Civil engineers are spending countless millions of dollars and clear-cutting untold trees needlessly because they have forgotten one essential point of sustainable design: Roads and other infrastructure should sit very lightly on the land.
Left to their own devices, engineers will usually "mass-grade" a site, which means that they first cut every tree on the site. Next, they remove all of the topsoil, piling it in a huge mound somewhere. Next, they move many truckloads of dirt around all over the site, cutting some areas and filling other areas by a dozen feet or more on some sites. After they've put the storm sewers and other utilities in, they pave the roads and spread all the topsoil back out over the land. During this entire process, they must install erosion control all over to keep the soil from washing away. They go to all this expense in order to make the streets less humpy, so you're able to drive faster.
See the top picture? That's at a place called the Waters that I planned while I was a partner with PlaceMakers a decade ago. I had to fight tooth-and-nail with the engineer for weeks on end so he would sit the streets more lightly on the land. Engineering "best practices" say that you should fill in the dips and cut down the high spots along streets so that you have greater "sight distance." But wait… that's a stop sign at the intersection in the top picture. Once you get there, you can see further. You don't need to see all the way to the end of the road from the point where I took this picture. Fortunately, the civil engineer at the Waters was a good guy, and I was able to convert him to sitting more lightly.
One of the benefits was the fact that by not cutting and filling so much, we were able to preserve the majestic oaks along this avenue leading in to town. The trees grew up along a fence that had been built a century ago, and by saving them, it appears that the avenue might have been there that long as well. With normal engineering practices, they would have all been cut.
Here's another example at the Waters. When Nathan Norris and I first met the landowner, the land had already been planned by a conventional planner, but the landowner was having second thoughts about the plan. He pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see.
I'm working right now with the Town Founder of one of the places where I'm Town Architect. He's about to build the next neighborhood in his town. The drawing above shows how the engineer has graded the first part of the new neighborhood. I'm not sure how accustomed you are to reading grading plans, but this land is mass-graded, so they'll have to cut every tree on the site and move many truckloads of dirt. Much of the land will be either cut or filled by 5-10 feet, and the really steep stuff on the right side will be filled by substantially more than that… think about fill taller than a two-story building in places!
Here's an alternative grading plan I did yesterday. My contours are all in red, so as you can see, most of the site is left untouched. The greatest amount of cut or fill on the alternative plan is four feet, but many areas that I've disturbed have less than a foot of cut or fill.
Taking this approach will likely save the Town Founder (and therefore the lot purchasers) over $300,000, and this is just one phase of one neighborhood of one new town. And the Town Founder gets to sell wooded lots instead of raw dirt. And the streets will cause people to drive slower, making them safer, especially for the kids and the old folks who walk there. Which would you rather have?
For almost all of human history, sitting lightly on the land was the only choice for most of us because moving dirt around was really hard work when you did it by shovel and wheelbarrow. Diesel-powered heavy equipment has given us the ability to push countless tons of dirt across the land, but should we do things just because we can?
Preservation's current identity crisis is a result of the fact that we have not yet figured out what it is that we're preserving. This crisis began with some preservationists' infatuation with Brutalism. This is monumentally ironic, because it was the destruction of lovable historic buildings in the Brutalist era that gave birth to the modern-day preservation movement. Now, we're advocating for the preservation of precisely the sorts of things that disgusted us so badly that we banded together in the beginning!* Is our mission to preserve lovable buildings, or simply to preserve everything from the lovable to the detestable so long as they are iconic examples of their breeds? Put another way, are we as preservationists trying to be curators of style, from the resonant to the ridiculous, or are we instead more interested in making our cities and towns better places to live?
As for Brutalism in particular, that the style was aptly named. The brutality of its forms and its surfaces is unparalleled in the history of human construction. Don't we have too much brutality around us already? Why preserve more of it? I'd rather live in a place populated with civil buildings, not brutal buildings, wouldn't you?
These questions, however, gloss over the deeper underlying question that nobody seems to be considering: Which is best, to preserve the artifacts created by a tradition, or to preserve the tradition itself? I just had breakfast with John Anderson, who put it this way: "If I want to preserve this dish, I've got to encase it in amber or something, and then it's not good eatin'. But if I preserve the culinary tradition that created this dish, then that tradition may produce a nearly endless supply of dishes like this."
We know how to preserve artifacts, and have gotten pretty good at it. It can be time-consuming and expensive, to be sure, but it's not impossible. And if the tradition that produced that artifact is now dead, then we're unlikely to get any "more where that came from." So if we love that artifact, then our only choice is to preserve it.
But what about preserving a tradition? If it is a living tradition, then we have two choices: We can either preserve it in its current state, or we can preserve its life. To preserve a living thing in its current state, you have to kill it. If you would have wanted to preserve me as I was at seven years old, for example, you would have had to kill me and then embalm me because I have now transformed into someone quite different from the person I was at seven.
You kill a living tradition by formalizing it into a style, writing up the rules of the style as of today, publishing a pattern book for that style, and then enforcing conformance to the pattern book. Forevermore, if you build in that style, you follow those rules. So a building built by those rules today and one built by those rules a century from now might look indistinguishable from each other.
Preserving the life of the tradition is a very different thing. Living things evolve throughout their lives, from infancy to puberty to adulthood to old age. And it's not clear quite what sort of adult an infant might grow into. We are learning how to help traditions live again, I believe. I'll blog soon about how we're doing this in the Bahamas.
