Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit)
March 30, 2013
In my last post
I showed three ways to transform an existing automobile-scale environment into a human-scale
one. However, a better way would be to start from scratch. This means purchasing some land - and we have two options;
- Found our own town completely from scratch.
- Infill an existing town or city with traditional human-scale development.
Founding our own town is tempting - rural land is cheap, and we have the ability to build whatever we want. However, it has its downfalls - no one
currently lives there, and unless you've somehow managed to convince 1,000 families to relocate with you without any guarantee of a job when they
get there, you will have a hard time populating your town. Let's also add to the fact we could be building on potentially valuable agricultural
land or interferring with some other natural habitat.
We can still build a traditional urban environment from scratch, even without founding our own city. Look around your city - I am sure
you will be able to find plenty of suitable locations. For example, take a look at this satellite image of Houston;
I have outlined all of the potential infill locations in red. As you can see, there is no shortage of land in most of our city's today.
Infill development has many advantages;
- You're not contributing to urban sprawl.
- You can utilize the city's existing infrastructure like fire and police protection, there are already water, electric, and telecommunication
utilities, garbage collection, mail services, and perhaps even transit - without having to worry about all of that yourself.
- You already have an existing population base around you. It'll be much easier to attract residents and shoppers that already live in
What's Wrong With New Urbanism?
Most developers looking for a profit and urban planners wanting something 'better' than suburbia tend to build New Urbanism;
'New' Urbanism isn't exactly new
. New Urbanism is a marketing name for 19th-century and early 20th-century Americana.
There really isn't that much difference between a 21st century New Urbanist neighbourhood;
And this turn-of-the-20th-century neighbourhood;
The only difference is that the houses are newer and bigger now.
Yes, it is better than your conventional suburban sprawl;
But only slightly so. New Urbanism is just a realization that what we're doing now is stupid, and since we don't know of
anything better, let's build what we use to build before - even if that was also stupid.
New Urbanism started when we saw old photos of this;
And thought that it looked significantly better than this monstrosity;
So we tried to rebuild it;
And we failed.
Why doesn't it work? Because these were the sorts of places that we flew to the suburbs from
The automobile just made it possible. Making the buildings shiny and new isn't going to change anything this time round.
When I look at this I get depressed;
Yes, the buildings are nice and shiny, but where are the people? All I see are cars. It is not a very human-centric environment, nor
very inviting. I would not pay money to travel there or move there without a good reason to.
Previously, I discussed that if you want to get people walking, you need to build human-scale environments
Is just a recreation of the 19th century hypertrophic city, complete with wide roads. When we paved the middle and segregated pedestrians from
motorized traffic, it became obvious that we had built an auto-centric environment dominated by machines that felt inhuman to experience
So to compensate for the harsh inhuman brutalist imposing environment we built, we had to flee to our leafy suburban outskirts to feel
in touch with nature just so we felt human again;
Building more suburbia is not the answer, nor is returning to the environment that we fled from. We need to build a human-scale, human-centric
environment that is warm and inviting, not an automobile-centric one.
The proof that New Urbanism is an automobile-centric environment is in the pudding. Take a look at this New Urbanist neighbourhood;
Where are the people? All I see are cars. This is not progress. Add a few more decades and we will flee from it again.
We have to get out of the ugly habit of building such automobile-friendly environments. Once we make it automobile-friendly by adding wide
roads and segregating automobile and pedestrian traffic, the automobile will take over.
Remember, we fled from this
. The result
just happened to be worse, because we did not know any better.
When we break the habit of building wide roads and segregating automobiles from pedestrians - even without having to ban them - we will begin
building pleasant urban environments.
Let's think 'human-scale';
The other side of the street should not feel like it is a world away - it should not be divided by a dangerous highway
of heavy machinary;
It should feel human-centric - safe, warm, inviting;
We should feel safe walking anywhere on the street;
The street should not feel divided into a 'left' and 'right' side. We should feel like we are on the entire
The secret to building these great warm homely-feeling places is so simple. The secret is to build narrow streets
That is all we have to do.
We do not have to ban cars, nor do we have to start out with fantastic public transportation - all we have to do is build narrow streets like
Instead of this;
And we are naturally going to walk. We don't have to spend more money - we don't have to change the architecture. None of that matters. All
we need to do is build narrow streets;
In a human-scale environment like this, we can save a lot of money.
At a government level;
we do not need to pay for the upkeep of such wide roads.
At a business level;
if the majority of our customers choose to walk, we also do not need to provide massive parking lots.
At an individual level;
if we live there and can do most of our daily needs on foot, we do not need to own a car (or a second car).
That means everyone has more money to enjoy on everything else in life.
Every day, people are spending tens of thousands of dollars to escape this;
And jump on a 12 hour flight to spend a few weeks with their family in this;
What do all of these places have in common? Very narrow streets
. That is the traditional way that we have been building cities for
millenia. It is our natural habitat. It feels very inviting and human-scale. It is not expensive and does not require any specialized skills.
Just build it, and you will attract a lot demand.
It is not
about trying to achieve density by building up. You will just spend more money building skyscrapers, and it does not
solve the problem of it feeling like a soulless auto-centric environment once you step outside;
Anyone who thinks New Urbanism is the pinnacle of urban design is wrong. Just build narrow streets and ignore the New Urbanists and
their wide-road fetish.
Taking an Old Airport
Let's use the example of Cantrell Field Airport in Conway, Arkansas. The city is relocating their airport and selling off the existing airport's land. I
got this map from the city's website (click here for the PDF
The red area represents the 151 acre site that they are trying to sell as a single piece of property. The asking price is around $9 million. If
I could afford to buy it (investors and venture capitalists - where are you!) I would purchase it. It's a little over 1 mile out of downtown
So let's imagine for a minute that we own this land and we want to build a traditional human-scale urban environment there;
Before we can begin to draw up a plan, we will have to work out a few requirements;
- We should waste as little land as possible by trying to achieve a high Place:Non-Place ratio.
- There needs to be a variety of wide and narrow roads, and open-spaces in the form of parks and plazas.
- The environment should be clearly designed for people - not automobiles, not bicycles, and not transit. It needs to accomidate
automobiles, bicycles, and transit - but they should be secondary.
