Patient development was once the normal American way to build, as it was in other parts of the world as well, but patient place-making began to seriously erode about a century ago and is almost unheard-of today because of several seemingly disconnected factors. But before we get to those, here's the thumbnail sketch of patient urbanism:
• Patient urbanism doesn't have to build the climax condition of a place from the beginning, but can start with small temporary structures and move or improve them over time.
• Patient urbanism can do the same with infrastructure, starting with gravel roads that eventually might morph all the way to paved Main Streets.
• Patient urbanism works in small increments, doing a good job with each little piece before moving on to the next instead of trying to do it all at once.
• Because patient urbanism is good with little pieces, it's good at infill development as well.
Patient urbanism was once the default American way to build (as it was in other parts of the world as well) but it's really rare today because of these factors, which I've arranged in roughly chronological order of when they began:
The car allows us to live where we want and work somewhere else. Before the automobile, it wasn't possible to build large swaths of the same building type because you needed to live near your work, and near the butcher, the baker, and all your other necessities as well. As did everyone who worked for the businesses and institutions that served you. Trains first allowed us to live remote from work, but once you arrived home, everything else still needed to be close around, so the railroad suburbs retained the traditional fine-grained mix of building types… until the car arrived and allowed us to work, live, shop, play, worship, and learn, all in different places.
Developers bought into the industrial paradigm, which is based on economies of scale. Small incremental projects aren't interesting to most developers because if you develop like an industrialist, you need high-dollar jobs in order to get involved because you're looking for those economies of scale. The alternative to economies of scale is economies of means, which produce very different results. Scale and patience are inextricably intertwined. Patience allows very fine-grained place-making, whereas impatience requires large swaths to be developed quickly.
The regulation of the built environment is without doubt a heavier burden today than it has ever been. The architects bear a lot of the responsibility because they slowly forgot how to design lovable buildings, beginning with the Great Decline, which started just before the Great Depression. So most new projects seem like downward trades from whatever was there before, whether a pasture or an old building. NIMBYs are a testament to this long sad track record of downward trades. So we place ever-heavier obligations on new developments, including requiring them to build the climax condition at the beginning instead of allowing them to develop patiently in ways that might be less predictable. Unpredictability can't be tolerated if change is usually bad.
A mediocre plan can be finished quickly, because there's not so much to them, but great inspiring plans by heroic figures such as Daniel Burnham often took a half-century or more to realize, so they had to be patient. But municipal planners so discredited themselves by allowing the demolition of huge swaths of American cities in the Urban Renewal programs of the 1960s that they ceased to plan, relegating themselves to being something more akin to "urban accountants," counting parking ratios, building height, and floor area ratios. The New Urbanists, composed at the beginning as a rag-tag band of developers and architects finally said to the planners "if you won't draw a plan with compelling vision, we will" beginning in 1980. But by then, the damage had been done because the development industry had been rebuilt around quick, low-aspiration, developer-driven plans.
Social upheavals and violence of the 1960s created a lot of fear, and people left the cities in massive waves, fueling the suburban building boom. Many cities around the country began pulling themselves back together in the 1980s, but fear wasn't necessary any longer to drive the suburbs because they were the shiny new places, even if it was just new vinyl and sheetrock. The boom charged on, right up until the Meltdown.
Developers spun the "city fear" into an urban legend that read like this: "people, for the first time in human history, want to live in places with other people exactly like them." So the developers stratified subdivision pods in a very fine-grained manner. There's a big sprawl development in my hometown where if you wanted to spend $320,000 to $360,000, they steer you to a particular pod. I am not kidding… it's that narrow of a range. But if everyone I'm around is just like me, then that's a little boring, isn't it? The real reason for spinning the myth is that developing many pods of very similar product is very efficient because when builders buy ("take down") pods of lots for very similar houses, they get really good at building those house plans over and over again. And if you're an industrialist, you love efficiency.
These historic trends built the massive development machine that built suburbia. That machine went off the rails at the Meltdown that spawned the Great Recession we're still struggling to escape. A lot of smart people like Chuck Marohn and Kaid Benfield make the case that it was too good to be true because we were mortgaging our future to keep the machine going. Today, we really do need to re-learn how to build places patiently… don't you think?
The heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: "we do this because…" If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, it opens up the "why" of each pattern, allowing everyone to think again. Modernists have long chafed at architectural pattern books, objecting that "they don't allow invention," but with "we do this because…" everyone can invent all they like, so long as it's within a set of agreed-upon principles.
For years, I referred to these four words as the "transmission device" of living traditions. Recently, Kaid Benfield told me that this term "takes something warm and personal and makes it cold and technical-sounding." And he's exactly right. For the last couple months, I've been looking for an alternative. I stumbled across a great candidate just the other day: "we do this because…" is the heartbeat of living traditions, as noted above. What do you think?
