Living Urbanism

Living Urbanism and Sustainable Commerce by russellpreston
December 8, 2010, 11:10 AM
Filed under: Commerce & Retail, Volume 003 | Tags: , , , ,

By Seth Harry, AIA, CNU – October 6, 2010

Historical Background

Emerging coincidently with the advent of agriculture, urbanism—a tool for maximizing the value of limited resources through spatial efficiencies and the effective leveraging of collective skills— is one of mankind’s greatest and most enduring inventions.  The surplus production and storage of food that agriculture provided encouraged stability and allowed for both specialization and the systematic exchange of goods and services on a localized basis.  This, in turn, led to the creation of a rational framework of land division and individual access based upon formal geometric relationships that have proven remarkably consistent across both geographical and generational divides:  The long-gone residents of Pompeii—the Roman-era town frozen in time by volcanic eruption 2,000 years ago—would have felt right at home as contemporary inhabitants of Antigua de Guatemala, a vibrant, colonial-era New World capitol, and vice-versa.

This continuity of form and function over the centuries is no accident.  Specialization and the division of labor encouraged the development of more complex and robust systems from which modern civilization emerged, including efficient social and production networks optimized around the unique features and indigenous resources found within the regions in which these settlements formed.  As a complex dynamic system for human habitation, urbanism shares many attributes and characteristics with natural ecosystems in the sense that the competitive checks and balances within the collective enterprise, by nature, work toward maximizing efficiency and resource utilization over time. This system is enhanced and facilitated through the physical characteristics of the built environment itself.  The result is a sustainable model in which the value and usefulness of the output routinely surpasses that of the collective inputs, such that a progressively higher quality of life is consistently realized over time.

Once the basic framework of urban form was established, the competing dictates of access, capacity, and mobility quickly generated the basic format that emerged— a contiguous network of small-scale blocks and streets.  The desire for frontage (width), balanced against the need for capacity (depth), and the shared interests of collective mobility tempered both, keeping block dimensions to a minimum in size, facilitating movement across the fabric.  This archetypal form has remained relatively unchanged over the millennia that followed, and continues to prove its relevance to this day.

Over time, these individual settlements typically coalesced within a regional context into semi-autonomous economic constructs, which translated agrarian, craft, and cultural traditions into a coherent set of principles and practices through which the local trade in goods and services could be effectively managed over time.  Prior to the industrial revolution, this approach generally encouraged a sense of stewardship toward the land which promoted long-term sustainability through the carefully managed use of local resources, and shared assets, in a largely agricultural-based economy.

As these regions matured, and the scale and nature of local production increased to encompass a broader range of consumer goods, these products were typically distributed and marketed within the community through an efficient network of small-scale merchants and entrepreneurs relying primarily on locally sourced goods for inventory, and tied closely to the physical and spatial structure of the settlements they served.

This model was not only inherently efficient, it also internalized local consumer spending in a systemic fashion which recycled the value of those purchases many times over throughout the local economy.  This, in turn, helped ensure a stable and prosperous community, supported by a largely self-sustaining economic system that could operate independently of extra-regional economic trends and developments.

The Modern Era

Beginning in the early Twentieth century, this systemic model of localized production and consumption began to change.  Innovations in mechanized transport expanded the reach of urban cores, as the promise of personal mobility on a mass scale precipitated the first substantive break from the established geometric and spatial patterns of the previous four thousand years.  As documented in the analysis of neighborhood street patterns, by Michael Southworth and Peter Owens, the enhanced mobility provided by the automobile began to subtly change settlement patterns and their associated road networks, over the course of the 20th century.  Their diagram shows a progression of street network types from the traditional “gridiron” of 1900, through “fragmented parallel” circa 1950, proceeding through “warped parallel” (c1960), “loops and lollipops” (c. 1970), and finally, “lollipops on a stick”  (c. 1980), the latter representing a 70% reduction in connectivity, from the original grid configuration.  As it became both feasible, and  more marketable, to segregate uses and residential product types from one another into physically discrete pods, or sub-groupings, this trend toward income stratification and spatial isolation was further exacerbated.

Characterized by ad-hoc, “leap-frog” development, these new large-scale subdivisions and so-called planned communities fully exploited these newly articulated class distinctions, and became the dominant new model of growth in the last half of the last century, the cul-de-sac its increasingly ubiquitous symbol.

The street patterns described in Southworth’s and Owens’ diagram, which were typically overlaid directly upon the existing rural road networks of the immediate post-war era, resulted in a steady decrease in the level of overall connectivity at the regional scale.  This trend, combined with the lower densities of suburbia, generally meant that trips between home, work, and school required a greater number of individual vehicle trips over ever increasing distances.  This, in turn, had its own implications—a decrease in overall economic productivity, greater levels of environmental degradation associated with increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in impervious areas and related loss of habitat, productive farmland and reduced water and air quality—all related to accommodating the automobile both on the road and at rest.

The evolution of Omaha's street grid shows an increasing reliance on a limited network of over-scaled arterials, which results in a substantial increase in the amount of vehicle miles traveled and an overall loss of retail diversity.

Over time, this transformation from the fine-grained street networks of our traditional urban cores, to an ever more dendritic street system, spreading relentlessly outward with new suburban development, meant that increasing numbers of car trips were traversing a less and less well-connected arterial network (see illustration # 1).  The net result was that everyone residing within a particular suburban trip-shed were collectively delivered—with unfailing predictability—to the same major arterial interchange as everyone else in that trip shed, just as surely as a squirrel working his way down the branches of a tree would arrive at the same place, on the same trunk, as any other squirrel starting from a completely different branch on that tree would.

The implications of this phenomenon became quickly apparent to the burgeoning suburban retail industry, which perceived itself as distinct from the “old fashioned” urban retailers. It further segregated by creating its very own trade associations (the International Council of Shopping Centers); for the first time in the history of human settlements, the merchant was no longer obligated to deliver his wares to the consumer. Rather, the consumer was obligated to drive past the merchant, and the industry responded by building ever bigger boxes to dominate and control this new domain.

The underlying dynamics of how and why this system worked so well can be explained by two basic concepts.  The first is Casey Wahthorne’s “Traffic Route Equation,” which shows the exponential relationship between the number of intersections in a street network and the possible number of routes which can be taken between two points within that network.  A traditional urban “grid” as illustrated in the first diagram of the Comparative Analysis of Neighborhood Street Patterns, above, contains a continuous fabric of interconnected streets.  In that context, even two relatively close by destinations (say, within an 8 X 8 grid – much smaller than a typical neighborhood) yields as many as 12,870 possible ways in which one can choose travel between Point A and Point B.