- Since we are interfacing with a car-dependent suburban environment, we need to accomidate for parking so people
can enter and leave our human-scale environment, but we need to keep as much of this infrastructure out of view as possible to not
destroy the sense of being in a human-oriented environment.
- We are playing the role of a private developer, so we need to get a positive return on our investment.
So let's summarize what we want the end result to look like;
If that's not your style, let's try something a little more single story;
If you don't like that architecture, we could make it feel a little more Japanese;
Personally, I like something with a little charm;
But maybe you like modern, clean, high-rises?
To be honest, the architectural style doesn't matter. Infact, we're not even going to specify it - just let people build in whatever style
they want and let a local style emerge naturally.
However, we want to avoid this at all costs;
Yuck. The building's architecture is great - there's nothing I could criticize about it. But look at the overall environment. It's very car dominated
The sad thing is, it looks like the architect actually tried to make something nice here.
Imagining The Possibilities
Now that we have our requirements, and our 151 acre site, how much can we fit into it?
We could take the easy option out and fill it in with more suburban sprawl;
But what are we accomplishing besides contributing to suburban sprawl? Nothing.
We could try to build a Portland;
151 acres is starting to look like a significant amount of land. But even Portland;
While better than suburban sprawl, still isn't the human-scale environment complete with narrow streets that we are trying to build;
Let's try building a Barcelona instead;
Now 151 acres is looking like it is large enough to fit its own city in there, with a mixture of wide and narrow roads.
Do you see that large green road that's running down the middle? This is what it would look like;
While the majority of the streets would feel more like;
Do you notice the lack of cars?
We are certainly not banning them from our environment (this would be problematic for emergency services and shops expecting deliveries) - but because
our environment is very human-scale, most people would perfer to walk over drive any day.
We don't have to follow Barcelona. We could build our own Venice;
Don't like the European theme? Then let's built a Kyoto;
What do Barcelona, Venice, and Koyoto have in common? They are all human-scale environments. They all have a nice mixture of wide and narrow
streets. What else do they have in common? Many people spend their entire life savings just to spend a few weeks there.
Now that you know what is possible, we are going to attempt to build an environment that will pull in the tourists, be a hub for cultural flourishment,
an incubator for small businesses, and have a fit populous that rely on their own two feet instead of their cars, save a lot in infrastructure costs,
dramatically increase land values, and ultimately - make a profit.
Does it sound too good to be true? Then let's do it.
Drawing Up A Plan
We are now at a stage where we need to draw up a plan. Let's define the major arterial streets;
These are your standard wide American style Complete Streets, with traffic lights, sidewalks, and possibly even bike lanes;
They are expensive to build, so we have to limit ourselves to placing them in just a few major arterial corridors.
Now, it's time to insert our narrow streets. Ideally these will be between 11 to 15 feet wide, building front to building front;
Before we can draw our narrow streets, we will have to determine our block sizes. We want a mixture of block sizes so that we get a variety of
architectural styles. On average, we will aim for 200 foot wide blocks - but we will not stick strickly to this - we want to allow some to be bigger
and some to be smaller, and try to avoid exact 90 degree angles;
This may look very alien and chaotic if you are use to seeing maps with perfectly square uniform streets;
But we are not aiming for a sterile square grid, instead we are trying to imitate the organic nature of traditional cities;
What do those narrow streets look like from ground level?
Notice that we are not going to ban cars, but by building an environment at a human-scale, we are going to discourage driving as much as possible.
See the lack of surface area on those narrow streets? It's much cheaper to maintain than this;
It's also more aesthetically pleasing.
Open space is still important, so we will reserve a nice 250 x 160 foot park in the middle;
Our park may look something like this;
Is not this form of open space much more pleasant than the busy road?
A park by itself will not do. We also want to encourage a sense of community and culture by giving the people an outdoor space to play in and host
farmers markets, concerts, and other cultural events in too. To achieve this goal we will build several outdoor plazas;
Three large plazas will provide ample room for outdoor entertainment;
They are not complex or expensive to build, just pave the block;
Or get as intricate as you want;
But avoid the easy temptation to open your plaza up for parking. Otherwise it will turn into this;
Yuck. We are trying to build a place for humans, not cars. Once we let cars overtake an environment built for humans, we have lost. Our plazas
are community spaces. We should be able to have lunch with friends there;
Watch a concert there;
See a street performer perform a magic trick in front of a crowd there;
Not park our car there;
A parking lot is not a community space. It is soleless infrastructure that caters for one thing only - your automobile - and should be hidden from
view. It does not add any sort of destination or aesthetics to the environment.
Our final step is to fill in the rest of the land, and sell it off;
Because we are surrounded by a heavily car-dependent suburban environment, we need to interface with it and accomidate for parking. Our
blocks that average 200 x 200 feet provide ample room for parking. However, our single restriction is that our parking should not waste precious
Never allow this;
It's unsightly, it's unattractive - it wastes precious street frontage. It has instantly killed any walkability, and makes our environment look
very automobile-oriented - and that is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
In a human-scale environment which encourages walking, there is no need to accomidate for so many cars. We need to accomidate for those commuting
in and out of the surrounding suburbia, but the environment encourages them to do as much as possible on foot once they are already here. There is
no need for every shop to have enough parking spots for the Black Friday sales rush.
A cheap way to easily add surface parking is to do a European perimeter block style approach;
By building around the outside of the block, we can use the middle for rear parking;
It keeps the environment fully walkable and human scale from the street;
Except for the occasional opening, you would never know that there was a parking lot behind those buildings! From a cross section of the block,
this would look like:
And it's no more expensive to build than this monstrosity;
The primary difference is that we have rearranged the layout so the parking lot is behind the building.
What if that still isn't enough parking? Then you can simply cover the first parking lot;
With a ramp up to the roof;
And still from the street, you will not see a thing;
A cross-section of this building would look like;
How about a large department store that needs a lot
Now we are starting to get a little expensive, but if you desperately need that much parking and you are willing to pay for it, it is
Remember, we are not in the suburbs anymore. You can easily have tens of thousands of customers living within walking distance of you -
so you don't need to accomidate the storage room for a car for each one of them. This makes building in a traditional city much cheaper
than you think.
If you are a hotel that wants to use the upper floors for rooms instead, nothing stops you from placing your parking underground;
Perhaps we want something other than parking? Perhaps we are developing a mixed use retail/apartment complex, and part of the selling point
of our apartments is a safe, semi-private outdoor space?