Historic districts preserve traditions in their current state by killing them. As a matter of fact, historic districts should be thought of as "architectural formaldehyde". If the traditions that created the buildings in that district have died, then that's the best we can do today. But that's not the highest standard, which would be to foster a new living tradition that picks up where the dead traditions left off. New living traditions, therefore, should be the highest goal of the preservation movement, and it's high time for this aspiration to enter the preservation discourse.
PS: The next part of this story will address the Venice Charter and the Secretary of the Interior's standards, but if you want to get a head-start on that discussion, check out Steve Semes' work, which is the most clear-headed discussion I'm aware of on these issues.
* I was only a toddler when the modern-day preservation movement began in the US; I am therefore speaking broadly of preservationists of all generations from then until now.
There's a fundamental misconception about the way cities should be built that, when enacted, deprives urbanism of much of its richness. If you zoom way out on a city, like this image of Philadelphia, it can look like a fried egg, with a big "egg yolk" of tall buildings at the urban core thinning out to an "egg white" of urbanism that is only a story or two tall at the edges. At this distant view, it looks like a fairly smooth transition, and in fact, this is largely the way cities have been zoned for the past several decades: large swaths of high density surrounded by larger medium density zones giving way to even larger lower density zones. Great urbanism, on the other hand, is much more fine-grained than that, so that wherever you are in a traditional city, there's urbanism just around the corner or down the street that's decidedly different from what you're seeing at any given moment.
Coding entire neighborhoods to a single context like we've done in recent decades is a bad idea on several counts. For starters, it's a prescription for boredom, whether that context is equal to Main Street or a suburban residential street. If that context rolls on for neighborhood after neighborhood like it does in the subdivisions of sprawl, then this means that you're unlikely to walk anywhere that doesn't look like where you live.
Why is this a problem? Because if where you live is primarily residential context (in other words, if you're not living in an apartment over Main Street,) then it means that you're unlikely to be able to walk to all your daily needs. This forces you back into the old sprawl burden of having to drive everywhere… even if the streets and buildings are generally well-designed. In other words, too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing.
The Increment of Planning
So if the neighborhood isn't the right increment of planning, then what is? The block? No, the block is also too large. Some blocks might all be coded to the same context, particularly if it's the general neighborhood context, But most blocks in sustainable places are likely to contain more than one context zone. It turns out that the fundamental increment of sustainable planning is actually the lot.
Some planners go nuts when you say that, because they're accustomed to seeing a nice, neat Euclidean zoning map of an entire city whereas zoning with individual lots as the basic increment gets so fine-grained that you can't even see all the breaks when looking at an entire city map… they're just too small unless it's a mammoth map. This doesn't mean that each lot is randomly zoned (planners call that "spot zoning".) Rather, it means that when you change contexts, you do so most often at property lines rather than at streets or at the edges of neighborhoods.
Context Zone Breaks
Here are four good rules of thumb for breaks between different context zones:
1. Change from one context zone to another in the middle of the block, not at a street. You usually want the front of a building to be looking across the street to a building of similar context. So the end of a Main Street, for example, should not be at a cross street, but one (or maybe two) lots beyond that cross street.
2. Make context breaks most frequently "with the grain" of the block. In other words, the break occurs between back lot lines, or at the alley or rear lane in the middle of the block.
3. Breaks can also be "across the grain" of the block, like this picture. Here, the break occurs at the side lot lines.
Here's the town of Pienza, Italy, which I've used several times to illustrate various ideas on this blog. The old city, which is the compact part, is only 11 acres. The two images which follow overlay the context zones of the Transect, or T-Zones, as they are known to Transect experts.
Two Important Points on Time
1. Pienza was built over a period of roughly two thousand years.
2. The Transect wasn't even invented as a planning device until centuries after most of Pienza was built.
Pienza's Transect, and that of countless other places built sustainably over the millennia derived not from some grand plan of city planners. Indeed, most such towns had no planners at all. They were merely built by the townspeople using good rules of thumb. So how did their Transects come about? They were common-sense responses to some very basic needs:
1. People need to be able to walk to work, if they're not working at home. This means that home and work need to be near each other.
2. People need to be able to walk to their daily necessities, like groceries and such. But if you scatter shops all over the neighborhood, that makes it more of a chore to shop. So it makes sense to have most of the shops relatively close together, like along a High Street or a Main Street.
3. People need to be able to walk to their civic buildings, so they can participate in the life of the town.
4. Towns shouldn't spread too far because streets and other infrastructure are expensive, so the Sub-Urban parts of town, because the are least compact, should be fairly small so as to not waste infrastructure. As a matter of fact, most of Pienza's Sub-Urban parts were built in the last century or so, after the advent of automobiles and cheaper streets. You can see that the Sub-Urban parts in the old city are really small.
5. Compact towns and neighborhoods are more secure not only because you have a smaller perimeter, but also because more compact urbanism can put more eyes on the street.
6. Towns (and even cities) need to be surrounded by the countryside that feeds them because if you can't eat there, you can't live there.