That means that in a traditional grid system, the distribution and nature of retail offerings are effectively moderated by the merchant’s proximity to, and the density of, its immediate consumer market.  In suburbia, however, everyone is more-or-less required to traverse the same piece of asphalt over and over again, meaning that the size of the box is essentially determined solely by the size of the road in front of it, regardless of context.

This relates directly to the second concept, Riley’s Law of Retail Gravitation, which  says that “all things being equal, people will shop at the largest concentration of retail most easily reached, in direct proportion to the relative size of the retail centers being compared.”  While this theorem was originally conceived to define the relative break point in the respective trade areas between two competing urban centers, it also works wonderfully to describe how retail markets work in the contemporary equivalent of a featureless, generic context, i.e., suburbia.

Given these two interrelated concepts, the most consistently effective strategy for suburban retailers to control market share was to build the biggest box supportable, based upon its associated dendritic market-shed, irrespective of the immediate context. The result is an ironic “suburban conundrum” whereby road and box sizes typically increase in an inverse relationship to the decrease in connectivity and gross density.

And because this transition happened not only gradually over time, but over distance (see previous illustration), each subsequently larger generation of retail development, consistent with Reilley’s law, was able to usurp a portion of the previous generation’s consumer base.  The latest generation of suburban retail thereby cannibalizes market share on a kind of “trickle down” basis, as each preceding generation did, all the way back to the earliest vestige of extant urban fabric in the chain.  And as misguided changes in land-use and zoning regulations intended to “suburbanize” existing urban centers further corrode existing fabric, the amount of viable, extant urbanism able to withstand these competitive threats, diminishes with each passing year.


An increasingly over-scaled street and block network, abutted by a disconnected, dendritic street pattern of residential enclaves forces inhabitants to run the gauntlet of over-scaled retail boxes—sized in accordance with Reilly's Law of Retail Gravity—on their daily commutes.

Remediation – the Coming Restorative Age

One way to “prove” an empirically-based hypothesis is that if a certain casual relationship is said to produce one set of results, presumably the elimination of that casual factor should reverse the outcome.  If the basic premise is that intrinsic features of suburbia–segregated, low density, single-use, poorly connected development–enabled and encouraged a fundamental change in the nature of goods production and distribution on a global basis, than the opposite must also be true.

The generic nature of suburbia places an emphasis on quantity over quality and price over value, such that the nature in which the consumer engages the producer is less than merely incidental to the transaction.  The advent of industrial farming, and global production and distribution networks means that what goes on “behind the curtain” in delivering a particular product to the shelf of the local big box retailer is of little consequence to the prospective buyer. Their only concern is that it is cheaper than it was yesterday, and cheaper still than the day before that. The larger systemic consequences of everything from the near collapse of global environments and ecosystems, to the global economic crisis and record unemployment, could be legitimately related to the cumulative long-term effects of what may have at first appeared to be an innocent, and well-intended objective, providing the consumer with the most product at the least price.  Unfortunately, the real long-term cost of those goods may still be coming due.

However, if, in fact, these larger systemic crises may have had — at least in part — their genesis in the unintended consequences of our embrace of suburban land-use and transportation policies, then it is reasonable to assume that the reverse might be true.  As the mega-retailers who honed their competitive models in the wide-open landscapes of suburbia begin their move into the final market frontier in their ceaseless quest for global domination—into our urban centers—the reapplication of the moderating forces whose absence encouraged and enabled their quantum leaps in scale should begin to shrink their size and trade area.   This is exactly what has been happening.  Many of the major big box retailers including Walmart, Target, and Meijer, have recently announced plans to launch new, smaller formats, specifically in anticipation of pursuing urban markets.  This trend has been further hastened by new players like Tesco, a UK-based grocer that has long used multiple formats tailored to fit a spectrum of urban/suburban contexts, has recently introduced its 15,000 sq. ft. Fresh and Easy grocery concept in the US. This is a clear effort to preemptively deny market share to established big-box players like Walmart, by going into urban markets which cannot easily accommodate Walmart’s conventional suburban stores.

This small-scale mixed-use building, and its ground floor commercial tenant are typical of the independent business found in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Grand Rapids.

Certainly, in some places, these suburban retailers are building full-size stores, but that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a contradiction to this inverse proof. They are typically only able to do this where the localized density or the presence of transit are effectively compelling the retail format to match the local market potential, in the same way that large department stores were traditionally part of the downtown landscape.  However, in true urbanism, unlike in suburbia, Hawthorne’s Route Equation helps ensure that no single retailer can dominate the market purely on the basis of overwhelming scale.  In fact, local and independent retail often thrive alongside national and multinational chains in healthy urban fabric.


The small-scale mixed-use building type and uses shown in Illustration 3A contrasts dramatically with the large format, generic retail boxes, which are susceptible to loss of future market share to even bigger competitors, situated on even bigger roads.

In the absence of “downtown” urban densities, the moderating effects of urban form will still generate a retail culture distinct from suburbia’s.  The accompanying illustrations from Grand Rapids, Michigan, show small-scale, independent retail lining the small arterials within the city’s pre-war residential fabric, an area characterized by a contiguous network of fine grained streets and blocks.  This stands in stark contrast with the large scale block and arterial network only a short distance away, in the southeastern reaches of the city.  Certainly, Grand Rapids is a small enough market, both physically and demographically, that these suburban retail concentrations have had a notably deleterious effect on the overall regional retail landscape. But where these urban characteristics are still viably extant at the neighborhood scale, local, small-scale retail remains healthy and vibrant (see illustrations #2,#3).

It would be arbitrary and unreasonable to demand an urban retail format to compete directly in an otherwise suburban market context without some type of mediation that acknowledges the distinctions in how both formats have optimized around their respective environments.  However, in consciously planning a long-term transition from suburban to urban form through the deliberate application of a transformative regulatory mechanism, such as a comprehensive form-based code, it is critically important to establish a credible baseline frame of reference. This should be based upon a defensible conceptual model that accurately represents the fundamental way in which urban markets work, so that it may be effectively calibrated to existing local conditions.


This diagram, part of the SmartCode Module on Sustainable Commerce, provides an ideal schematic illustration of a coherent urban structure which the distribution of retail goods and services are balanced, relative to demand, across the full spectrum of urban contexts (Transect zones).

Restoring Diversity and Establishing Local Markets

One such tool for establishing this credible reference and for facilitating local calibration of an existing commercial context is the SmartCode Module for Sustainable Commerce.  The triangle diagram contained within the module (illustration #4), shows how an idealized retail ecosystem, efficiently allocated within a coherent urban fabric, evolves over time through successional levels of scale and complexity that correspond perfectly to its associated urbanism.