You now have something like this;
Or even this;
With a little creative use of how we use our land, it is not very difficult to come up with solutions for offering parking and
even private backyards, without having to sacrifice street frontage, walkability, or having to transform the human-scale environment into
a automobile-scale environment. In most cases, it is not very expensive either - just build as we build now, but put the parking lot behind
the building. It only becomes expensive if you try to build a lot of parking - but hopefully the walkable nature of the environment
eliminates the need for excessive parking in many cases.
We want to make a profit on our investment, so we will have to budget how much this will cost to build and maintain. Let's look at our plan again;
We will first calculate our construction costs. I measured 10,373 feet or nearly 1.97 miles of wide arterial streets, and 42,200 feet or nearly
8 miles of narrower streets. That's a total of 52,573 feet of street we will have to build. (When taking these measurements I rounded up as
I prefer to err on the upper-side of my cost estimations.)
Our artertial roads will be your typical wide Complete Streets;
Starting from one side, there will be 10 feet for the sidewalk, 10 feet for parallel parking, 6 feet for cyclists, and another 10 for traffic,
then reverse it on the other side for a total of 72 feet - building front to building front. That's extremely wide! That is also why we are
only building so few streets like this (just as the boulevards of Paris only make up a tiny fraction of the streets there.) Wide streets are a
, but a tolerable one - so long as we keep their usage to a bare minimum.
The rest of our streets will have a much more human-scale 11 to 15 foot width;
So let's work out how much land will be used by our streets, our park, our plazas, and ultimately, calculate much land is actually available to
Arterial Streets (Purple)
746,856 square feet
Narrow Streets (Black)
788,595 square feet
38,934 square feet
57,245 square feet
4,945,930 square feet
6,577,560 square feet
We have an astonishing 4,946,930 square feet of land that we can develop on! We are not actually going to build any of the buildings ourselves,
but rather sell that land off and let property developers do the building themselves.
But before we go selling this land off to developers, we need to work out what our construction and maintenance costs will be.
We will use plain brick to pave our narrow streets and plazas. It's simple, aesthetically pleasing, and we can add any other ornimation
(such as benches and fountains) later;
We also have to think about connecting underground utilities, maintaining our parks, and other associated costs. Our plazas
also require maintenance, but we can cover those costs by placing them in the hands of a trust responsible for renting them out to make
them financially self sufficient.
Our estimated budget works out to be;
Purchasing the land
Arterial roads - About $5 million per mile - with
a 15 year life span.
Narrow streets - About
$3 per square foot - with a
50 year life span.
Plazas - Also $3 per square foot.
$3,435 - Handled by a trust responsible for renting out the plazas for community events.
Parks - Construction costs are about
$6.75 per square foot, yearly maintence costs are about $1.40 per square foot.
Electrical and Telecommunication Cabling - About $40 per foot
for 52,573 feet of street.
Handled by the property owners and the utility company.
Sewage and Water Pipelines - About $60 per foot -
doubled to $120 per foot for both water and sewage.
Handled by the property owners and the utility company.
$30 million is a significant investment. Still, that is about the cost of building a subdivision anyway - so the price tag should be nothing too
shocking to an investor.
I would also like to point out something interesting - notice how much more it is to construct and maintain the arterial 'Complete Streets' compared
to our narrow brick streets - and those more expensive Complete Streets have a much shorter life span too!
||Construction Cost per foot
||Maintaince Cost averaged per year
|Our 72 foot wide arterial 'Complete Streets'
|Our 15 foot wide brick street
And you wonder why our cities are going bankrupt!
When you start bringing things down to a human-scale, our budgets also shrink down to a human scale. What would have cost millions to pave;
Now only costs thousands;
Anyway, back to our plan. We need to raise at least $30,034,904 to cover our initial construction costs, and at least $756,684 per year to
cover maintenance costs. The only way we are going to make money initially is by selling off plots of land. We have 4,945,930 square feet of
available land, so it's simple math;
$30,034,904 / 4,945,930 square feet = $6.07 per square foot
We have to sell off plots of land for at least $6.07 per square foot to break even.
Land around Conway
sells for anything around $1 per square foot in low density industrial areas, up to $15 per square foot in desirable
retail locations. One particular abandoned fast food restaurant
location is selling for $10 per square foot - which seems to be about the average price in the area.
Since we are property developers, we want to get a decent return on our investment to make it worth our while. I think it's fully
reasonable to sell plots off at $8 per square foot to attract interest, and we can still get a decent profit from it. At $8 per square foot, a
developer can purchase an entire 200 x 200 foot block for around $320,000.
We also have to consider our $756,684 per year maintenance costs to keep our streets and our park in top condition. In many cases,
when someone purchases into a subdivision, they are often charged a maintenance fee to cover landscaping and street maintenance. We can do
the same, by dividing the maintenance fee among property owners based on how much street frontage they have access to.
We have 52,573 feet of streets. Considering that we will build against both sides of the street, that gives us a total of 105,146 feet of
street frontage. Our park and our plazas take up 1640 feet, so that leaves us with 103,506 feet of taxable street frontage. By using simple math again,
we can calculate our maintenance costs to charge per foot of street frontage;
$756,684 per year / 103,506 feet = $7.32 per foot per year
We will need to charge $7.32 per foot to break even - but as profit-hungry investors, we want to make some income off of it, so we will bump this up to
$9 per foot. If you owned a 200 x 200 foot block, you will find yourself with a $7,200 per year fee. However, a 15 foot wide shop;
Would only pay $135 per year in street frontage tax. That's not very expensive at all, and tries to discourage a single business from taking up
an entire block just for the sake of it.
It's now time to budget it out, and calculate our profit;
|Street Frontage Tax
More importantly, what will the return on our investment be? We will calculate the return on investment as;
(Profit / Cost) * 100% = Return on Investment
Just by selling off all of our available land, we can calculate our initial return on investment.
$9,532,536 / $30,034,904 = 32%
A 32% return on investment is very good
compared to other
real estate investments
. As a long term investment, our ROI increases over time;
In 15 years, our ROI grows to 40%, and after 32 years it passes the 50% mark. All of the numbers I used to calculate this are above - so if you don't
believe me, you can do the math yourself!
If this development was undertaken by a city rather than a private developer, your ROI will be potentially higher because you will also be collecting
property and sales taxes.
