation, with a population now numbering in the thousands in Fresno alone, was born during the boom times, and it is bound to flourish as the economy falters.

“The chickens are coming home to roost,” said Larry Haynes, the executive director of Mercy House, a homeless outreach organization based in Southern California. “What this speaks of is an absolute crisis of affordability and accessibility.”

In Fresno and other struggling cities, which perpetually strive to boost tax revenues with development, tent cities are often seen as symbols of criminality and dereliction, glaring setbacks to neighborhood revitalization efforts. That perception is common wherever informal urbanism exists, said Mehrotra, and it often leaves squatter camps on the brink of ruin.

“You are always on the edge of demolition,” Mehrotra said. “There’s a kind of insecurity in the lack of tenure on the land.”

This hit home in Fresno a few years ago, when workers began raiding encampments throughout the city, tearing down makeshift homes and destroying personal property in the process. The city of Fresno and the California Department of Transportation conducted these sweeps in the name of public health, citing citizen complaints about open-air defecation.

Yet the raids did nothing to stop tent cities from forming, and they ultimately led to lawsuits. In October 2006, residents who lost their homes in the raids filed a class-action suit against the city of Fresno and the state of California. A U.S. district judge ordered the defendants to pay $2.3 million in damages.

Tarp Nation – High Country News

The same features that define the process of every squatter town are present. There is the random occupation of land, the lack of any amenities, and of course the police repression that makes it impossible to create a viable economy. As the public authorities run out of money they will have to lighten the repression and the squatter towns will move into the second class, one with fixed buildings and small outlaw businesses that will attract even more of the poor looking for subsistence. They will become America’s Dharavis.

Instead of using repression to enforce a planning system that drives people into destitution, the authorities should instead act pre-emptively by extending the towns’ infrastructure ahead of urbanization, not in collusion with home builders, and tolerating that the settlers build themselves out of poverty, something that they know quite well how to do. Over time these neigborhoods would go through an unslumming process, and their social and economic liveliness would make them even more attractive than subdivisions, at which point they may become historic cities the likes of which people always built before the modern planning process. The people who were once destitute would be small-time property developers and landlords, and for those who still had nothing the process could be repeated in a new neighborhood.

Update: Here are some pictures of the “Hoovervilles” that sprung up in America during the 1930’s.

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The beginning of a real place.

A cuter form of sprawl

The National Post reports about the failures of Canada’s most famous New Urbanist experience, Cornell in the Toronto Suburbs.

More than 10 years ago, a charismatic Cuban American architect embarked on a bold plan to transform a plot of Ontario farmland into a bustling urban utopia, a place where dwellers would swap cars for walking shoes and enjoy a sense of urbanity in what would have otherwise been just another suburb. Or so that was Andres Duany’s plan.

Instead, cars today zip up and down the narrow avenues and not a pedestrian, charming coffee shop, nor restaurant is in sight. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and two beauty salons are inexplicably closed for the day, a real estate office is locked with snow piled high outside its door, not a single child is playing in Mews Park, and the convenience store sees only a trickling of residents. Here and there a York Regional Transit bus rolls along, but public transportation to, from  and within Cornell is far from comprehensive.

“The mindset was that people wanted a village feel, but what emerged was a sort of pseudo-village,” said Michael Spaziani, a Toronto architect who a decade ago helped create Cornell’s open-space master plan, adding that Cornell is so far nothing more than a “cuter form of sprawl.”

John Evans, a father of three who moved to the Markham community about 10 years ago, said he was lured here by the promise of an imaginative urban development, only to today find his expectations not entirely met.

“I was drawn here by the novelty of the idea. But the goal of a walkable community with shops and a retail centre has not been achieved. We have to drive everywhere,” Mr. Evans said, adding that none of his children walk to school.