In an attempt to mediate suburban retail trends, and to create a more vibrant and walkable context to our suburban communities, a number of strategies have been explored and developed. These illustrations demonstrate how a typical single-use suburban commercial node, located at the intersection of two large arterial corridors, can be redeveloped as a higher-density, mixed-use place-based commercial center.

Using a template like this can be helpful in crafting non-arbitrary regulatory entitlements that incentivize a design-based approach to remediating suburban markets, allowing them to function more like traditional urban consumer markets over time.  The benefits of this approach is in allowing a more diverse, and hence, more resilient and flexible commercial ecosystem to emerge; an ecosystem that returns more of the resident consumer expenditures back into the local economy, encouraging healthier consumer choice in terms of locally-sourced food and produce, supporting local agriculture, CSAs, and farm-to-table programs.  This has the added benefit of making agriculture a more competitive economic alternative to sprawl, while encouraging smaller scale, non-industrial farms and farming practices, employing more sustainable models of high-yield cultivation (permaculture), and providing additional incentives to build more compactly, preserving open space, and reducing sprawl-related environmental impacts. Ultimately, this model provides a backbone impetus to a range of more sustainable land-use and transportation practices, including a broad spectrum transportation system.

Examples of remedial applications in archetypal suburban settings including the introduction of transit and infill residential into dense commercial districts, and the redevelopment of suburban corridors and nodes (illustrations #5,#6, #7). These can be strategically planned to provide a realistic, market-driven implementation that builds cumulatively toward ever higher levels of performance and efficiency. Based upon urban principles, the SmartCode Retail Module for Sustainable Commerce provides a legally defensible basis for instituting appropriate regulatory policies and infrastructure investments to reshape our communities: from an unsustainable automobile-reliant urban form to a flexible and robust Living Urbanism, capable of continual reinvention over time while rewarding true entrepreneurial initiatives that benefit the individual and the entire community.

Against this backdrop it is not a coincidence that Detroit, a failed symbol of automobile-based economies, and one of the first cities to embrace it as a planning paradigm, has reemerged as a leader in local entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.  As the region continues its efforts to reinvent itself, it is finding that going back to basics and the intrinsic, underlying attributes of place, have reenergized the true capitalist power of urbanism. Ultimately, Fair Trade, record high unemployment, and a more liberalized currency policy in China could be the catalyst for a lasting and sustained recovery.   This is not about looking backward, but about rebuilding our local economies in a fundamental way that will allow us to refocus our efforts on competing effectively in the global economy.

– – –

1 A dendritic street pattern resembles a tree-like structure, with a large trunk and smaller branches all connecting to the main trunk. The term borrows from the physiological term dendrite, which refers to the branching structure at the end of nerve cells.

2 Riley’s Law of Retail Gravitation here is loosely translated to make it more relevant to contemporary transportation planning principles. It was originally postulated in the 1930’s to describe the relative market draw, between two distinct consumer markets in an otherwise generic regional context. In economicsReilly’s law of retail gravitation states that larger cities will have larger spheres of influence than smaller ones, meaning people travel further to reach a larger city.

The law presumes the geography of the area is flat without any rivers, roads or mountains to alter a consumer’s decision of where to travel to buy goods. It also assumes consumers are indifferent between the actual cities.

The law was developed by William J. Reilly in 1931.

A plain English paraphrase would be that the balance or Break Point (BP) is equal to the Distance (d) between two places, divided by the following: Unity or Total (1) plus the Square Root of the size of Place One (p1) divided by the size of Place Two (p2). d is distance and p1 and p2 are the sizes of the places between which the distance exists; the answer will give the distance from p2, also called a break-point. What is the break-point? As an example: after leaving a store you remember something that you wanted to buy; it just so happens that you are headed towards an alternative store b. The break-point can be thought of as the point after which you would travel towards store b instead of store a because of its notional “gravity”. This would happen sooner, for example, if store b is an equivalent store but with greater square footage, suggesting that you are more likely to go to store b for greater available utility. This notional gravity can be influenced by a number of things, but square footage is simple and effective.

3 A broad spectrum transportation system uses a range of mobility and transit options specifically tailored to settlement patterns and place-types to efficiently accommodate a wide range of lifestyle choices, while providing convenient access to daily needs and other consumer goods within a compact, walking neighborhood structure.

Living Urbanism 2010 Open Call for Innovation by russellpreston
February 2, 2010, 11:04 AM
Filed under: Volume 003 | Tags: , , ,

Kongens Nytorv-002
Living Urbanism is now accepting paper topics for our 2010 issue. Please send a 200 word or less description of your proposed paper topic to mike at or for consideration. The deadline for topic submission is Monday, February 15th.

All ideas are welcome.

If you don’t feel inspired to write, we will also be accepting select photos and illustration or images to include in this volume of Living Urbanism. Image submission requirements will be released in the coming weeks.

To get the 2009 Living Urbanism, please visit, or you may purchase a printed edition here.

The editors would like to thank all of our past contributors, and those who continue to support the continued growth of Living Urbanism.

Photo by Sitephocus

Living Urbanism Print Edition Now Available by russellpreston
November 23, 2009, 7:00 AM
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: , ,

We are happy to announce that the latest volume of Living Urbanism is now available in print. Click here to order your copy today! A big thanks to all our contributors who made this volume possible. We hope you enjoy all that this glossy, 80 page, full color edition has to offer.

Has Public Space, Great Streets and Camillo Sitte ever been more relevant? Do you know what the ‘long tail’ means in the quest to crowdsource unique urban development? Ever wonder why Washington D.C’s seemingly pristine Metro just doesn’t deliver as much urban appeal as the New York City’s grimy subway? What is the true meaning of Phillip Johnson’s “Glass House?” Are you also looking for better ways to cultivate the collective mind power of today’s best urban planners? These questions and many more are mused upon in this volume of Living Urbanism.

Subscribe to our newsletter for details on how you can contribute to the next volume.

Civic Beauty by Russell Stanton Preston by russellpreston

Cafe Steps Madrid, Spain

Urbanists need to regain control. The traffic engineer and landscape architect have had their way with the civic realm of our cities and towns for too long. The public spaces of any master plan are in fact the most valuable aspect of the design. Care should be given toward their creation and they should not be turned over entirely to any one specialized discipline.