This is much better than your typical suburban sprawl;
With your $5 million per mile 'Complete Streets';
No wonder most cities can barely keep themselves financially solvent
In my last blog post
I discussed ways of transforming an existing environment to make it much more
walkable and human-scale, but this time we have built an environment completely from scratch. It does not have to be expensive - what I
presented was a comprehensive multi-million dollar 151 acre undertaking - but you can start much smaller. Just look at all of the infill
development possibilities around you! I also showed the financial benefits of using extremely narrow roads - they are much cheaper to construct,
maintain, and they also last a lot longer.
In the end, I have shown you how to create an environment similar to one where many people will sacrifice their entire life savings just to spend a
few weeks in or dream moving to;
We can build this right here;
Instead, we just end up spend many millions of dollars building more of this crap;
It frustrates me how many people just don't seem to get it.
- Alex Cecchini - 2013-04-04 13:16:17
Great series of 2 posts, I like that you make very actionable suggestions based in reality - what places can actually do with their wide roads and what cities can do with open/undeveloped spaces or brownfields.
One comment - millions of people also pay large sums of money to visit places with wide streets each year - NYC, Chicago, Washington DC, heck even a lot of Paris (particularly the places with monuments people congregate to) has wide boulevards. I would say that the charm, beauty, and livability of narrow streets isn't always the thing people come to see - monuments, museums, palaces, leisure activities (golf, etc) draw people in addition to the streets and variety of food/shopping they offer.
- Marc - 2013-04-06 21:48:32
Wonderful post! I'd love to live on a narrow street too, but as Alex says, a really good boulevard can be really desirable too.
I'd go a step further and argue that the handful of wide arterials/through streets you included in your infill proposal might be even better if they were done more in the 'Parisian boulevard' mode than in the American 'complete streets' mode. The best Parisian boulevards are actually subtly divided into multiple strips that feel narrow due to the sense of enclosure offered by the enclosing street trees and buildings, where I've yet to see a 'complete street' that does as good a job at this.
- Tracy Gayton-Piscataquis Village Project - 2013-04-08 16:08:08
An absolutely awesome post. Right on. Shared at Piscataquis Village Project Facebook Page. Let's get one done!
- William Cerf - 2013-04-08 16:58:59
I am a senior citizen and graduate student on a fixed income. I'd love to live in a village like this. I found out about you through a post from Tracy Gayton of the Piscataquois Village Project.
- Andrew Price - 2013-04-08 18:11:39
Hi William, thanks for dropping by!
I appreciate it every time someone posts a comment, because it lets me know that I have readers.
Unfortunately, there are no traditional villages like this in the United States yet. There are some limited areas in very old American cities (such as Boston and Philadelphia) built in traditional form that still remain (such as Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia) but it's usually limited to a handful of streets.
I'm trying to get people to realize that it is possible to build traditional cities today, and profitable too.
- Stephanie Butler - 2013-04-08 19:45:04
I love this idea.
- Kat - 2013-04-08 22:21:56
The City of Tucson (Arizona) will spend $120 million over the next 6 years to fill potholes. Just saying. I love your blog.
- Kyle - 2013-04-09 11:49:29
Great post! I have a feeling the traditional city movement isn't far from catching on here in America. We just need examples to prove that it can and will work here, and that will be the tipping point.
- Steve - 2013-04-10 08:39:14
Your argument seems to make business sense even to a lay reader such as myself. If such development is this lucrative, why do we not see more of this in the US? Are there any developers that you are aware of that are considering such a project? I posed the same question to Nathan Lewis but never received a reply.
- Andrew Price - 2013-04-10 09:07:53
There are many reasons why it hasn't taken off in the US. Some of the reasons I speculate for this are;
1. Investors typically aren't willing to risk their money on something that hasn't been proved to work here - they don't know if there's a market for it because there isn't anything in the US to compare it against.
2. Having hypertrophic bigger-is-better attitude doesn't help - if people value having 2 cars and a huge yard with a swimming pool (along with wide roads, big box stores, and massive parking lots to accommodate for this lifestyle) they will have a hard time 'downsizing' to compact cities and narrow walkable streets.
3. A lot of people (including developers and investors) don't know anything different. If you have lived your entire life in suburbia and your only perception of a city is Chicago with its ultra wide roads and heavy traffic, then you may not know that there are alternatives - and you're going to keep doing what you have already been doing.
That's why I think it's crucial for us to build a traditional city in the United States. One that everyday Americans can visit and experience in person (point 2), and developers and investors can see that it works here (points 1 and 3).
There will always be those that genuinely want to live in a mansion with a huge yard and two cars - but let's at least give people the option to do that if they want that, or live in a walkable urban environment as an alternative, because right now they don't have that choice.
- Steve - 2013-04-10 10:28:07
Thanks for the prompt reply. You make valid points. I live in Dallas, TX and while there are pockets of mixed-use development, those developments tend to target young single professionals or emptinesters, in other words, families typically do not locate there. Which is a shame since you truly need a mix of young, old and everything in between to have a decent community feel.
My family and I moved to a typical suburb in North Dallas which is now 30+ years old and showing signs of decline as it is now in the \"center' of sprawl with newer, cheaper, bigger developments to the North and denser, \"hipper\" redevelopment to the South. In our neighborhood the homes are on 50 to 75 ft wide lots with two schools and a few parks within relative walking distance. However, there is no community retail that's walkable (within 1/2 of a mile) of most of the neighborhood and there are no commercially zone lots available even if someone chose to develop retail.
Prior to moving, we lived in a historic part of Dallas built at the turn of the prior century where retail and residential were still walkably interspersed. Although the existing establishments were no place for children, and the schools underperforming so, like many others, we moved out.
Having lived in both areas of Dallas and having grown up in a small US town as well as in Europe, I feel that most Americans would rather lose their home than their automobile. Already in rural areas, more is spent on transportation than on housing (think monster truck vs double-wide). The allure of freedom to \"get the hell out of Dodge\" is understandably appealing, especially when Dodge looks like the crap strip development it truly has become.
Personally pushing 50, I hope to find, invest in or start a development centered on pedestrian living arrangements not only for my children's sake so they can see an alternative to auto-centric living inthe US, but also for my own sake as I cringe to think of having to drive to reach any \"place\" in my retirement years.