Renee Torrington, former president of the Cornell Rate Payers Association who moved here in 1998, said she too was excited by the prospect of living in a walkable community, where the revving of engines would be the exception and not the daily norm. But Ms. Torrington buckles into her car nearly every day, whether it be to drive to work in Mississauga, haul groceries from Loblaws, catch a flick, or pick up a bag of dog food from the pet store.

The solution proposed is to bring back Andres Duany to replan the town, in other words feedback. But the city that the New Urbanists are imitating, the traditional American town, did not need this. Its feedback loops were not a decade apart, but every day, as families, businesses and organizations grew it into a mixed-used city, without developers. That is why it was so alive. Too much has already been developed without feedback for this to take place in Cornell.

Previous: New Urbanism as dense sprawl

More evidence that New Urbanism is really dense sprawl

From The New Geography magazine.

In Celebration, many of the early residents were Disney executives; only 4 or 5 years after opening did Disney develop office space in Celebration for some of their offices. Baldwin Park, approximately 2 miles from Downtown Orlando, never pretended to capture the employment aspect, instead selling itself (to many Celebration residents who rushed to this newer, hipper version of their town) as a downtown commute. And neither Avalon Park nor Horizon West have employment opportunities within their town centers. What they do have is easy access to the area’s ring road – ensuring vehicular congestion outside of their New Urbanist communities.

What is in their Town Centers? Ironically, you find only a small shopping district and the ubiquitous Publix, Florida’s home-grown grocery store chain. The formula of “live-work-play” must stick in the craw of those who are employed in these stores, because the Publix employees, Starbucks baristas, dry cleaner cashiers, and others who do work in these Town Centers can not possibly afford the New Urbanist real estate. Rather than a social continuum (as was more common in the idealized version of America), there is a new social schism, with the New Urbanist underclass forced to commute to the New Urbanist communities from more affordable but less trendy housing nearby.

In contrast, the region’s native communities have been thriving throughout the same growth period. Communities like College Park, adjacent to Orlando’s downtown, offer something that New Urbanist communities do not: diverse housing, from garage apartments and rental communities up to stately mansions, all within walking distance of each other. They offer an idiosyncratic mix of sacred places, playgrounds, schools, and shops in what the Philadelphia architect and theorist Robert Venturi calls “messy vitality.” No overarching body dictated the form, developed transects, or rigidly controlled the distance between the front porch to the street to achieve these vibrant, socially cohesive, and proud neighborhoods.

New Urbanists claim to reduce the need for cars, but Orlando’s New Urbanist communities make the car more necessary than ever. Built on the periphery of the metropolitan area, they require a vehicle to complete the circle of functions necessary for a healthy society. Orange County planners have been submissive to the New Urbanists – especially after Celebration – but increasingly recognize that they do not solve the problems they claim to solve and instead invent more: higher traffic, less affordable housing near city centers, and lumpy development sprawl.

If you are building in a city at the metropolitan scale, you have to expect your potential residents to live metropolitan lifestyles. A single TND is nothing more than a prettier subdivision, and brings along all the economic risk and maladaptations that other subdivisions do, with none of the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of regular cities. But the blame here doesn’t fall on the developers of New Urbanism, it falls on the county planners who are supposed to enable the flexibility, agility and adaptivity of their metropolis, and who instead create the ideal conditions for unsustainability and subdivision development. There wouldn’t be these TNDS without the ring roads, which immediately become unplanned urbanism. That’s the only reason this kind of development is profitable in the first place.