The conception of a great civic realm, anchored by wonderfully, local public spaces, should be the principle goal of any urban design. Beauty will last the ages. If we are to truly build resilient settlements their public spaces must endure for generations. We do not have the luxury to waste on failed endeavors. The founding, or renewal, of a public space is critical to the success of any urban place. The square gives a neighborhood its identity. With success in mind, Urbanists must utilize all the characteristics of a successful public space —particularly the required management and diverse funding that allow for them to endure. As the New Urbanists increasingly look to retrofit suburbia, a similar eye must be put upon the many lost, miss-used or forgotten spaces that exist within our built environment. All land must not be underutilized. Perhaps our society does not yet understand the benefits that non-traditional American public spaces provide? In other parts of the world, a “shared space” is a cultural foundation. They are the streets and plazas that allow city life to exist. Traffic engineers had no hand in the creation of Rome’s piazze. We must learn from these cultures, and as American’s understanding of public space evolves we should not be timid about introducing these ancient forms into our plans. Today no one is looking after the whole of the civic realm. Our professional culture has specialized out of existence the generalist. And it is the generalist that understands what is required to grow a beautiful public space. As Urbanists, we understand the whole system. As Urbanists, we can conduct the symphony required to produce authentic beauty throughout our civic realm.

“Today nobody is concerned with city planning as an art — only as a technical problem. When, as a result, the artistic effect in no way lives up to our expectations, we are left bewildered and helpless; nevertheless, in dealing with the next project it is again treated wholly from the technical point of view, as if it were the layout of a railroad in which artistic questions are not involved.” (Sitte, p.223) In 1889, Camillo Sitte published “City Planning According to Artistic Principles.” One hundred and twenty years later little has changed in the practice of city building. The value of artistically created space has still not found a voice in the modern world. Why?

Shaping the public spaces of our settlements to support an enduring way of life is essential to both the economic development of a place and its overall resiliency. For decades, the artistic expression of our public spaces has not been the driving force behind the projects that shape our built environments’ identities. Beauty, comfort and the higher ideals of a place must be resurrected as the organizing force for city builders. We are still trapped by the statistics of the engineer and dull line of the drafting ruler when it comes to how we create our built environment. A Living Urbanism requires a sophisticated civic realm.

Anatomy of our Civic Realm

The civic realm can actively be identified as our publicly celebrated structures. However, our libraries, churches and governmental building are only a small, but visible, piece of our civic realm. A mature civic realm can be conceived of as the entire system of public spaces both contained by these civic buildings and connecting them. Contrary to other classification systems, I would like to propose that the civic realm is made up of only two categories of public space. In the most complex of conditions Shared Space and Landscaped Space, supported by quality public and private buildings, can provide the full range of conditions required for a meaningful civic realm to exist.

A Shared Space can be characterized as a piazza, piazzetta, plaza and, most importantly, streets and thoroughfares. I find these spaces fall under the guideline that urbanism enjoys complexity. These are “mixed-use” spaces in true form. Surprising is that within the best urbanism these spaces make no special consideration for the car. Properly programmed, multi-modal and effectively scaled the street is the most abundant of all shared public spaces. Yet we dilute the street down to a traffic tool in all American conditions. Why? When there are so many precedents for how a street can support all modes of transport equally. Few, if any, engineers will stamp drawings for the construction of a true piazza, piazzetta or plaza effectively removing these timeless forms from the urbanist’s palette. Our struggles for reducing the width of streets has taken too long. The ability to develop a true piazza needs to be possible. We must resurrect Shared Space as a possible modern urban form.

Landscape Spaces exist to connect urban dwellers to nature and to support the emotional experience of the pedestrian. Landscape Spaces create the contemplative places within a village, town or city. They are formed by having a strong connection with nature. The quay running along the river Siene in Paris, the great lawn in New York’s Central Park and the tree lined promenades of Villa Borghese in Rome are all stunning examples of how a Landscape Space gives emotion and soul to a city. Care must be given toward balancing the scale, orientation and natural features of our greens, squares, gardens and parks to ensure they offer the urban dweller relief in any form they wish to find.

Physical Characteristics of Public Space

Is a boulevard really a successful public space if it does not provide a pleasing escape for the pedestrian? Is a small plaza really a successful public space if it does not allow for the cafe to swell in the evening filling ever available square foot with patrons? As we contort the forms of our civic realm to support the modern demands placed upon them by public process and the science of traffic “engineering” (Jacobs, p. 72) we lose the characteristic that allow these spaces to be the foundation for a vibrant and living urbanism.

“The design standards imposed by the highway engineering profession, for instance, are particularly damaging to community as they ensure the dominance of the motor vehicle over the pedestrian, even within the neighborhood. If I may say so, your profession [architects] could be of great help with this challenge of converting the planning and engineering professions, as surely you have noticed that the well-proportioned neighborhoods of the Georgian and Victorian era hold their value far better than the monocultural housing estates of the past 50 years.” (HRH Prince of Wales, 2009)

As Urbanists, we must take up the Prince’s challenge. By giving modern meaning to the characteristics of a quality public space we can allow a boulevard to be a boulevard and plaza to be a plaza. We should no longer support the hybrid, or false, forms being forced upon our citizens.

Balancing the form of a public space is essential. It is most successful when all three dimensions of the space, as well as the surface treatments and sculpture, are considered in concert. It is understood that the containment of a public space is critical. Establishing the constraints of the outdoor room is also linked to the width and length of a public space. As mentioned earlier, we struggle to create narrow streets. I would also like to propose that our squares, and if we could build them, plazas and piazze are much too large.

“In former times all the arrangements and building forms we have enumerated were joined naturally in a unified arrangement that enclosed that plaza. In contrast to this, one tries in modern times to lay the plaza open. What this implies should be clear form what has been said above. It is equivalent to destroying the old plazas. Wherever such a disastrous undertaking has been carried out, the spatial effect is lost forever.” (Sitte, p. 176)

Christopher Alexander has also developed several patterns which I find often over-looked in contemporary practice.

“Pattern 61 – Make a public square much smaller then you would at first imagine; usually no more than 45 to 60 feet across, never more than 70 feet across. This applies only to its width in the short direction. In the long direction it can certainly be longer.” (Alexander, p. 313)

“Pattern 123 – For public squares, courts, pedestrian streets, any place where crowds are drawn together, estimate the mean number of people in the place at any given moment (P), and make the area of the place between 150P and 300P square feet.” (Alexander, p. 598)

Do modern planners or landscape architects consider the population of a public space when considering its most effective size? It is time to reexamine the size and proportions of the public spaces we design and ensure that they are appropriate to the activities, surrounding architecture and number of users. Size does matter.