Thanks for your blog. Keep the ideas coming.
- Andrew Price - 2013-04-10 10:54:07
I agree with what you are saying. We need development that also appeals to families - great schools within walking distance, clean streets that children can walk to school on, a nice sense of community, plenty of nice parks they can play in, cafes the elderly can spend their afternoons at.
There are only a handful of places where you could conveniently live car-free (the inner areas of NYC, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, and perhaps a few other cities) but they still follow the 19th century hypertrophic or New Urbanist form (wide roads, tall buildings, and lots of cars) which may not be desirable to families and retirees, rather than the traditional city form of narrow human-scale streets and buildings, with an emphasis on pedestrians over transit and cars.
So let's actually get together and build one! If we actually started even a small-scale traditional village targeted at families and retirees with a great quality of life - it would be quickly imitated all over the country. We are on the verge of something great - the problem is the initial breaking out of our current pattern and mindset.
Instead of spending our lives trying to escape the city, let's build pleasant cities we want to be in.
- Randy Chatterjee - 2013-04-10 11:28:37
I would love to watch the City of Conway Planning and Department Department when you submit your area development plan and it is cross-checked with the Subdivision Ordinance.
Where's the parking for both residents and visitors? Where are the vehicular circulation, semi-trailer access routes and loading bays, space provisions for municipal garbage collection, fire-fighting equipment, school buses, transit service, street-sweeping, and plowing? Space for schools, fire and police stations, and cultural and arts centres need to be reserved and provided free or under subsidy. The city sewer/water/power/gas/cable connections are currently undersized/unavailable for this high density development, aka greater than the \"typical development.\" Your infrastructure connection assessment is going to have to include enough money to revamp the adjacent county waste management system to comply with federal codes. Etc. Etc.
All of a sudden, that ROI is being eaten away both by special assessments and adjustments to work within the existing \"system,\" and the human capital to work closely with the city on ways of implementing, or securing an exception to, every current requirement on the books.
To be honest, this gorgeous and brilliantly-planned revival of true place-making and city-building will simply be committee'd to death by city staff trying to apply laws designed in large part for the car-world, a world in place all around this island of sanity.
So, to avoid this inevitable snafu, you'll need leadership in Ward 4 and the Mayor's office, at the State House, and probably everywhere else in Conway. Changing the world for the better would be happening every day, if it were legal. Sadly, it is not legal, and not just laws but, more critically, attitudes need to change.
Good luck. I see the deadline for RFP submission is rapidly approaching, and the land sale expected by August. Is Conway ready for this?
- Steve - 2013-04-10 12:22:24
I agree that the laws/codes as currently written are not conducive to narrow street development. The options are to change the laws or incorporate development outside of existing cities so you can write your own code. Even then, as you mentioned, you still have to deal with state and federal codes. I've seen that one alternative approach is redevelopment and rezoning of existing residential and retail space where the mix is already in place (i.e., older, pre 1950 neighborhoods). That's happened in quite a few areas of Dallas with successful results.
To your point, legal influence will require additional money, but the reduced public maintenance cost argument of such development is strong. I wonder if a public equity REIT structured organization would work in this case.
PS. Andrew, Two contrasting examples of development style in early America history are Williamsburg, Virginia and St. Augustine Florida. The latter founded and designed by the Spanish in traditional city style, narrow streets, plazas and such, while the former founded and layed out by the English with wide streets, wide lots with lawns, etc. You can guess which was adopted. I've been to both and much prefer St. Augustine. I suppose the ready availability of cheap plentiful land around Williamsburg versus the swampy land around St. Augustine is one reason for the difference in design adopted.
- LE Long Duc - 2013-04-11 20:04:19
Thanks to Matt Owens, I discover your blog. I love it and the ideas of having even photos from Japan, Europe. I live in Vietnam and also find that 2 generations of planning have not added a thing. I lived in Paris too, and found that nice new urbanism or micro urbanism is good but can not match the old spots of middle age \"quartier\" or faubourg that attracts tourists and local population. It's where places were not designed by planners at that time, no pseudo science or art of planning. They were made by the corporations, the inhabitants. I will read your other postings!
- Phil LaCombe - 2013-04-16 16:30:15
This is excellent, Andrew! I'm very impressed that you ran the numbers. I think makes a huge difference in selling the idea. A week ago I shared this post on the Small Streets facebook page and it's since reached nearly 3,000 people and has been shared 38 times. That makes it around 10 times more popular than any of my blog posts! How many hits have you received?
I'm really, really excited about The Piscataquis Village Project. Being a planner by training, I think of it as the Seaside for Old Urbanism (or whatever we choose call it). If it's successful, the impact on urban design in the USA could be enormous.
Having just started my career I don't yet have the funds to join the PVP as a contingent investor, but I do what I can to promote it through Small Streets.
I'm very glad to hear another voice advocating for this paradigm shift in how we build our cities and towns.
- Jenny - 2013-04-17 14:21:36
I'm negotiating the sale of my very suburban-sprawl house and, while I don't think all \"Sprawl\" is automatically bad, I find real appeal in your ideas. What are some ways that one potential homeowner can begin to live this way while we wait for communities that live this way? Maybe I can't change the world, but I can change myself, my family. (A husband and 2 young kids, for the record).
- Andrew Price - 2013-04-22 10:41:26
I appreciate your input and for taking this proposal seriously. I appreciate your comment that 'the city's sewer/water/power/gas/cable connections are currently undersized/unavailable for this high density development.' I agree with you, but there is a seperation between the city and the utility companies that service it. The beauty of the free market and open competition means that if there is a significant market there, you'd have a handful of utility companies fighting for contracts.
As for parking, I covered that - the cheapest option is to do the European perimeter block approach with parking on the inside. Another cheap alternative is to simply build a flat roof and install a ramp up there. Nathan Lewis also has some great examples of accommodating parking on his New World Economics blog/Tradition City archives.
As for the narrow-streets, there's an ongoing discussion about this on the Strong Towns Network. It's always possible (however tough) to change regulation or get an exemption in specific circumstances. Or, you could keep the narrow streets in private hands and designate them as 'walkways\\ - with only our arterial roads legally being 'streets'.
You are right - attitudes need to change. Too many lawmakers are in the automobile-centric attract-another-WalMart mindset.