It might sound a bit sappy at first glance, but please consider that it's fairly correct organically. The beating heart moves life-sustaining blood through the body, keeping it alive. "We do this because…" moves principles, which are the lifeblood of any living tradition, to all participants in that tradition. Without knowing why, a tradition is dead… it's just your father's way of doing things. But if we all know why we do what we do, we're free to adapt to new conditions. And when an entire culture knows why, you just might have millions of minds thinking of better ways of building.
This transforms a living tradition into a bracing paradox: On the one hand, if many people are thinking of ways to improve their architecture, that architecture is intensely of our time, because it's the latest thought on the matter. On the other hand, if the principles are based on regional conditions, climate, and culture, those things (especially conditions and climate) don't change very quickly over time, likely allowing the architecture to rise to the level of the timeless. This same principle holds in disciplines far afield of architecture as well… living traditions can thrive in everything from music to the blogosphere.
The error of high-design architecture of recent decades isn't that it's too inventive… it's that it throws out everything that has been proven to work. If architecture isn't allowed to learn from things outside our time, it becomes transgressional, rendering it highly unlikely to be lovable.
Think what would have happened in the computer industry had Steve Jobs not allowed himself to learn from the past. Had he attempted to reinvent the Mac with each new version, it never would have gotten so much better over the past three decades. It's the same story in medicine, in aeronautics, in chemical engineering in space flight, in… the list goes on. If we're talking about core sciences such as mathematics and physics, it's the same story as well. Newton famously said "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The discipline of green building, above all else, needs to be able to learn from the work that others have done.
To be clear, inventiveness is great… I love inventing things. But I want those things to be lovable so that they have a chance of being sustained long beyond my lifetime. If we want to sustain things long into an uncertain future, we really should stack the deck in our favor by doing work that embodies principles proven to produce things humans love, and that can become part of a living tradition… one with a heartbeat… shouldn't we?
Building neighborhoods patiently requires far less debt for infrastructure and results in places that are more interesting than those that are built all at once. This was once the way we built everywhere, but it is now illegal all over. Why? Because cities insist on "seeing the end from the beginning," meaning that they want the developer to begin by building the final condition of the neighborhood. In human terms, it would be like deciding that we can no longer tolerate giving birth to a child that grows into an adult; we will only allow giving birth to an adult… an incredibly painful proposition that simply doesn't work.
Go to any great city or town that has been there for at least a couple centuries, and the buildings that make up the historic center are highly unlikely to be the ones that were originally built there. At the beginning, the buildings may have been little more than shacks that were replaced or transformed a few decades later into proper wood-frame buildings. A generation or two later, those detached buildings were likely replaced with the larger (and often attached) buildings we see today.
Seaside, Florida, designed by DPZ and the birthplace of the New Urbanism, is a good example of a place built this way, but only because there was no planning department to forbid it at the time. Streets were built one at a time; the next street didn't begin until the previous one was pretty much sold out. Originally, the paving was just crushed shells; it was covered several years later with the concrete pavers that are there today. The first building was a sharecropper's cottage that was hauled in from a farm several miles away. The first commercial buildings were shacks, sheds, and trailers. A few of them remain in their original locations, but most have been moved at least a time or two to make way for larger and more permanent structures.
Seaside's town center is now in the process of being rebuilt in its climax condition of 3- to 5-story masonry buildings. A few are complete, but there are several more to come. Sundog Books started out in a simple one-story wood frame building. It moved several years ago to a two-story frame building on the square, but this building has always been slated to have its final home a couple blocks away as part of the neighborhood school. When it moves, it will be replaced with the masonry building that will house Sundog Books long into the future.
Building this way allowed Town Founders Robert and Daryl Davis to build this world-famous town with essentially no debt after the infrastructure of the first street was paid off. Put another way, had they been expected to build Seaside's climax condition in 1980, it's highly unlikely that Seaside would have ever been built because it would not have been financed. Who ever heard of building a world-famous town on the Redneck Riviera amid the scraggly condos, t-shirt shops, and liquor stores that thinly populated this stretch of Highway 30-A back then? No banker in their right mind would have gone for such a proposition.
This is even more important today, with real estate development money as tight as it has ever been. The great places we love the most were usually built without real estate mortgages. Most places weren't more wealthy then than we are today; they simply built what they could afford at the time and then improved it in small increments over time. Cities and towns really need to learn this lesson again today… it just might make the difference between building and not building, and it will certainly create a better place.
Amendment: I meant to mention several groups in this post that are making significant strides on this issue: Tactical Urbanism is exploring all sorts of ways of improving places with no debt using available stuff. Strongtowns examines the ways infrastructure debt has spiraled out of control, and what to do about it. A number of architects and planners are exploring these ideas under the banner of Incremental Urbanism… their site was on Posterous, which is shutting down, but I'll post a link when they're back up. And the Sprawl Repair people are looking at how to incrementally salvage our biggest infrastructure investment, which is sprawl.