Layers exist within all great public spaces. Picture the Piazza del Campo. The image of Siene’s Palazzo Pubblico, with its great tower, might come to mind, or the comfortable slope of its fan shaped form. But, with further scrutiny one can begin to see the layers of this space more clearly. The cafés, with their deep sienna brown awnings, situated on the ground floors of the surrounding buildings establish the outside layer and give the piazza its essential active edge. Just as important as engaging uses at the ground level is the composition, slightly varying fenestration and harmonious cornice line of the surrounding buildings. The tower pierces the perceived ceiling of the piazza completing the required characteristic that a public space be engaging in all dimensions. The tower can quickly be established as this spaces center, but with more investigation one will find that the square in fact has many centers. The portico of the Palazzo, opposite the portico is the Fonte Gaia, typically the square as several vendors dotted along its inner edge, the ring road between the cafés for strolling the circumference of the space and the sloping red brick floor with its many groups of seated onlookers all provide a difference experience. The addition of each of these layers enriches the composition giving the public space more significance.

Significance for public space can mean many things. Great spaces possess significant gravity. Several blocks away one should be able to sense, as if it is pulling you in, the nearing public space. This energy emitted from a significant public space attracts more than just pedestrians. At times this can create a gradient of taller builds, more intense ground floor users and increase in the number of intersections and streets. This gravity can also give a neighborhood its identity. “I live just off Washington Square Park” not only uses the significance of the square to orient location, but demonstrates how the gravity of the public space imposes identity on the surrounding blocks as well. The gravity created between the constellations of public spaces present throughout a civic realm give additional vibrancy to the traffic that flows throughout the city. This pulse of mobility gives life to not only the centers of activity but the various arms connecting them.

There are additional spaces that surround and lead into the primary place. They are the foyers for publics space during large events, the quieter plaza filled with cafés just outside the busy market square or the commercial nodes just outside the gates of the public garden providing refreshments to the scene. A healthy civic realm has a constellation of iconic public spaces. Each of these individual spaces possesses a constellation of supporting space. They might provide relief during extreme conditions or give space for services to support the active edge of the square. A single public space is better when it is part of a series of spaces. This fractal relationship gives vibrancy and depth to a living urbanism.

Public spaces are living. They breathe, sleep, require maintenance and enjoy company. As urbanism ages it continues to grow, change and adapt to the conditions of the time. This is true of the public spaces within that urbanism as well. Over designed and ridged alignment to uses significantly hinder the successful aging of a public space. These spaces must possess a certain amount of flexibility. This is even true within the span of one year. The best public space can support its citizens throughout the year. There is no “session.” The life of the city should not halt in winter. Prague does not close its squares due to cold weather. The many groups, clubs and organizations that a loved public space establishes will further extend the life of these places. These groups will give guidance to the space and provide resources as it ages. Quality public spaces are living infrastructure.

Beauty is Essential

A timeless public space is beautiful. This perhaps is the essential characteristic. Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. However, on average the dull, rigid and sterile places that mid-century planners conceived of as beautiful public space have failed. Beauty to the masses, not to a small group of intellectual designers, is essential for a public space to be successful. This beauty ensures the long term enjoyment of a space is certain. Fashion changes too frequently. To let it guide the creation of public space is a mistake. Beautiful squares, plazas, parks and gardens are multigenerational investments. Their form must be timeless for the required investment to be worth its value to a society. Beauty is more likely to be loved, and loved public spaces are more likely to spawn the groups required to maintain and care for it as the life of urbanism surrounding it unfolds. A loved public space endures.

Cycle of Involvement

What does the civic realm really mean to the city? Inevitably cultures and societies evolve. The civic realm provides the platform for this evolution. The civic realm is both the glue that holds a society together and a mirror that allows it to see its failures. This question is not correct; the civic realm means different things to different people. The meanings are not important, but the fact that the civic realm is present in one’s life is. We are just now becoming aware of what the lack of a civic realm can do to a culture and a society.

The civic realm engages the memory. It provides a physical history of a place either through the preservation of its best historic structures or through the generational interaction and story telling that gives rise to the myths of a place. The public spaces of living urbanism should persist within one’s memory. The mind should hold on to their image long since created. The most literal representation of the civic realms memory is those monuments and memorials erected to celebrate our past and the people who made life possible. Either in the squares of Savannah or under Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe the physical memory is real. It is these memories, provide in large part through the civic realm, that serve to give a place its soul.

One comes to respect both one’s place and oneself more in the presence of the past’s greatest accomplishments. This respect, carried by the citizens’ sense of a place, resists filth, counteracts vandalism and elevates the spirit of said place. Given respect, by way of the connections to previous accomplishments, a successful civic realm’s public spaces will be cherished.

The cycle of a person’s involvement with the public spaces of their civic realm will come to teach them how to care. It will give them pride for their locale and its continued success. Pride will lead to ownership. The city will become one’s own and in time this ownership brings one further comfort in its spaces – a comfort that makes the city a home. Through a populations life cycle of experience within a civic realm, many stories will be crafted which, over time, will enrich the memories of a living urbanism.


A market square is more then just the physical space of the market square. Public space is a platform for the life of a city to unfold. However, a play needs its actors, script and time of performance to bring an audience. Successful public spaces require users. The best of these places provide activities for their users. The smallest parking court can be elevated to a public space when planted with a fruit tree. The cycle of caring for the tree, picking its fruit, smelling its flowers and enjoying its shade can create public space out of the simplest of utility areas. The activities in larger public spaces are produced. There are stewards of the space that initiate the production of the activities required to seed the cycle of involvement that leads to the long term enjoyment of a vibrant civic realm.

Just as important as the physical characteristics of a space are the activities carried out within, surrounding or through it. We have discussed the importance of the edge activities. But, often these need to be support and enticed by the activities available in the space proper. Just as the civic realm is divided into shared and landscaped space, activities can be passive and active. There is a strong correlation between landscaped spaces and passive activities. However, a quiet piazzette, with several café tables can be the loveliest of places to rest. Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, states that the best of public spaces are programmed by “zealous nuts.” It is these groups of nuts that knit together a square or park to improve its gravity, give opportunity for the creation of memories, and fundamentally provide for the enjoyment of future generations in the space.

At the center of a large publics space’s groups must be a “Friends of Great Kennedy Plaza” or a “Central Park Conservancy.” These organizations manage, fund and govern the ongoing operations of the space. They ensure its characteristics remain in place or improve. It is unfortunate, but modern urbanism requires successful large public spaces to be run like businesses.

