Generous Urbanism - How to Build It

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child rolling through plaza at sunset in Dijon, France with diners lining arcade at the edge and last rays of sunlight illuminating classical facade in golden glow

   The neighborhoods and subdivisions that make up our towns and cities can be very generous, but they can also be really stingy as well, and their generosity is a great barometer of their prosperity and a good prognosis of their long-term prospects. A typical subdivision is miserly, selfishly cutting up every scrap of available land for sale under the mistaken assumption that this will make more money for the developer, but this is a half-baked view even in the short term. Here's why:

apartments in Rome plaza overlooking fountain

apartments overlooking a plaza

   You can give land back to a neighborhood in several good ways and one bad way. First the bad news: amorphous left-over "green space," especially when it's located behind the houses in a thoughtless manner, really does waste land because it creates so little value. Now the good news: if you design the open space as parks, greens, squares, plazas, and playgrounds, and if you put them in front of the houses rather than behind, you can create a great deal of value.

   A long view across a space significantly wider than a street increases the real estate value of all buildings facing the long view, usually by 25% or more. Turn the fronts of the houses to the view with a street (or occasionally a walk) running between the houses and the view, and you carry that value up to two blocks deep into the adjacent urbanism because those people can walk to the long view as well.

   That increase in real estate value can almost immediately pay for the land given up for parks, greens, squares, plazas, and parks. Over the long term, as the neighborhood is built out, it builds a reputation of being one of the more desirable places in town, cementing the resilience of that value. These principles apply both to new neighborhood design and also to sprawl recovery. Two caveat about fronting the view:

Pontalba apartments overlooking Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter

many people live over New Orleans' Jackson Square

   • The front of a building is usually a lot better-looking than the back because designers spend more effort and builders spend more money composing the front of the building. Buildings that turn their back on a view (like almost every golf course subdivision built since World War II) exemplify what I call "mooning the view." If you're on the golf course or in the park, it simply doesn't look as good when you're getting mooned.

   • The more eyes you can put on the view, the more value you're likely to create. It's OK to have large detached houses around a park if it's in a less urban part of town, but for the greens and especially the squares and plazas, you really should consider townhouses or even condos in the more urban parts of town.

garden in Philadelphia green

who wouldn't love looking out each morning onto a garden

on the green?

   Here's a curious thing: I started thinking about generosity while working on my upcoming book New Media for Designers + Builders. For over 200 years, business has operated on the three prime virtues of quality, speed, and economy (or better-faster-cheaper.) But things are changing now, as we can see all around us. I believe that in the Age of the Idea that is now dawning, the three primary virtues of sustainable businesses will be patience, generosity, and connectedness.

   But something strange happened. As I was writing, it became clear that Original Green places are built on exactly these virtues as well, as we discussed earlier. The next few posts will look at other ways that sustainable architecture and urbanism is built on these virtues. And I've undoubtedly forgotten lots of things… how are the best ways you've seen of architecture and urbanism being patient? Generous? Connected?

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013