Explain Your Vision
May 19, 2013

A few weeks ago I had lunch with the CEO of the Hendrix Village, a New Urbanist development in Conway, Arkansas. He told me that his sales pitch for the subdivision opens with the question: "Tell me your favourite cities and neighbourhoods."

He did not tell me what the common responses to his question were, but I have asked the same question to many Americans that I have met, and the ones that have travelled often replied with a European capital such as Paris or Rome.

So why aren't we rebuilding a traditional city by taking the best and most loved features of Paris or Rome, instead of what we're doing now (suburban houses with small yards and sidewalks and replacing the 'sub' with 'new')?

Say You Owned Some Land

Most people would be all for 'bringing a bit of Copenhagen' to Arkansas. If we told someone that we owned some land by the lake and we were aiming to build this;

Most people would think it looks like such a beautiful and charming place and would be all for it. There may be a few who genuinely dislike that style, but those people can continue about their happy lives without ever visiting our lakeside village, but most people, in general, would be excited about the project.

But when we submit the plans to the local planning agency, they will try to apply their automobile-based codes to the narrow streets, to the mixed used zoning, and our fantastic plan would be committee'ed to death by rules and regulations designed over the last 50 years to build this;

Instead of this;

Is it more expensive to build the latter? No. This diagram from my previous blog post summarizes it;

The Problem

The problem is, in most people's minds, when you talk about narrowing the street, even if they have been to a traditional European or Asian city, they immediately think cars, they immediately think traffic, they immediately think no parking, they immediately think dangerous and crowded;

But when I think about narrow streets, I think charming, I think cozy, I think about it being a highly walkable and safe place I would love to raise my family in;

I don't blame them for envisioning something completely opposite. They have spent their entire lives approving plans for suburban environments or even the 19th century hypertrophic environment, that if we barely say 20 foot wide roads, they will yell fire hazard.


Let's take a step back. Let's say the exact same planners that hated our plans won a competition and their prize was to spend a week in a place like this;

"It looks so charming and romantic!" They may even dream of returning if they can afford it, and some may even dream of moving there.

They do not see the picture and think "where is the parking?" They are thinking "where is the nearest café?"

We are talking about the exact same people that committee'ed our plans to death.

It all has to do with mindset.

If we barely talk about densities of over 10,000 people per square mile, we are going to be called crazy. They will wonder who would ever want to live in such an overcrowded slum. "Think of the traffic!" "Where will I park my two trucks?" "How will I survive without my swimming pool?" "I'd hate not having a large yard."

Then you say you are going to lend them your vacation property here;

"Look at that architecture! It's such a cute area. When can I stay there?"

That is a traditional Copenhagen neighbourhood with approximately 38,000 people per square mile. Nobody is complaining "it's too dense!" They are complaining "I wish it were a better day for a walk to the store."

The problem is all about mindset. People, even our planners and legislators, are not against building traditional cities. They are people and got into their field because they want to make where they are a great place to live. Show them a piece of Copenhagen or Paris and they would love for someone to bring that to them. But if you say "a 1 square mile development with 15,000 people, and 20 foot wide streets" their imagination will be limited to applying that in the context of a suburban or 19th century hypertrophic environment built around the automobile that already exists. Of course it would be horrible.

Present The Big Idea

We can change the rules, but it will be difficult. We need to present to them a comprehensive vision. Not just one street that will stick out like a sore thumb and doesn't interact with anything around it ("where will they park?") but show how an entire subdivision/neighbourhood could function.

We need to draw out a comprehensive map;

Show them exactly what we are aiming for at street level;

Copy how Copenhagen handles their garbage collection, street plowing, water infrastructure, fire protection - show them statistics of emergency response times in this environment. It's proven, it works. There is plenty of data on it for a large city like Copenhagen.

Budget it all up to show it is possible. Show them there is demand.

And maybe, just maybe, we will break their suburban mindset and make some real progress on bringing true urbanism here.

I used Copenhagen as an example, but it does not have to be a big city. You could use the small British town of Port Isaac as inspiration;

Personally, I would build something along the lines of Kayserberg in France;

"But I love nature and need a yard."

When you can open your door to these relaxing beautiful streets;

With this beautiful countryside just a stroll away from any point in town;

Is having your own private back yard really that important?

Most people are not even that great at gardening;

I would prefer to let someone else take care of the gardening, and just enjoy the results instead;

I love nature and I am an environmentalist. That is why I want to build compact cities in the least land possible, so rather than deface god's land with this mess;

We should build beautiful, compact, energy efficient towns and cities that make the environment a more pleasant place to be, not less;

With nature just a small stroll or transit ride away from any point in town;

With plenty of open space that everyone can enjoy at any time, not just those that can afford property with a yard and have the time and skills to garden;

Taking Action

Regardless of what your plan is or what architectural styles you choose, present your full vision - draw up a plan, budget it out, describe how fire protection works, how the police patrol, how children get to school, how garbage collection is handled, how ambulances get access, and most importantly, how great of a place it is; the comforting narrow streets, to live within walking distance of grocery stores, cafés, parks, and offices.

Give a presentation to your city/county/state, and tell them that is all possible right here. Show lots of photos. What city/county/state would not want to lead the way in America and boast that they have their own walkable 'Copenhagen' or 'Kayserberg'?

Laws are not static. Tell them that you are ready to build that here, all they have to do is sign off on some measly exemptions to their automobile-oriented codes (because we are not building an automobile-oriented place) or risk having some other state boast about having their own Copenhagen instead. The Chinese have 'special economic zones' for experimenting with capitalism. Let's create 'special urban zones' for experimenting with urbanism.


Present your entire vision of what you are trying to accomplish. Our political leaders do want to create great places to live in, but if, as a developer, you just present to the city a plan with a few narrow streets and a few mixed-used buildings, they are going to try to apply their automobile based fire codes and traffic projections to it, and your plan will not see it past infancy. It is certainly not an easy task to accomplish, but with perseverance it may be possible.

Once we have the laws out of our way, we can focus on creating genuinely great places, and creating anchors (I will be covering anchors in my next post) to attract people there;