Did Rome require Friends of the Forum? What kept the “geomorphic” spaces of unplanned cities running? (Kostof, p.43) We currently have no living tradition for the stewardship of our public space. During the last century, Americans learned that the stewardship of our native landscapes was worth the effort. During this century, we will learn that the stewardship of our village, town and city public spaces will be worth the effort as well. We must learn from Olmsted’s dual understanding for both the natural importance of Yellowstone’s preservation for the country and the complex details that would lead to Central Park’s success for New York. Both are of equal importance. Both required stewardship.

Local Economy

It is yet to be seen what type of global economy will be left, but being the optimist it is likely that global markets will still exist. The interesting thing about being competitive in a global market has a lot to do with the strength of your local market. For cities to be competitive globally they will need to differentiate themselves locally. Leveraging the advantages of the local arts, culture, landscape and vernacular building tradition is the foundation for cultivating a unique place in a global market. And we learned that a beautiful civic realm supports all of these items.

A resilient civic realm sets up so many factors that encourage innovation. In time of recession, people take to the streets with market stalls and push carts. These local economies would not be possible without established public space. Random encounters can lead to innovative interaction. The streets, square, plazas and parks are the places for locals to interact and improve their craft or practice.

What significant arts movement has been cultivated and supported by a suburban location? Movements, the type that inspire generations, begin in the cafés and piazze of our cities. The physical space of a city should be painted. Its beauty should be sketched, photographed and act as a well spring of creativity for future movements. A resilient civic realm captures the creativity of the group. The arts are perhaps the most radical of economies, but their practice is essential to pollinating the garden of innovation required for local economies to be successful. Fundamentally, a movement, either business or cultural, needs to be inspired. A living urbanism’s civic realm must provide this inspiration.

Civic and cultural institutions further enhance a local economy. Good public space gives visibility to these institutions and provides the essential link between the “Res publica” and “res privata”. These institutions are not only captured in the physical form of a museum or cathedral. Conservation can begin with a discussion in the square. Romance can ignite with a stroll through the garden. Just as a public space can give identity to a neighborhood, a resilient civic realm can help establish an attractive local culture. The institution of a romantic city can be a powerful enabler of the local economy.

Local economies are even more fine grain. The arrangement of public space gives identity to a district. The power of a good space provides the name to a neighborhood. These names can endure long past the time of their original conception. The economic power of a great civic realm can be demonstrated in the suburban shopping center habit of adorning placeless destinations with names traditionally assigned to the best public spaces.

A healthy social interaction, one that supports local economies, takes place in the public spaces of a living urbanism — commerce, or trade, originated in public space. That tradition is still present. I witnessed a chance encounter between two businessmen aboard a San Francisco trolley. One man hopped on, struck up a conversation with the man seated next to him and the next thing I knew they were getting off at the next stop heading toward the coffee shop to discuss a possible new venture. This is just one example of how a comfortable civic realm, not to mention public transit surrounding such areas, can support economic innovation. And if you believe Jane Jacobs, it is this type of innovation that keeps places alive.

Foundation for a Resilient Place

As Urbanists, we are responsible for helping to craft the foundations for a resilient place. A living urbanism is the best example of such a place. As we’ve discussed the creation, stewardship and enjoyment of a beautiful civic realm can have a profound effect on the successful passing of time. Celebrations and ceremonies are conducted within their enclosure, demonstrations are held in times of unease and direction given in times of crisis. The public spaces of our settlements are critical to their long term sustainability. These spaces are the constant throughout the lives of the citizens. Great care must be given to their creation and renewal. A beautiful public space can offer both a joyful reminder of the past and inspiring insight to the future.

As urbanists, we must realize that complexity is resilient. Natural ecosystems enjoy complexity as an essential piece of their endurance. Can a complex collections of public space help a local economy support itself during recession? Will these same public spaces improve themselves during booms? Many options are always more enjoyable than fewer and it seems as if contemporary planners, and even new Urbanists, are limiting the complexity possible in our built environment. A city or town should have a diverse selection of public spaces, each giving different types of citizens enjoyment. The stimulation of an elegantly complex civic realm keeps a culture renewed.

A living urbanism begins with community and space. It is the act of shaping this space that gives life to a place. Pleasing public space is the insurance that greater things are possible in a place. The quality of the civic realm is completely related to the comfortable level of density that the private spaces of a village, town or city can support.

A sophisticated civic realm allows for a compact population to exist. This population in turn improves the entire civic realm. It is essential for our projects to push this correlation. Achieving greater density is a significant piece of the puzzle that allows for transit, cultural institutions, local economies and an active street life to exist. It is this interdependence that makes the understanding and implementation of great public spaces so essential to our mission. As urbanists, we possess the skills necessary to lead the coming age of urban stewardship. It is time Urbanists regained control of our civic realm.

Works Cited

“Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning: With a translation of the 1889 Austrian edition of his City Planning According to Artistic Principles”

“The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History”

“Dark Age Ahead”

“A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

Stones for the Glass House by Scott Ford by Matthew John Lambert
July 2, 2009, 9:41 PM
Filed under: Living Urbanism Images, Volume 002 | Tags: , ,


The purpose of the art of architecture, of architecture as high art, has been to provide us with symbols of the nature and reality of the state- that is to say, of the established order of things that has been made to stand… and that, by standing and enduring, affords us the legal and ethical frame of reference within which we manage to lead more or less civilized lives. Norris Kelly Smith (Smith 1980)

Located in the clearing of a well-manicured wood in New Canaan, Connecticut is a transparent glass and steel-frame box, paradigmatic for the extent to which it expresses the aesthetic ideals of modern art and architecture. Built in 1947, Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” is the abstraction of a house to its reductive limit. Indeed, it is a house built for one. In its solitary location and characteristic transparency, the design is entirely self conscious to expose nearly all of its contents to view. The only work of art hanging in the spare interior is Poussin’s Burial of Phocion. Phocion, “The Good”, as he was known in ancient Athens for his virtue and frugality, was condemned to death for his defense of the city and its citizens against the barbarians. It is fitting, thus, that this temple of modern art contains a depiction of the death of The Good and the demise of the polis; for modern art, along with science, arose with the demise of a culture rooted in sacred order and Aristotelian virtue ethics. To this cultural crisis, Reiff offers the provocative charge, “Confronted with a picture gallery as the new center of self-worship, civilized men must become anti-art, in the hope of shifting attention toward modalities of worship wholly other than that of self.” (Reiff 10, 1987) As a picture gallery of self-worship, the “Glass House” represents the fragile, temporal and isolated state of a culture unmoored from sacred order and authority. Indeed, it is at the end of the line of civilization and the options, as Reiff suggests, are either to continue into the entropic wilderness of social atomization, or to return to the city to draw upon the durable, collective wisdom of the centuries for a communal expression of The Good. If civilization is to be redeemed, and art to regain its ethical role, it will be through the restoration of a shared conception of human flourishing.