The challenge of dense sprawl

When looking at such a picture we are at first inclined to make a parallel with the landscape of Los Angeles. It is a foggy urban plain with a cluster of towers popping out over the horizon. This is Dubai from a perspective that is rarely shown, that of the city in the foreground, and its suburban expansions in the background. The towers are the Dubai suburbs, lined up on what used to be the main highway out to Abu Dhabi, now the centre of New Dubai and the urban fringe of Dubai. A picture such as this is significant because the central core of Dubai is almost never seen in the pictures of the huge developments going up in its suburbs. That is unfortunate, since the reason that these suburban developments are economically possible at their size is because they are growths of the old Dubai. The parallel with Los Angeles is therefore incorrect. Los Angeles followed the standard American model of urban growth, developing a central business district on a simple grid where the original center of the city was founded, then later adopted suburban sprawl to continue its growth and grew a cluster of skyscrapers adapted to this sprawl where the center once was. The policy of sprawl is blamed for the impossible traffic congestion that cripples Los Angeles, but generally what is meant by sprawl are the low-density housing subdivisions, office zones and other standard typologies of suburbia. The solution that was called for was more density, even though some geographers pointed out that Los Angeles was already one of the densest cities in America. The result of this choice has been dense sprawl: worse traffic, worse crowding and seemingly no improvement in quality of life.

Clearly the challenge of sprawl has been improperly identified. I will show that sprawl is not about density but about distance between complements, and the extremely rapid urban growth of Dubai, from a small fishing town to an urban metropolis in two generations, makes this visibly explicit.

Perhaps the most fascinating fact about Dubai is how natural and complex the old city seems to be despite having an entirely modern building stock. Most cities associated with a natural or organic morphology are usually pre-modernist cities of old classical or vernacular buildings, or at least preserve some of them. There are no such buildings in Dubai, the city having started its growth period in the 1950’s. The only explanation for the natural form of the old Dubai is a natural process of growth.

The urban fabric of a city is a solution set, each building being a solution to a problem of a particular time and place. The city as a whole is a solution set for its population as a whole, and as times and people change new buildings are added to provide new solutions to these new problems. The reason that naturally grown cities have a chaotic morphology is the same reason why stock market movement is fractal; they are both adaptations to fluctuating circumstances, and they are both limited in size by the previous size of the system. That means that you cannot grow a city by a development that is bigger than the city’s current state of maladaptation to circumstances. Attempting to do so will result in economic failure. Many very small development operations done in succession will be much more adaptive than one large development operation planned at one moment, since each operation adapts to the circumstances created by the previous one.

Because cities grow by correcting maladaptations, the new buildings turn out to be complements of the existing buildings. It makes no sense to make a building that is identical to one that already exists, and in natural cities that will never appear. Each building will be fitted to the particular knowledge of time and place, as Hayek would say. This particular knowledge is itself produced by the presence of existing buildings and the way people use them.

This process is not simply an economic abstraction, it also has morphological consequences.

Jumeirah is a beachfront suburb directly to the south of old Dubai that has become the home of the Anglosphere expatriate community as well as synonymous with upper-class lifestyles. Because it is more recent growth of Dubai’s urban centre it has seen growth in operations of much larger sizes. You can tell that there are now “clusters” of identical buildings, nothing of the scale of a metropolitan subdivision yet, but the building individuality of central Dubai is no longer present. (Cluster housing development is also visible in, for example, the older parts of Las Vegas.) This is pre-subdivision scale, in that an operation creates multiple buildings without having a scale large enough to be “planned” and have status as a named development. For the purpose of the adaptation they bring, they are still only one event, only one adaptation subdivided into multiple buildings. And because they are much bigger than the previous development operations, they create more distance between themselves and the urban fabric they are adapting to. The scale of development is not big enough to be called sprawl yet, but the complexity of this neighborhood is not as advanced as that of the older city. While the buildings in Jumeirah are certainly complements of the whole city of Dubai, they are not complements of each other, which is true in the older city.

Left: Skyscrapers on Sheik Zayed Road, Burj Dubai site on lower left

Right: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina megaprojects along with random subdivisions.

Here are Dubai’s world-famous megadevelopments, which have been made possible as adaptations to Dubai’s metropolitan scale. The development operations are enormous complements of the existing urban fabric, but the fact that they are all being built concurrently means that they cannot adapt and become complements to each other. With little surprise the traffic congestion on the Sheik Zayed Road that integrates them together has skyrocketed. The distance between complements has increased to the scale of the projects, and the only way to move from one to another is by driving down Sheik Zayed Road.