The Transect and the Original Green
Sounds familiar? If you've been to this site before, I'm sure it does. These simple needs that led to countless sustainable places built over the centuries are the needs for Nourishable Places, Accessible Places, Serviceable Places, and Securable Places. In other words, the conditions that created the Transect around the world are the same conditions that the Original Green works to organize, just in a different way. You might say that the Transect and the Original Green are really just two different views of the same thing: how to build sustainable places, which are places that you can keep going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future. Here's where people get confused:
There are certain characteristics of built environments (described above) that have been sustained in a healthy way for centuries that we can observe again and again in place after place around the world. Without these characteristics, humans have yet to build places that are truly sustainably... in most cases, places without these characteristics are hideously unsustainable, with sprawl as Exhibit #1. So it is fair, IMO, to consider these characteristics "essential."
A century ago, the ecological transect was invented as a management tool for the built environment. Less than twenty years ago, it became clear that this tool could be extended into the built environment in a way that explains those essential characteristics of sustainable places, and that also can form a guide to building new places that are also sustainable. This is known as the rural-urban Transect. The Original Green is even newer than that: Although its roots go back to the day after Thanksgiving, 1980, it was not formally assembled as an idea until less than a decade ago.
Ancient Things That Work and New Tools
The problem comes when the distinction isn't made between old and proven ideas and new tools for implementing those ideas, either by those who promote the new tools like the Transect or the Original Green, or by those who respond to what they say. Both the Transect and the Original Green are idea that are clearly new and open to refinement… matter of fact, they are regularly being refined. But the essential characteristics of built environments that they attempt to make sense of have a successful track record stretching back a few thousand years, and assailing those characteristics, especially when there has never been a successful alternative but many hideous failures, doesn't seem to be a profitable way of spending time.
Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:
Guest Post by Frank Starkey
Note from Steve: Frank is the Town Founder of Longleaf, a new town in Pasco County, Florida. Frank and I were on the Seaside Pienza Institute trip to Pienza last fall, and over dinner one night, Frank laid out the compelling argument below. Since then, he has been kind enough to write it up for this post.
Through the process of developing Longleaf we were regularly taken to the financial whipping post when factors beyond our control didn’t go as expected. I believe the reason the project was so vulnerable lay in an economic principal we pursued, the Economy of Scale (EoS).
Modern development practice is predicated on mass-production models, which are based largely on EoS. The cost to manufacture a widget goes down when you make a large number of them because your costs are spread out among more “units.” Cheaper by the dozen; cheaper still by the million. And if your costs go down, profits can be assumed to go up, all things being equal. It’s a self-evident and unassailable economic principle, right? But there are limits to its application, particularly in the speculative and complex world of real estate development.
At Longleaf this principle told us that developing 200 lots at a time would mean lower per-unit costs for building those lots, and that building a 3-story mixed-use building would cost less per square foot than a 2-story one (much less a single-story, which was considered anti-urban in those earlier days of New Urbanism.) However, pursuing these lower per-unit costs we took on much higher total cost, which had to be financed. That meant we had to sell those “units” at a pretty fast clip or the debt service would not only eat up the economies we had eked out, but it could also eat up ALL our profits, and eventually us! Economy of Scale was a deal with the devil known as debt.
Being indentured to so much debt created a cascade of pressures that compromised better place-making: suppressing prices and appreciation, bending on architectural standards, overlooking key details in executing the public realm. It also consumed resources and attention we could have put to better use making a more beautiful and vital place, like fostering the civic realm or building more retail. (This isn’t to suggest Longleaf is a failure: quite the contrary, and its success as a place is a testament to the power of good urban design, in spite of things we could have done differently or better.)
Houses aren’t widgets; development is not manufacturing; a town is not a factory. Human settlements are more like ecosystems, subject to the complexities of human nature at every scale: individuals, families, social groups, economic production and consumption, civic life, fashion, politics and governance – these are all endlessly varied and dynamic. What’s more, the physical context of “real estate” is, by definition, unique to each location. The internal and external forces that shape our built environments are in every way contrary to the purity of the assembly line. Mass-production development would be well suited to creating beehives, perhaps, but it is a poor tool for creating human habitats.
OK, so if scale (and its attendant repetitiveness) is the problem, how does one argue with “economy,” particularly these days? I struggled a long time to figure out how we might build economically, without falling into the trap of the Economy of Scale. Following clues from how Robert and Daryl Davis developed Seaside, and looking at how traditional towns and cities came to be, I discovered that the underlying economic principle of authentic urbanism is the Economy of Means (EoM). In the days before massive capitalization and long-term debt, cities were built one building at a time. Likewise, in the days before mass-production, buildings were essentially built by hand. So, at a fundamental level, traditional cities were built by hand, or rather, LOTS of hands. And when you make something by hand, you naturally employ the Economy of Means.
Everyone who has made something by hand understands and employs EoM intuitively. To the craftsperson it doesn’t make sense to purchase extra material, only to throw it away. It makes sense to build something that uses material and performs its function with the greatest efficiency. It doesn’t make sense to construct something flimsy, only to have it break in short order; you want it to last. And, since it’s going to last and serve as a reflection of its maker, it makes sense to make something beautifully, incorporating timeless principles of proportion, elegance, and appropriate embellishment. Finally, when you work by hand, you want to share knowledge with others doing the same thing, to make it easier on yourself.
When many individuals employ EoM, a rich variety of techniques develops. So does a progressive, “living” tradition, as folks share knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. Innovation, Adaptation, Variety, Tradition and Progress grow naturally out of EoM building, whereas EoS manufacturing stifles all of these. Cities built on EoM function in richly complex ways and as a result are enormously adaptive and resilient. Those manufactured with EoS are dead on arrival.