The plight of the modern self can be understood, in part, in relief against the conception of its predecessor, the traditional self. The traditional understanding of human nature, expressed in the Aristotelian conception of human flourishing, is ‘the life of moral and intellectual virtue lived in community with others.’ Implicit in Aristotle’s observation that, “Man is, by nature, a political animal,” is the conception of an essential and communal human nature. “All being,” as Clarke notes, “…is by its very nature as being dyadic, with an ‘introverted,’ or in-itself dimension, as substance, and an ‘extroverted’ or towards-others dimension, as related through actions….To be is to be substance in relation.” (Vitz XXI). The traditional self is thus understood, both by its communal role and in relation to its potential, its telos. The notion of a telos entails a vertical order of being, in which some states of being are ‘higher’ or closer to the conception of the good than others. This hierarchical order, the sacred order, is defined by Reiff as the ‘vertical in authority’ in which authority is understood to be, “an order or accredited facts and corresponding beliefs in their commanding truths, by which life is conducted within the range of that authority.” (Reiff 249, 1991) Authority, therefore, is inextricably linked to the concept of traditional ethics, the study of the means by which man can move toward his telos. MacIntyre observes:

Ethics therefore in this view presupposes some account of potentiality and act, some account of the essence of man as a rational animal, and above all some account of the human telos. The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. (MacIntyre 53)

Culture is the rich matrix of vertical authority and horizontal relationships in which the traditional self is anchored. “For according to that tradition,” MacIntyre states, “to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God.” (MacIntyre 59). This matrix of culture provides an ethical framework that includes the principles and boundaries of the telos. According to Rieff, culture’s role is to, “…communicate ideas, setting as internalities those distinctions between right actions and wrong that unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement.” (Reiff 4, 1987). A culture of ethics cannot be understood in the absence of community and a telos and therefore the fulfillment of the pre-modern self is achieved through community. Moreover, “Culture”, as Rieff states, “is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.” (ibid)

If traditional culture is a matrix of authority and ethical activity, the modern self is the stippled plane of autonomy, independence and isolation. The modern self is assumed to be a self-created product of the will that is notably ‘self’-conscious and indebted to reason for its formation (Vitz). The origins of the modern self lie in the fragmentation of moral discourse that occurred in the Enlightenment Project, through which philosophers sought to provide a rational vindication for morality separate from theology. As MacIntyre documents, the philosophical, political and religious events of the Enlightenment are interrelated and the joint challenges of the Reformation and Newtonian science initiated an inquiry in moral discourse that had fundamentally reoriented the self by separating the means of social order from their teleological ends.  MacIntyre states, “The self had been liberated from all those outmoded forms of social organization which had imprisoned it simultaneously within a belief in a theistic and teleological world order and within those hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such a world order.” (MacIntyre 60)  The self had been freed from the traditional cultural matrix of relationships and hierarchical order.

As a result, MacIntyre states, “there is one hand, a certain context for morality: a set of injunctions deprived of their teleological context. There is on the other hand, a certain view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is.” (MacIntyre 55) Whereas ethical reason once provided instruction to the pre-modern self for how to realize one’s telos, the modern self is without such a reasonable guide to the Good. Absent of sacred order, modern reason surrenders its most important role, the recognition of essential knowledge and the kinetic transition from potential to act. It is now limited to the contingent knowledge of facts and mathematical relationships. (MacIntyre 54). Further, there is a fundamental mismatch in the remaining elements of the Enlightenment moral discourse, the moral injunctions without their teleological content, and the view of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is. An observation of untutored-human-nature-as-it-is is unlikely to reveal the behavioral rationale for the moral injunctions, which are rational only when understood as teleological. Thus, MacIntyre concludes, the Enlightenment Project inevitably fails and there is no rational conception of morality outside of sacred order.

The inconclusive vacuum of the Enlightenment yielded a wholly alternative theory of moral discourse that plays a central role in the conception of the modern self. Nietzsche observed that if there is no rational basis of morality, then it is the will, rather than reason, that is the basis of morality.  MacIntyre summarizes Nietzsche’s central thesis, “…that all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will.” (MacIntyre 117). In Nietschian moral discourse, morality is subjective and thus the modern self is “free” to exercise its will to power to live life on its own terms.

allegory of good governmentThe subjective morality subverts any shared notion of authority, teleology or human nature. The will is thus exercised in opposition to- or defined against– communal culture and morality and consequently, modern society merits the individual on the basis of innovation and self-expression in the departure from traditional norms and forms. There is no rational morality to which one can make ethical claims and judgments. MacIntyre deems this characteristic of the modern age as ‘emotivism,’ “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (MacIntyre 12). Emotivism demolishes the foundations of culture by democratizing authority through the subjective evaluation of moral claims. Rieff notes the atavistic nature of modern culture, describing it thus as, “The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized…” (Reiff 13, 1987)

It comes as no surprise that the inherently violent conditions of Nietschian moral discourse have had an adverse impact on the human condition. Corresponding to the perceived increase of freedom and autonomy in modernity is a characteristic anomie, anxiety and isolation for the modern self that arise with the recognition that, in Victor Frankl’s words, “self-actualization is not possible without self-transcendence.” That is, human potential cannot fully be achieved apart from community. It is to address this void, that Reiff assigns the ‘anti-religions’ of modern art and science which, “[aim] to confirm us in our devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” (Reiff 10, 1987)

Modern art and architecture suffer with the modern self. Held to no standards by which to be judged, aimed toward no ideal to be achieved, ignorant to the best achievements of collective civilization, the anti-religions reveal the inherent limitations of emotivism. The anti-religions, thus relived of the duty of ethical reasoning and guided by the anti-cultural predicate, rely upon the emotions and the appetites for subjective self-validation. The emphasis on instincts over reason celebrates mediocrity over cultural achievement, and indeed by definition there is no shared recognition of ‘best’ in emotive culture. “The would be instinctual Everyman and his girl-friend are the enlightened ones now…” (Reiff 20, 1987) This emphasis on instinct partially explains the tendency of modernists to champion the work of vernacular craftsmen over that of the classical masters.