The skyscrapers going up are actually making sprawl worse the same way that a development of 100 houses extends sprawl. The idea that a skyscraper is a vertical city is a myth. Skyscrapers are identical floors of open space and rely on very large networks of complementary urban fabric to work properly. Skyscrapers can contribute to the complexity of a place like New York City because the urban fabric of Manhattan is very rich and can digest density and congestion gracefully, but in a city where urban fabric is undeveloped, as modernist plans for a Radiant City were, or has been de-developed, like the CBD of most American cities, skyscrapers throw congestion and traffic out to the whole city as badly as a housing subdivision.

The solution to sprawl is not increasing density, but increasing complementarity. That means breaking up existing housing subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers into smaller autonomous parts that can grow into buildings that are complements to houses, offices and shops as well as complements to the city as a whole. (This obviously implies abolishing zoning.) It means not trying to design everything that goes into one project, to let growth come to you and to accomodate it, to publicize the chaotic symmetry of old Dubai as a model of natural beauty instead of the iconic forms of the skyscraper cluster. The Dubai Palms and the Burj Dubai district may still grow into something natural and complex.

The emergent dimension, or why New Urbanism is not urbanism

There are two methods for producing fractal geometry. The first method, the decomposition, is the most easily understood. In a decomposition we apply an algorithm that breaks up the geometry of some starting point into several parts. We then re-apply this algorithm to the smaller parts created, obtain many more, even smaller parts, and continue this reiteration until we have reached the complexity limit at the smallest scale of object we can possibly make. This is how an architectural design proceeds because it reflects the way that building proceeds. A building has a hierarchy of dependencies that begins with the largest structure, the frame. The building is then built with smaller and smaller components until we reach the smallest, for example door handles and light fixtures.

The other method is the composition. In a composition we also apply an iterative algorithm, but instead of breaking down the initial geometry, we expand it. The fractal grows out instead of growing in. This is how urbanisation proceeds, by composing new streets and buildings onto an already existing web of streets and buildings, until we have reached the complexity limit of the largest city we can support.

If we look at this compositional fractal we see that the scale of the structure composed to the initial geometry increases exponentially. The largest structure comes last.

Many of the elementary cellular automatons discovered by Stephen Wolfram produce this fractal using only one dimension of instructions. Each cell, depending on its state (black or white) and the state of its left and right neighbors, applies the rule to determine its new state. A new line is written for every iteration of the algorithm on the previous line. The complexity of the structure only becomes visible when the time dimension is displayed. At their local scale, the cells are not able to “see” how their actions create the system, but their actions do in fact make something bigger than themselves. They are creating a structure by emergence, and this emergence is visible only in a dimension larger than their actions: the emergent dimension.

I believe that the distinction between building and urbanisation, that is to say the distinction between action by decomposition and composition, also defines the distinction between architecture and urbanism. Architecture intervenes on a rigid structure defined at the beginning of the process, the building, and so runs into very strict economic limits of the scale of this large structure. Urbanism has to deal with the problem of creating large structures out of all of the small scale urbanisations that are undertaken by large numbers of individuals, all seeking to build something to suit their own personal problems. It is in that sense the inverse of architecture. Urbanism takes place in the emergent dimension.

The field of urban design has gained a lot of popularity since efforts to plan whole cities were abandoned. The focus of the urbanists has shifted to the scales considered controllable: the development, greenfield, brownfield and other. The most successful of the urban designers are the New Urbanists. They have managed to produce their name-brand Traditional Neighborhood Developments in practically every city in North America. It starts off inevitably with one developer and centralized ownership of the land that will be urbanised. This land is then decomposed into streets and squares along the principles proclaimed by the New Urbanist charter, the negative of which is decomposed into lots that will be further decomposed into buildings. In terms of production processes, New Urbanist TNDs are no different than the regular, economically-unsustainable subdivisions. They belong in the realm of architecture, and what is worse, they provide no connection to the larger urban context within which they are being inserted, suburbia.