On your comment that 'the deadline for RFP submission is rapidly approaching, and the land sale expected by August' - I have no idea what they are planning to do with it. If I could afford the $30 million investment I would do it, but I can\\'t. It will break my heart to see this turned into another suburban subdivision as it is too much of a fantastic opportunity to let it just go to waste.
I use Google Analytics to monitor my site statistics. Since this blog post, I have been getting around 20 visitors to my site per day. This specific blog post has been viewed 834 times, and my previous blog post (Human-Scale Streets) has been viewed 475 times. 36.81% of vistors since Jan 31 have been referred through Facebook (Twitter and StrongTowns also make up a significant portion.)
I really appreciate it when people share links to my site. Thanks!
I have received quite a few e-mail requests by people wanting to live in a place like the ones I describe on my blog. It\\'s disheartening to tell them that there are no traditional environments like this in the United States yet.
Unfortunately, the most walkable/traditional neighborhoods in the United States were fled from in the early 20th century, making them undesirable places to raise children in today. Or, they are dominated by highrise apartments and priced out of the price range that average folk can afford.
I often critisize New Urbanism as being fundamentally flawed, but it's the closest thing we have to a walkable neighborhood in the US, so I suggest looking around for any 'New Urban' developments near you.
Alternatively, we can try to imitate the 'traditional city lifestyle' without actually living in a 'traditional city'. I grew up in a car-dominated suburb, but our house was within easy walking distance to stores, parks, and transit stops - so I was able to happily live a car-light lifestyle. It all depends on where you live, what you will be comfortable with, and what you can afford.
- David Baker - 2013-04-22 20:44:32
Obvious and true. Now we have to convince the fire department. Many cities make narrow streets and ways illegal. Twenty to 26 feet are typical minimum widths. It's the standard they say.
- Douglas - 2013-06-18 13:46:39
You should form a Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com/) project or use a similar project crowd sourcing website and see what happens. Perhaps there are a few hundred millionaires (or a few thousand non-millionaires) out there that would like to invest in a new real estate development company that focuses on creating traditional urban environments. You can count me in.
- Andrew Price - 2013-06-18 14:06:18
I can't say I haven't thought about it. The idea of crowd sourcing the capital to develop a traditional city appeals to me - and you're not the first to mention it!
Were an investor with enough capital to approach, I would certainly take it on.
- Tim Cook (not the Apple one) - 2013-06-18 23:11:13
Andrew Price, you have motivated me to figure out how to do a blog, which I just did and called Livable Birmingham, to show people in Birmingham, Alabama, what this city could be. Not to detract from Conway, Arkansas, but we might be a better candidate. White flight hit hard here, but recently the city has slowly started clawing its way back to vitality. On the edge of downtown, there are many blocks of warehouses, parking lots, repair shops, nondescript one-storey buildings, some used, some abandoned. Whatever value that might be adding to the community can't possibly outweigh the loss of vitality that its depressing ugliness creates. The University of Alabama at Birmingham recently had a symposium on sustainability (which was not a fraction as smart as your blog) in which our mayor, William Bell, gave an order to bring him an actionable plan for sustainability. Yours looks like one to me. I'm no urban planner or anything like that, just an ordinary citizen (I teach Japanese for a living), but I've recently joined a local citizens group, called I Believe In Birmingham, that is currently energized by the prospects of tearing down an elevated interstate through the heart of downtown and turning it into a park. While keeping up that fight, I'm going to add this narrow streets campaign to the agenda. For a city that obsesses about what the rest of the world thinks of it, this would make a whole new narrative. Thanks for all your inspiring work.
- R. John Anderson - 2013-08-14 22:10:46
One reason the traditional model you like has not been built new in the US is that it violates most local zoning and land use regulation and a fair amount of accessibility and building codes. If you are serious about cutting through the regulatory obstacles to building places worth caring about, you may want to actually look at the work of the new urbanists before you dismiss our efforts out of hand.
- orkinson - 2014-07-26 20:59:05
You should start a kickstarter to organize this. I would invest.
- Jim Bob - 2014-07-27 21:32:54
I call your attention to the fact that perhaps one half of the infill land on the Houston photograph at the top of the article is in the flood zone, next to a river that has previously had much of its flood plain is already impaired, by being used for development, and thus already troublesome, when the next hurricane passes through southern Texas. Much of this land must be kept open, to save the city from future floods.
You need flood plain maps before willy nilly drawing upon "vacant" land that has fundamentally important city-saving uses.
- Adam - 2014-07-30 20:21:31
It sounds like you have two problems: Finding a government that will work with you on zoning and code variance and money. It seems people want to invest but the challenge is that you haven't progressed enough to demonstrate you can launch the venture. And you can't do some of those things like get contracts on land and zoning variances without some proof that you're likely to pull this off.
Crowd-funding could work but you can't actually sell land unless you know you'll get the other agreements and many people won't even know if they want to live there until you've selected a site.
So you need to make it worth their while to risk investing early. How? Profit! Sell options to purchase the land at reduced prices with the price per square foot increasing for each one optioned. They'll actually see their investment appreciating on paper as long as the sales continue. Even if you're not sure you want to live as long as you still believe in the idea, you can sell your option later. Start below your break-even price, perhaps even at the estimated price of the land and then escalate up $12 or so for the last square foot.
Now you'll have a list of real backers who will buy your property and the cash to start the planning and negotiating phase.
There are quite a few other technical details of this worth thinking through before launching, most importantly under what conditions the options become void, but as long as enough people like the concept, greed should prevent money from being the course of failure.
- Jon W - 2014-07-30 21:24:19
Having grown up in a northern European 16th century house, built on a 13th century monastery grave yard, I absolutely agree with your goals. More of that!
Practically, you did not include the cost of acquiring the infill land in the developer cost. Also, you'd have a /really/ hard time convincing Houston city hall to allow 12 foot streets. Finally, the first time an ambulance couldn't make it to a door in time, you'd see some nasty legal threats -- even though society over all actually would be better off!
I'm not saying it's impossible or shouldn't be done -- I'm saying let's come up with options ahead of time.
- John - 2014-07-30 21:36:58
You mislabeled the picture from south korea as japanese.
- Cameron Hinkle - 2014-07-30 23:25:57
You have intriguing ideas. They're not for me but I can still appreciate them. But I don't think Happy Valley is a monstrosity, I hope to live there some day soon.