The best-loved buildings and places we urbanists admire embody EoM, and it’s no accident they have proved to be durable, both physically and in people’s affections. This is instructive for those of us involved in the project of buildings and places, for whom a revived understanding of EoM will be especially useful in the new economic realities.
Leave EoS to the widget manufacturers.
Many of my good friends and colleagues who are Transect aficionados sometimes get so deep into the details of this very useful idea that they lose the general public, so this post describes "the Transect for the rest of us." This is essential because the Transect, along with Walk Appeal and the Sky Method, is a game-changer of Sprawl Recovery and must therefore be able to be understood broadly, not just by the planning geeks. So here's how it works:
The Transect was invented about a century ago as a management tool for the natural environment. The basic idea is pretty simple: zones of the natural transect, from ocean to beach to dune, etc., each have their own rules. Certain creatures live in one that don't live in others. A fish wouldn't last long on the beach, for example. Nor would a palmetto survive very long planted in the ocean. Different natural conditions exist in each zone as well. Sand in the ocean is always covered by water, sand on the beach is sometimes covered, and sand on the dunes is only covered by water in a hurricane, for example.
Landscape architect Douglas Duany took his brother Andrés out into the surf of South Beach in the late 1990s. As they walked up out of the water onto the beach, then across the dunes, and then into town, Douglas asked "why can't the Transect be extended into the city and used to manage the built environment as well?" Andrés, an architect and town planner and one of the founders of the New Urbanism, embraced the idea, and the "rural-to-urban Transect" was born.
A bit over a decade later, the Transect is in the process of transforming American cities. For most of a century, city planning was based on what is known as "Euclidean zoning" because it started in Euclid, Ohio. The essence of Euclidean zoning is that it separates things: you live in a subdivision where there's nothing but houses, go to work in an office park where there's nothing but offices if you're a white-collar worker or in an industrial district where there's nothing but factories and warehouses if you're a blue-collar worker, and you shop in strip centers and shopping malls. And you have to drive to get from one to another.
Changing the Rules
Andrés realized that until we changed the rules of zoning, we'd keep getting sprawl almost all the time because sprawl is the natural product of Euclidean zoning. So he built the SmartCode on the operating system of the Transect to be an antidote to sprawl. And then he opened it up where anyone who wanted to participate could help develop the SmartCode. Two years ago, the US reached a tipping point where 40 million Americans were living in cities that had adopted New Urbanist form-based codes such as the SmartCode. Today, dozens of planners use the SmartCode or other Transect-based codes.
Let's take a peek under the hood and see how it works. The Transect organizes the built environment into 6 zones from T-1 (which is most rural) to T-6 (which is most urban.) These are the details:
The Natural zone includes all lands that have been permanently protected from development. This includes
national parks, state parks and most land trust lands. Here, in the wilderness, nature trumps mankind every time. This is actually a place that is just a bit dangerous to humans because something could bite you or even eat you, for example. The only buildings you’re likely to find here are forest rangers’ cottages or campground structures. This is the quietest place you can find (except in a thunderstorm or a buffalo stampede), and it’s the place where the stars shine the brightest.
The Rural zone includes lands that are not currently slated for development, but that have not been permanently protected, either. Most of the Rural Zone in the eastern United States is farmland and countryside. This zone isn’t quite as dangerous, but stay out of the fence where the bulls live. Man begins to shape this zone, but he uses natural or rustic materials to do it, like the lonely lines of barbed wire strung along cedar posts at the edge of a field. You may hear a distant tractor plowing the fields by day. The blips of the fireflies over the fresh-mown fields are still the most numerous lights, but you may occasionally see a light in the window of a farmhouse as you go by, at least until bedtime.
The Sub-Urban zone isn’t exactly the ‘burbs. It’s close, to be sure, but it doesn’t include some things like the big box retail that you might instead find in a highway business district. The Sub-Urban zone is most similar to the areas at the outskirts of town where the town grid begins to give way to nature. Here, lots are usually larger, streets begin to curve with the contour of the land, and fences, if you have them, look more like their country cousins around the homestead. Streetlights and sidewalks begin to occur in this Zone, but only on the busiest streets. Natural features such as streams still trump things built by humans, in part because of the cost of modifying things so large.
T-4 General Urban
The General Urban zone is the place that settlements finally start coalescing into strongly identifiable neighborhoods, each with their own center that you can walk to in five minutes or less. This is the place where the houses pull up close enough to the street that you can sit on your porch and talk to your neighbor leaning over your fence with the latest news. And this is the place that kids love after having been held hostage at the end of a cul-de-sac for the past half-century by anyone with a drivers’ license. Here, the neighborhood is compact enough that they can safely walk down tree-lined sidewalks to the ice cream store down on the corner, and return home before they finish the cone.
T-5 Urban Center
The Urban Center zone is Main Street America. There was always a good selection of apartments over the street itself, and over the square. Young couples just getting started would often live in an apartment over Main Street, but they weren’t alone. The Main Street neighborhood was as diverse as any, including merchants living over their shops and old folks who didn’t want to have to saddle up to get to all the necessities. You could see lights on in the windows over the square every evening, and could hear parents calling their kids to come in and do their homework long after the old folks out in front of the general store had folded up their checkerboard and laptops, and gone home for the day.