Here is the Mackenzie Towne TND at the limits of Calgary Alberta, in mid-decomposition.

And here we see the development within the larger context of southern Calgary.

What were to happen to the people who have moved into the first part of the development if the developer declared bankruptcy, as has been the case in many developments these recent times? The construction site would remain in perpetuity, and their town would be incomplete. That is the very opposite of what a city is supposed to do, to provide a complete system regardless of the chaotic course of events.

Will the people of Mackenzie Towne live a New Urbanist lifestyle? One look at the bigger scale of the City of Calgary is sufficient to say no. The development is not the relevant scale of the urban life of its inhabitants. This follows from the fact that it is only a small part of the city as a whole, but is also what makes urban design economically possible in the first place. In order to be able to undertake a decomposition at that scale, we must be composing it to a much bigger system of urban relations.

I fear that no matter how intense the efforts the New Urbanists undertake to convert local authorities to their system, they will never be able to transform cities in their emergent dimension. We will continue to see appear, alongside TNDs, gigantic commercial strips, industrial zones and office parks, which will continue to form the emergent dimension of North American cities. At their center will be the caracteristic integrator of all of these urbanisations, the one space that every inhabitant of any modern city shares, the highways.

What then is urbanism? It is the glue that sticks different urbanisations, different architectural projects, together. North America has known only two general types. For all of the 19th century, and the first part of the 20th, the urbanism of North America was The Grid: unending checkerboard patterns of streets between which were blocks that were more or less developable into anything not bigger than the block. As cities grew with more urbanisations, new streets and blocks were composed onto existing streets and blocks, and this went on until the urban chaos became intolerable and people fled to the suburbs, a flight that was enabled by the new urbanism: the highway strip. The highway strip continues to be the compositional rule that integrates all North American cities. If you look again at Mackenzie Towne, the highway that borders it seems to have no relation at all to the development. This amounts to no urbanism. The emergent dimension is empty of any structure.

The New Urbanists have launched a parralel effort, alongside the TND, to reform municipal authorities’ urbanism by inventing a building code, the SmartCode, that is supposed to fit into any city. Building codes have been the primary tool of urbanism for centuries. The reason they worked so well is that they made it possible for the smallest possible urbanisations to create large-scale structures, balancing local adaptation with large-scale solutions in order to create what we today call organic cities. Such a building code can do much to enable complexity, but it must be combined with the creation of the integrator spaces, streets, avenues and highways, that must also grow organically.

Looking over the fact that it doesn’t appear to provide any indication of what to do with highways, the SmartCode ran into the objection that it was rules, and therefore anti-market. Ironically, the market is one of the first rules-based complex systems fully investigated. Adam Smith even christened its emergent dimension with a metaphor that continues to mystify people today: the invisible hand. The invisibility of the market results in many hotly-debated political issues, for example the incomprehension with surging gas prices during hurricanes. The reasons why gas prices should rise so rapidly escape the individual perspective, and angry commuters everywhere demand from politicians that something be done to control things. That attempt at control of the market would have unexpected consequences, just as it does in the emergent dimension of urbanism. Brasilia was the most famous realisation of fully-controlled town planning ever built, but today it is ringed with favelas and functions as one city with them. The emergent dimension of Brasilia escaped the strict control of its planners.

Urbanists must, by the nature of their work, be experts at seeing things in the emergent dimension. The tools to achieve that have yet to be invented. Economic treatises crudely made the case for the economy as an emergent system, but the 200 years of economic history that followed them showed that people would not believe what they could not see. They will not believe in the SmartCode until they can see it either. The invention of the microscope made it possible to see what was too small to see. We must invent the tool that makes it possible to see what is too large to see. Only then can we truly begin to create the cities that we want, as individuals and as communities, without taking a blind leap of faith.

Reference

Sustainable algorithmic design lecture series by Nikos Salingaros.