- Joscha - 2014-07-31 01:24:23
First of all: you are hitting a nerve here, because many people dislike living near wide thoroughfares and car-parks. But practically, your current plan will likely not work.
It starts with buying undeveloped real-estate in livable cities (i.e. cities with a good job market, or climate/features/neighborhoods attracting wealthy retirees). Former airports are heavily polluted with kerosene etc. and will need high upfront-costs for dealing with that.
Next, European and Japanese cities have been built before cares were invented, and they compensate with densely placed public transportation, i.e. you need to get whereever you want, and whenever you want. In the US, there are few places that meet these conditions. Your inhabitants will still need to commute to their jobs in other quarters; if you are part of a larger city, people will probably still need cars. (Of course, we could re-think the way we store cars, with underground garages, and perhaps even tunnel streets, but that is not going to be cheap.)
But why not look at highly livable existing, older neighborhoods in North America? Cambridge, for instance, or Montreal? The streets are narrow, often one-way, and there is enough space and incentive to spend time outside.
In Central Europe, you find two types of dense traditional urban developments: historical inner cities, often with very narrow, winding roads. These tend to be scenic and of tourist interest, often with somewhat impractical architecture, and disproportionally expensive. They are all remnants of a pre-industrial age, without mechanized transport, completely local employment and low mobility. The other kind is more modern, with wider streets, to allow for efficient transportation and delivery (think: Paris or Berlin), and accounts for the fact that most people don't work in the same street where they sleep since factories and large offices were invented.
The attraction of neighborhoods is in no small degree determined by the kind of people that live there, and the interaction afforded between them. Today's mobility creates unique challenges. For instance, urban children rarely stay where they are born, so the youthfulness of areas waxes and wanes. Another problem is that creative neighborhoods (the places where all the nice cafés, clubs, theatres and maker stores open) require affordable rents (so young people can afford them), and some proximity to universities etc.
Building towns with good public infrastructure in the US provides some very specific challenges, too. For instance, the big income disparities make it hard to create a tax-base to refinance public transport that is attractive enough for everybody.
With respect to your blueprint: Randy has already pointed out some of the difficulties. From my experience from living in European cities, I would also suggest much more green space. Parks are very important for people to meet and interact.
- Ariel - 2014-07-31 03:37:34
"It frustrates me how many people just don't seem to get it."
Your pictures look horrible - all those people, so close. Argh! I feel nauseous just thinking about it.
I suppose some people might like living so close to so many people, but I don't. Give me some space, give me some plants - I don't want buildings everywhere I look!
And if the cost of having lots of green space in between each building is an automobile, then so be it. It's way better than the alternative.
Every single picture that you called out as bad I was like "whew, much better, there's space!".
You seem to think that just putting a park in places is good enough. No way! When I look out the window of my house I want to see green. I don't want to see stone, and I definitely don't want to see people.
Now it might be OK to visit sometimes (your quote about how people go to places like that for vacations) but I certainly wouldn't want to live there.
The block with the empty space in the middle was interesting, but why put cars of all things in there? Put the cars outside, in front of the building, leave the inside empty and green for people to use. I could maybe tolerate having people so close to the left/right if I could have a nice empty space in the middle.
Are you a claustrophile by any chance? I can't think of any other reason you would want to pack in the people so close.
- Andrew Bailey - 2014-07-31 05:46:04
May I recommend taking a look at City Engine (built by Procedural now owned by ESRI). A tool ideal for designing & reshaping cities with a given area and architectural style.
Now that you've done your budget could you not get over to kickstarter for funding? :-)
- Artur Maklyarevsky - 2014-07-31 05:57:35
why not crowd-fund this?
I wouldnt use Indiegogo since they take a fee and you still have to do all the marketing and press.. but you can host your own for free. : http://themeforest.net/collections/3164952-wordpress-crowdfunding-themes
- Hugo - 2014-07-31 09:00:26
Excellent post! Thanks
- Bob Dole - 2014-07-31 09:58:37
I like the idea quite a lot, but it seems to have one questionable claim: that the streets you shoot pictures of are "car accessible". Think about the horrible, snarled traffic in a place like Barcelona or Rome, and then think about the fact that you're splashing up images of roads that are pedestrian filled and about 1.5 cars wide.
This isn't a recipe for "drivable, but undriven" streets, partly because we've proved time and again that that doesn't happen. Quaint, dense, pedestrian friendly cities see horrific traffic wherever cars are allowed, because people like to drive. It doesn't mean we should let them, but it means that we need to be honest. Keep cars off those roads, or acknowledge that people are going to compete with snarled, one-way traffic for every square foot of space.
- Dave Loyall - 2014-07-31 10:40:13
I went to college in Conway, Arkansas.
Needless to say, I find your demonstration fascinating.
To anyone who might want to purchase that land: Get to know the players in the area.
For example, did you know that the electric, water, and sewer utilities are owned by the city itself? http://www.conwaycorp.com/About.aspx
Did you know that Hendrix College has a history of investing in city infrastructure (because you can't charge tuition if the campus is flooded, among other reasons)?
Conway is also home to The University of Central Arkansas. They get what they want. So, make them want your human-scale town.
Hendrix has already built some sort of "village style" student housing/shopping complex, but I don't know the details.
I hope this helps. I want to see your ideas succeed, in Conway and elsewhere.
- Aaron Wright - 2014-07-31 13:29:32
I love this. I have long been frustrated by how we build cities. Having a car is a necessity in most cities. I would love to live somewhere where I could walk everywhere, but there are limited options here in the U.S.
Something else that you didn't consider in the blog post is how a city like this could affect economic mobility. People who can't afford cars would still have plenty of options for getting jobs, because they could walk to work. This would make it easier for the poor to move up, even without any changes in legislation or social programs.
- Pedro - 2014-07-31 13:49:29
why not take this a step further and make it a franchise?
Something like a key in hand sustainable development (economic and social)...
One a location reached its planned capacity...time to build a new one
- Mikko - 2014-07-31 14:47:03
A wonderful post. I would just like to add that the wide streets can be lovely when they are rare enough. Then the narrow human scale streets and wide long boulevards provide contrast. The boulevards provide long views to the horizon and the narrow streets surprise.
- Mikko - 2014-07-31 16:01:46
A wonderful post. I would just like to add that the wide streets can be lovely when they are rare enough. Then the narrow human scale streets and wide long boulevards provide contrast. The boulevards provide long views to the horizon and the narrow streets surprise.