T-6 Urban Core
The Urban Core zone only occurs in cities. It is the brightest, noisiest, most exciting part of the city, with the city’s tallest buildings, busiest streets, and most variety. It’s the place where you should find one-of-a-kind functions like City Hall, but it’s also the place with all the galleries and the biggest selection of restaurants. The Urban Core is the place where mankind trumps nature; it’s where the only trees are lined up in planters beside the street, and where the river running through town is contained in grand stone embankments. The Urban Core is so intriguing that thousands or even millions stay there for months on end, leaving nature in the wilderness to grow in peace.
Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:
The Transect (this post)
"Architect-speak" basically means "words that are unintelligible to anyone besides the author and (maybe) a few groupies in their inner circle," and this is a huge roadblock to the hope of building sustainable places and buildings. Four of the terms that I've seen abused most often by architects are "sustainability," "natural," "vernacular," and "tradition."
I wrote about sustainability a couple years ago in the Original Green book. Essentially, the word should mean "keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future." If you don't do that, then your LEED credits and your industry accolades are meaningless.
Like "sustainability," "natural" has been twisted to mean almost anything. But things that mean anything actually mean nothing. The common-sense, plain-spoken definition of the word should be "without artifice," and it should be used to describe things that occur naturally.
Nature produces unintended poetry in countless ways. Nobody scripts birdsong at the dawn of springtime, or the crinkly fade of yesterday's blossoms. No Disney Imagineer ever conceived a single Tuscan hilltown street, nor did some ancient master painter sprinkle the stars across the night sky in winter.
Intentional poetry can move us in powerful ways, but it cannot be said to be "natural." It is artifice in the extreme, crafted carefully by human hands. And that is good.
But one human can only create so much poetry, and only so many humans are capable of the profound. So if you're one of the 1% that can move us to tears, then by all means, keep doing what you're doing. But if you're one of the rest of us, then maybe your time might be better spent helping cultivate naturally-occurring things because nature is one of the most efficient machines we've ever seen.
It takes a highly skilled painter, with extraordinary effort, to create an image of a cluster of grapes that is indiscernible from the real thing. Extraordinary scientists might at some undetermined point in the future be able to create artificial grapes in a laboratory at great expense. But if you partner with nature, you only need to plant a grape seed, water it, and fend off the pests, and almost anyone can do that.
But how do we partner with nature in building natural places? The best way I know to characterize it is with this question: "Are you giving orders or setting the stage for things to naturally occur?"
Giving orders is the proper thing to do if you're operating in the command-and-control system. But if you're working within the organic paradigm, then it's better to set the stage for good things to naturally occur. The most moving and hopeful story I've ever experienced is the one where I first learned the principle of setting the stage for good things to occur naturally (scroll to the bottom of that post for the story of the song of the little children.)
This word has been almost completely hijacked by the stylists, who conceive of the vernacular as nothing more profound than just one more style in their bag of tricks. If you're doing "vernacular style," then you identify a tradition that once lived in a particular place, resonant with the regional conditions, climate, and culture, and you do your best to ape the artifacts of that tradition. If you're really good, you're likely to make a lot of money. But in doing so, you have by no means reached the essence of true vernacular.
This building is built in a place designed by an architect and planner I admire deeply, and who just might be the best town planner alive today. He crafted the architectural code for this place, and the architects designing there followed it faithfully for the most part. But any code designed to produce a particular architecture by prescription can only go so far because prescriptions direct you to a particular solution.
I wrote prescriptive architectural codes for years because I didn't know what else to do. I remember speaking at a Congress for the New Urbanism almost a decade ago with several of my heroes. We were discussing architectural pattern books. My concern was that architecture created from a style-based pattern book today or a century in the future would be exactly alike, whereas anyone with eyes can see just by flipping through architectural history books that architecture has always evolved over time, like any human does from birth to childhood to adulthood to old age. So how can we craft a document that allows architecture to live again? I had no clue at the time, nor did anyone else.
Here's a place created by a living vernacular tradition. It's not far from the one above that was created by prescribing a vernacular style. The differences are obvious. While the one above might be skillfully done, this one is alive with character and timelessness. The one above was created with carefully crafted by skilled hands whereas this one is simply one of countless towns built by the townspeople and which are the essence of a living vernacular tradition.
The "T-Word" is arguably the most misunderstood word in architecture. You can set an entire room of architects ablaze by uttering this word. You think it's bad to drop the F-Bomb in public? Dropping the T-Bomb in a group of architects produces an even more visceral response. "We won't be handcuffed by any tradition" they howl, oblivious to the fact that there are two types of tradition. An historical tradition is one that once lived in a particular place but is now dead. History books list it with a beginning date and an ending date, just like birth dates and death dates on tombstones. And a dead tradition really can be a shackle because it has rules that can't be changed because they are the rules of the dead, not the rules of the living.
A living tradition, on the other hand, is something we do today, with each other. We have many living traditions today, such as the blogosphere, which is a vibrant living tradition that has sprung up in less than a decade. But we don't currently have living traditions in architecture in large part because we're only beginning to learn how to restart them in the built environment.
We really must figure this out because sustainability depends on it. This book is my best attempt to date at showing how this might be done.