- Laurent - 2014-08-04 02:51:44
Do you know Louvain-La-Neuve, in Belgium? It is a city build from nothing 50 years ago around a university. Most of the streets are predestrians. In the city center, the car roads are hidden underground. It is a very nice place to live and walk.
- mattecapu - 2014-08-04 04:33:56
Maybe you have never lived in narrow-streets places, because it's not all shining gold as you depicted them. The transport problem can be very annoying, you shouldn't expect that narrow streets work for cars or even bikes (a road full of people is bike's hell).
Limiting your transports is not always desiderable: the total exclusion of anything but pedestrians from your road plan can be counterproductive.
In Italy, where we are pretty used to such city landscapes, we have very different ways of transport. For example, cars are noticeable smaller than the typical american vehicle, and often in places with such narrow roads you don't even use them in favor of scooters or bikes.
A good solution, in my opinion, would be wide roads underground, providing an easy way to move along and across the city with cars, bicycles, scooter, public transport and so on. The surface would be reserved to pedestrians without paralizing the city.
Finally, why do you plan so few parks and green open spaces? I feel it very important for the community life
- eva - 2014-08-04 16:21:15
As a member of the huge baby boom generation who can't afford to live in Nyc when I retire and will not want the cost or the trouble of a car, I love your idea. I've been to many cities like this throughout Europe, as well as in Mexico (Cuernavaca comes to mind, where the main thoroughfares are underground), and I can see young people...particulary trades people...enjoying such a villagelife. I'll be retiring in six years...keep me posted!!
- Incunabulum - 2014-08-04 17:58:07
I've lived in some of those 'human-scale' places.
It sucks if you want to do anything other than watch tv or drink at the pub on the corner. Just the one pub on your corner - the others are to far away to walk to.
Plus there's the grocery shopping every-day after work. Hell, it was a 20 minute walk (each way, up a steep hill on the way home) to the ferry I took into work or a 5 minute drive - which I couldn't do because there was no parking.
Those neighborhoods are nice to spend a weeks vacation in (which is why people fly across the world to do so), not so nice to live in for 30 years.
People don't live in those developments in the US not because of some government/corporate conspiracy to push everyone into the suburbs, but because they simply don't like living that close to their neighbors if they don't have to.
Now, having said that - I applaud your desire to do this 'organically' by using your (and willing investor's) money to attract people to this type of development rather than trying to have it imposed on from above as the 'New Urbanist' movement tries all the time.
If you do get this off the ground, I wish you all the success in the world.
- bob - 2014-08-06 18:50:37
A horribly biased analysis. A perversion of city planning and a simplistic read.
- Andrew Price - 2014-08-06 19:40:59
Thank you for dropping by Bob. Yes, it is horribly biased- biased towards creating a place I would enjoy being in. Thank you for calling it simplistic read, I feel that we need more practical solutions that aren't filled with jargonistic elitism that stops outsiders from understanding what we're talking about (I have 3 degrees in computer science and deal with that kind of stuff daily.)
- Bob - 2014-08-08 10:07:26
I live in a great little community outside of NYC. I love it! I don't own a car, the narrow streets are bustling with people, and I would never trade it in for the modern-day suburb. My community was established about 200 years ago. Good luck on trying to replicate its success in the modern day. You'll fail. But don't take my words for it. Go ahead and try and raise money to implement your ideas. It looks like you're planning to make a little profit too, great! If it doesn't work out, remember that it's not easy to convert a purely academic exercise into results.
Signed Bob, City Planner by training, real estate developer and financier by trade.
- KW planner - 2014-08-12 09:11:52
Great, thought-provoking piece. Always helps to have inspirational photos!
Instead of just piling on to the "codes won't let you do that" meme, I'd like to say on the positive side that your analysis provides ammunition and enthusiasm to CNU to help reform street engineering. They've been doing some great work on the national level to lobby for more sensible street design. And I'm glad you're in touch with Chuck at Strong Towns!
All this really begs the core question that municipalities should be looking at every day: How do we improve public health, safety and welfare? The answer isn't that straightforward. As an example, we could design every street for the apocalypse, making them 3 feet wider, making sure we can potentially "save" those few extra lives in the mega fire that happens once every 100 years because the fire truck could get through faster despite the rare car pile-up that happened at the same time. BUT, this ignores the fact that by insisting on wider streets, many more people were killed over those 100 years because 1) it sacrifices living space and forced more people to live in the suburbs and drive more often (the most dangerous thing most Americans do every day), 2) wider streets make people drive faster and kill pedestrians and other drivers, 3) having more streets are more expensive to maintain and it sacrifices space that could otherwise have residents paying into the tax base more efficiently so cities are less able to spend the money on police and fire to begin with, and the list goes on.
Wasted space in an area in which it is efficient to deliver services has all kinds of bad downstream effects. It's up to planners to speak up and highlight them, as you're doing! Congrats on a great piece.
- Alex R - 2014-08-21 21:22:48
Great post, but great mistake.
Families don't want to live in urban houses anymore. They prefere single family houses, backyards, space and safety of small villages.
If you try to buid exactly what you propose, it became housing for poors. Sierra club already proved it by 'smart housing' blunders.
Instead, we need 'smart businesses'. Take San Francisco as example:
-businesses are in dense populated city.
-there is excellent public transportation
-suburbs has transportation nodes and are well connected to San Francisco
So families live in suburbs. But they need car only to go to local train/bart/ferry station. And they can use bike or bus too or even walk.
Then they take train etc and are in walking size business area.
Add dense walking/mixed-zone/urban area next to transportation node, and you get it. You can shop/drink coffee/see movie when returning from the business, you can build big compact parking, and it all can be used by both, families who like urban flats, and those who live in small houses with kids/yards/etc.
- jared - 2014-09-08 20:59:47
i want to live in one of these traditional cities with pedestrian-only narrow streets.
i want to know my neighbors and see other people out walking around. i don't want to live in suburban hell anymore
someone build this please, i will move there with my family.
- Nick McAvoy - 2014-09-09 09:09:32
Yup, this post just keeps getting play on the Internet. I just posted a response to it on my blog:
In short, I live in one of the places in America -most- like the traditional city described here, but this post opened my eyes to exactly how far we have to go.