A living tradition is the operating system of true sustainability because it spreads wisdom broadly across a culture. This is essential because sustainability doesn't come primarily from the laboratory, but from our behavior. The gains from doing differently dwarf any gains that might be produced in all the R&D departments across the planet. So sustainability isn't something we get by going shopping. It's something we get by doing things in different ways. It's high time we get started.
The American land development system is broken. The Sky Method proposes an alternative with ancient roots in a time when there were no mortgages that essentially bypasses the crippled development financing system by starting small and with very light infrastructure. It also taps into the incremental mechanism by which the untrained townspeople once built the town in a far more beautiful and organic way than most planning professionals are capable of today. It can start either with raw land or with sprawl subdivisions. It can even work in reverse to deconstruct shrinking cities in a stable way. I've been working on the Sky Method since 2008 and just realized, incredibly, that I've never blogged about it.
I worked for years trying to figure out how the townspeople could possibly build the towns they built, both the layout of the town itself and its neighborhoods, and also the individual buildings. Several years ago, I discovered an amazing thing: if you look at several old maps of the same place that were drawn decades or centuries apart, you'll see farms transform into suburban blocks which then get subdivided again and again, intensifying into a major city.
Amazingly, the city was whole and complete at every stage, just like a person is whole and complete from conception to birth to childhood to adulthood to old age… assuming they're not maimed somewhere through life. Subdivisions, on the other hand, look unfinished until they're nearly built out. Our problem is that we've burdened present-day development with the necessity to see the end from the beginning, forcing the construction of the climax condition from day one. This encumbers the developer with massive debt at the beginning, with millions in infrastructure costs before they can sell a single lot.
I set out to craft a development mechanism similar to the old ways that required very little funding at the beginning because of using many small incremental steps over time rather than flopping the whole plan out on the land at the beginning… this became the Sky Method. Sky is a new town designed by DPZ for a site in the Florida panhandle to be highly sustainable in many ways, a veritable showcase of Original Green principles. My dear friend and colleague Julia Sanford is the Town Founder. Sky was almost ready to get underway when the Meltdown came in 2008 and the bankers decided they didn't want to lend money anymore. I hoped the Sky Method would get things going. It hasn't happened yet, but I believe that when Sky does begin, it'll likely begin using the Sky Method. Full disclosure: Julia, another dear friend and colleague Eric Moser, and I sit on the board of the Sky Institute for the Future. I'll be posting more about both the Institute and about us shortly.
One small part of Sky that you see illustrate in the slide show above was separated enough from the rest of the plan that it could never have been conceived in today's market as anything more than a large-lot subdivision… so DPZ did the responsible thing and planned it that way because a fraction of the market always wants to be off by themselves rather than being part of a larger community.
Because it was the least desirable part of the land, I took this part of Sky (turned 90° and in the upper right corner in this plan of Sky) and used it to illustrate the Sky Method. I began by asking myself "what if we're not limited by todays market?" In other words, to what intensity might the various parts of this hamlet mature at some distant point in the future? Maybe 50 years, or maybe 200 years or more?
So I respected DPZ's streets and blocks, but stripped out all the internal lot lines. Next, I coded the frontages (the front property lines) to someday be either Transect zones T-2 Rural (light green,) T-3 Suburban (light lavender,) T-4 Urban Neighborhood (medium lavender,) or T-5 Urban Center (dark lavender; think Main Street.)
I'll blog more about the Transect soon; for now, the importance of Transect coding is that it gives predictability to whoever has jurisdiction over the project. Can you imagine going to a city Planning Department and saying "We want to build whatever we want over the years, and we won't even draw the property lines today"? Neither can I. That's why the Transect is essential: so both the developer, the land purchasers, and the regulators all know the character each part of the neighborhood will eventually achieve… and the various characters in between… just like the stages of human life.
The Sky Method begins on most of the land by selling full blocks as family farms. Rural (T-2) roads in the Florida Panhandle with very little traffic are sometimes sand or maybe macadam. Sky was exploring in 2008 the idea of being completely off the grid, which would have required no electricity service or water lines. But even if it were served with conventional utilities, they would be very light because the loads are so low for just a few family farms.
Eventually, someone wants to subdivide their land. Maybe they want their kids to build next door, or maybe they want to sell to friends or total strangers… it doesn't matter. It's their land. So they go in to the Town Founder and pay an upgrade fee to upgrade their land from Rural (T-2) to Suburban (T-3).
They have to upgrade the entire parcel, not just what they're dividing off. The Town Founder uses part of the proceeds to upgrade the infrastructure serving that part of the neighborhood from Rural (T-2) infrastructure to Suburban (T-3) infrastructure. The rest is profit.
The Town Founder is giving up a significant amount of cash flow early on in exchange for escaping crippling debt at the beginning. But because the upgrades could continue well beyond the century mark, they become an annuity for the Town Founder's heirs.
Because everyone can develop their own land to the highest Transect zone it's coded for, the landowners are the prime beneficiaries of any future development. This turns today's common NIMBY dynamic on its head because the maturing of the town brings greater value, which is in everyone's best interest. Some might hold out, not developing their land to its highest potential while those around them do. This is natural, as you can see by touring many small, ancient towns. But eventually, those landowners die and their children see the value in developing their property.
The Sky Method could be implemented by new neighborhoods (with the city's blessing, of course) or it could be implemented by the city itself. I've already been approached by a couple municipalities interested in changing their current zoning over to the Sky Method. The most exciting possibility, however, is sprawl. The Sky Method and the Transect are two of the game-changers of Sprawl Recovery. The third game-changer is Walk Appeal. I'll illustrate how the Sky Method could be used to convert a sprawl subdivision into a vibrant neighborhood someday soon.
In the meantime, consider this: Pienza, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the setting for the last four images in this post. A local historian was lecturing there last fall, and he showed plans of Pienza's beginnings as a large-lot Roman subdivision! He traced it up through the ages to the present day. I was stunned… it was a classic illustration of the Sky Method in action! Beginning with single house on lots of an acre or so each, Pienza has transformed itself over time into a classic Tuscan hill-town frequented by probably a million visitors a year! If Pienza could do that without mortgages, power tools or computers, just think what your subdivision could eventually do!
Here's quick recognition to some of my colleagues on which my work relies not already mentioned in this post:
Chad Cooper, Cormac Phalen, Craig Vaughn, Dan Bartman, David Kim, Geoffrey Mouen, John Anderson, Karja Hansen, Ken Hitchens, Michael Rouchell, Mike Lydon, Mike Waller, Neil Heller, Paddy Steinschneider, Rob Sharp, Ted Jones Todd Bonet, Will Dowdy, of the Incremental Sprawl Repair Working Group
Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:
If rocket scientists viewed advancement and progress the way architecture does, the "rocket boys" would still be launching bottle rockets and NASA would not exist! Early this morning, the Mars rover Curiosity touched down, culminating a year-long flight and several years of development. But long before that, the rocket scientists were doing something the architects do not allow: learning from both past and present, and building stuff that works.
What if the rocket scientists discounted Newton and the Law of Universal Gravitation because he was from the past? Space travel would be no more precise than firing a shotgun at the moon. How about Gottfried Leibniz, who is credited along with Newton with inventing calculus in the 17th Century? They're not "of our time," the architects shriek, "so we can't possibly draw from their work." But without calculus, space travel would be impossible as well.
The most prominent scientists of all time have credited those who came before them, most famously Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." But small or great, an endless thread of scientists realized that their work could not have happened without the foundations laid by others. Architecture, on the other hand, more often embodies the idea that "nothing that came before us is worthy of us." (I keep referring to Newton, by the way, because he's not just a recently dead scientist. Instead, he lived several centuries ago.)
But now, consider a scientific instrument that has been developed almost entirely within my lifetime: the electronic computer (to distinguish it from earlier mechanical computing devices.) The iPhone today reportedly contains more computing horsepower than Apollo 11's onboard computer that flew when I was only nine years old. But what if Steve Jobs would have accepted the standard of today's high architecture that all new work must not draw from old work? Had he followed architecture's direction, he would forever have been making unique versions of the Apple 1 out in his parents' garage… or at least until he went broke, that is. The MacBook Retina? Never would've happened. The iPad? Forget it. The iPhone? Impossible. Astonishingly, Frank Gehry is now being criticized by other architects such as Zaha Hadid for "self-plagiarism"! In other words, he's doing work that bears some resemblance to work he's done before! So now, every new project has to be a complete invention, never seen before. This utterly ridiculous proposition needs to be called out for the juvenile insanity it really is.
You don't land on Mars by ignoring stuff that works. Instead, you use every tool you can find to get the job done, whether you invented it yourself or someone conceived of it centuries ago. Why doesn't someone hold architecture to the same standard? Like maybe the clients whose money the architects are spending? Real exploration and real advancements come by building discoveries on foundations of things that are known to work. It's high time for architecture to grow up and learn where you find the real cutting edge… it's in the workshops of organizations such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory which don't self-lobotomize themselves of all that came before them.
Architecture today has a big problem with time that renders the profession incapable of producing better work, and of building in a truly sustainable way. I was one of the speakers at the Natural House seminar held each summer at Harvard University recently. My presentation started like this:
These two parallel ridges separate the land below into three watersheds where water that falls on one side of one of a ridge will never reach the other side. In similar fashion, we divide time into three virtual "watersheds of time": the past, the present, and the future.
Many architects declare that we must not look to the past. Anything from the past is off limits as a source for our work today. Our work must be intensely "of our time." Most architects claim to be forward-looking. But while the architects are the one that erected the ridge separating us from the past, it is the universe itself that has separated us from the future, as humans are notoriously bad at guessing how the future might work out.
This self-imposed terror of the past is harmful on several counts. We don't reject people because they're not from here, so why do we reject ideas when they're not from now? Racism means preferring one race over another. "Timeism" should be a word that means preferring one time over another. Timeism is as damaging to sustainable architecture as racism is to civilization. A Modernist prefers the present over the past (and has "nostalgia for the future.") A historicist prefers the past over the present. Both approaches are damaging. Why does it matter when a good idea originated? We should choose the best ideas for the job regardless of when or where they originated.
For example, consider the act of getting water off the roof. These two roofs each have the two green triangles of wall area at each end. But the one on the right also has larger red areas on either side. It also, by sloping to the middle, brings the water down where a gutter leak could cause major damage inside.
Architects have understood this for a few thousand years, and have chosen to build the more efficient roof all around the world. But today, most architects would be completely ashamed to build the more efficient roof because that idea is "from the past." So they do roofs like the one on the right (and worse) and Modernist buildings are notorious for their leaks and their high construction costs. Rejecting everything from the past and burdening ourselves with having to discover everything on our own deprives architects of lessons impossible to learn in less than many lifetimes.
The complete unhappiness with the past that these architects exhibit is unhealthy. If we feel that everything that came before us is bad, or at least unworthy of us, then the logical conclusion of that train of thought should be that we ourselves probably shouldn't exist, either.
The historicist, on the other hand, is completely happy with the past. While this may be a comfortable position, it doesn't lead to growth.
The best approach may be to be partly happy (with the good things) and partly unhappy (with the bad things) with the past. Take this balanced approach, and you're able to learn from all things past and present and move forward into a better future.
Using the best ideas regardless of when they originated, then, is clearly a better approach than timeism. It is important to note, however, that we should look for the best ideas one pattern at a time. By "pattern," I mean things like the design of an eave, the way we connect columns to beams, or the way that the column attaches to the floor of the porch. Considering one pattern at a time allows a rational conversation between reasonable people.
People often make the mistake of choosing entire styles of architecture, rather than the patterns they're composed of. Styles are far too complex, so rational conversations about styles are almost impossible. They devolve instead into style wars, much like religious discussions can devolve into religious wars. With a particular religion, you either believe or you don't believe. With a particular style, you either like it or you don't. Discussions about individual patterns are surgical instruments compared to the blunt instruments of style discussions.
There's another category of "idea collection" that has similar problems to that of style. A "toolset," "toolkit," or "model" is a collection of many things used to do a job at some point in time. For example, the feudal system was a model that worked efficiently to produce food in Europe during the Medieval era. Some individual agricultural techniques that were part of the feudal system might be useful today in the creation of nourishable places, but the entire system had too many things tied specifically to that point in history, so it would be foolish to even consider trying to restart the feudal system in Europe today.
The bottom line is this: any system of thought, whether Modernism, historicism, or something else, that insists we use ideas only from restricted points in time is flat wrong because it deprives us of some (or even most) of the best solutions to a problem. Many have been working for years to figure out how to live sustainably today. We haven't figured it out yet, so it's obviously a big problem. To deprive a problem so large of any good ideas that might help solve it is insane. We must be allowed to use the things that work, whether they were invented now or at some other time!
Here's where Walk Appeal gets really interesting, and walkability theory turns into real-world survival… or thriving. This is a satellite photo of St. Charles, Missouri. They have an iconic American Main Street there, just off the river. I've selected a random store near the middle of Main Street; it's the black star in the green circle. Next, I looked at the conditions on the ground to see how far people might walk.
At the Main Street setting, as you'll recall, people are likely to walk 3/4 mile. But On Main Street in St. Charles, they run out of the Main Street before they run out of their 3/4 mile, beginning at this store. If the subsequent street is a good urban neighborhood street, then they use up their remaining walking distance at a 1/4-mile rate.
But have a look at what happens just North of the store: Just after turning left off Main Street onto the big street that runs West-Northwest, the streetscape drops quickly to the parking-backed standard, where people are lucky to walk 25 feet. And there, the walking stops… as any visitor to St. Charles can quickly see. The total area in this store's customer capture ends up being 87 acres. At an average density of 10 homes per acre (some Main Street apartments, most detached urban neighborhood homes) that's 870 households. By today's real estate rules of thumb we discussed earlier, that's not enough to support even a single corner store. Most stores on Main Street are surviving, if not thriving, calling that rule of thumb into question (as I did earlier.) But I agree that this store is probably just hanging on, and definitely not thriving. Walk down Main Street in St. Charles and you'll see what I mean.
What happens if St. Charles were to do nothing more than repair the streetscapes in the problem areas to the levels of their healthier surrounding streetscapes? This would allow the store at the star to reach out much further for customers into the surrounding streets of St. Charles, as you can see above. Their customer capture would expand by more than double to 198 acres, or 1,980 households at the same 10 households per acre. By anyone's standards, this store's prognosis changes from questionable survival to thriving, based on walking traffic.
It's important to note that businesses can thrive by attracting customers beyond the range of Walk Appeal. But then you need to provide parking for all those customers that make the difference between survival and failure. And once you get to the point that you need to park more cars than can be parked on Main Street and the alleys, then you're faced with the prospect of finding other ways to park them. And the parking lots that are most often used are precisely the things that kill walkability most quickly. So a town really does need to decide whether each part is a walkable business area or an automobile business area.
Let's look at one more possibility: What if St. Charles was so happy with how Main Street was thriving as a result of healing the problem streetscapes that they decided to let everything in the area move up one standard? So that everything at the Main Street standard gets to move up to the London standard, and everything at the neighborhood street standard gets to move up to the Main Street standard? If they do this, the map changes to what you see above. The customer capture area has more than doubled… again… to 427 acres. But because the higher standards include more households per acre, the total number of households changes to something closer to 10,000. Now, the only thing standing between the business at the star and strong prosperity is the quality of their products and services.
Many of the implications are obvious… and stunning. But you may see some implications that I don't yet see, so rather than me going on about what this means, let's discuss… what do you think?
PS: Lloyd Alter, Kaid Benfield, and others have suggested dropping the Transect nomenclature I used in the first Walk Appeal posts because the millions of people who don't know the Transect won't know what we're talking about. I've done that in this post, as you can see.
Walk Appeal is one of the game-changers of Sprawl Recovery. Here are other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:
I've also started a Walk Appeal BlogOff that lists everyone's posts on Walk Appeal.