Burial_of_PhocionCompelled to innovate, the modern artist is limited to his/her own imagination. The modern denial of traditional authority removes an entire dimension from the pallet available to modern artists and architects.  As Vincent Scully has observed, “Human beings experience all works of visual art in two different but inextricably interrelated ways: empathetically and by association. We feel them in both our bodies and in terms of whatever our culture has taught us. Modernism at its purest fundamentally wanted to eliminate the cultural signs if possible – hence abstraction.” (Scully 225). The spare construction of Johnson’s “Glass House” illustrates the aim to shed any cultural associations that would, by definition, make communal references to betray the unique example of the “House”.  Further, the Glass House, as with much modern art and architecture, is entirely regressive. Its form, however abstracted, alludes to a historical reference point, available at least to the artist, yet the act of abstraction limits what cultural content, if any, can be shared with the future. Kelly’s comment above suggests that art and architecture, through their embodiment of the laws and norms of a culture, play an operative role in tradition as a cultural ark, a durable witness to future generations. The temporal character of modern architecture, suggested by insubstantial construction methods and materials, reveals another attribute of the modern self. It is in denial of death or any concept of the afterlife. Indeed, the solitude and anomie are amplified by the perceived isolation in life and in death.

By abstracting these cultural associations, modern art and architecture thus become entirely self-referential statements about the artist or designer who created them. They are the material of the anti-religion of self-worship. Collect as many of them as one would like, but the aggregate will likely be as uninformative as the single example, about the specific place, people and purpose they were built to serve. Moreover, the self-referential features often fail to engage surrounding neighbors and urban context, to say nothing of the particular meaning of any one place. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, to mention another paradigmatic piece of modern art and architecture, represents the culture of Bilbao perhaps as much as the “Glass House” does of Connecticut. Indeed, if it were not for the difference in scale, the two could exchange locations. They share in the universality of ‘uniqueness’. In a similar manner, the modern self is a ‘man without a country’, bereft of the roots of a traditional culture to inform his person, his communal role, his vocation. The generic quality of American suburban sprawl represents, on a larger scale, the implications of the transient modern self on the formal order.

In contrast, traditional architecture, as with the traditional self, is conceived in terms of community, not only in the present, but of all time, past, present and future. They are citizens in Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” In the Aristotelian teleological cultural framework, institutions exist to represent the law, which itself represents the timeless character ideal of the human telos. Reiff states,

To adjust the expression of impulses to the controlling paragon, or character ideal, defines the primary process in the shaping of our inherited culture; the arts and sciences define the secondary process, in which exemplary modes of action are extended further, into a central moralizing experience, thus transforming individual into institutional action.” (Reiff 16, 1987)

Traditional art and architecture are two such institutions that serve a didactic, poetic role in addition to their formal purpose, and in so doing are entirely oriented on the community rather than the self.  The Western classical canon of architecture, with a meaningful grammar, syntax and rhetoric, represents a formal language that has been in use for several thousand years to express a building’s role in the sacred order of the community. Indeed, through its horizontal relationships with surrounding context and an engagement with the vertical of authority, traditional buildings participate in the cultural matrix much the same manner as the traditional self.

The relationship between traditional architecture, the polis and sacred order is wonderfully illustrated by the fourteenth century frescos of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, often collectively referred to as the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government.” The frescos are located on the walls of the Sala di Nove, the principal meeting room for the Siena’s chief magistrates, and serve the purpose to explicitly recall the role of authority, the moral boundaries of right and wrong, and the social and formal implications of “Good”, or virtuous, and “Bad”, governance. In the “Allegory of Good Government”, all of the participating members have a hand on a golden rope, which threads itself through the composition to represent comprehensive participation in the network of authority.  The Palazzo Pubblicco, itself, in its siting, massing, and architectural character communicates its role in the hierarchy of sacred order. It is the focal point of the Campo, the principal gathering space of the community, and it is linked to the Cathedral, the local seat of sacred authority, through one privileged processional route. Commenting on the frescoes, Scully summarizes the relationship between architecture and community:

All human communities involve an intense interplay between the individual and the law. Without the law there is no peace in the community and no freedom for the individual to live without fear. Architecture is the perfect image of that state of affairs…Architecture is fundamentally a matter not of individual buildings but of shaping the community, and that, as in Paris, Uruk, or Siena, is done by the law. (Scully 229 )

In traditional moral discourse, it is the law, as it represents the character ideal, which integrates and organizes the community into a community with a common view toward the ends, or telos, of human life and the means, or virtue ethics, through which human potential can be realized toward that end. Thus, traditional art and architecture are restorative in their role of reinforcing the sacred order to give purpose and meaning to life.

The Glass House is now a museum and within fifty years it will begin to disintegrate. It is difficult to tell whether the House or the culture it represents will last longer. Indeed, House has already required a significant rehabilitation. With such minimal structure, the building has little defense against the elements. In its design, the traditional solutions for shedding water, resisting gravity, and providing shelter were abstracted away in favor of making an innovative statement about subverting the old order with art. When the gaskets fail, the glass breaks and the beams begin to rust, it is not difficult to imagine the Glass House as ruins. Even if the building is attentively maintained to its original design specifications, with the replacement of sealants here, and a new window there, the building does not stand much of a chance to last against the adversity of natural elements. The modern self is in a similar predicament, precariously poised on the brink of social and psychological disintegration. Modern “self-help”, drawing upon self-focused solutions, cannot escape the framework of the modern problem to provide a cure. What we need, therefore, are stones for the Glass House. For, if as the assorted pieces of the House fail, they were replaced with more durable, natural materials such as stone and heavy timber, the Glass House, like a Japanese temple, may last into eternity. Then again, in so doing, it would just be a house.


MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1984.

Rieff, Philip. Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987.

Rieff, Philip. Jonathon Imber, ed. The Feeling Intellect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991.

Smith, Norris Kelly. Stuart Cohen and Stanley Tigerman eds. “Crisis in Jerusalem.” The Chicago Tribune Competition, Late Entries, Vol. II. New York: Rizzoli Press. 1980

Scully, Vincent. “Afterword,” The New Urbanism: Toward and Architecture of Community. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc. 1994.

Vitz, Paul C. “The Problemmatic Self.”

Time for change: Reforming the CNU annual congress by Matthew Lambert by Matthew John Lambert
July 2, 2009, 6:55 PM
Filed under: Volume 002 | Tags: , , , , ,

Over the past 3 congresses, I have progressively attended fewer and fewer sessions, opting for direct discussion with friends, colleagues, and complete strangers.  In one such discussion, at an open space1 session, a number of us expressed our growing discontent with the format of the annual Congresses.  The Congress has become too obsessed with the number of sessions that are on the schedule and in the pursuit of scale have become less personal and quite a bit more confusing.  This article will analyze some of the problems with the existing format and position an alternative.

To preface the analysis and detailed explanation, it must be understood that this idea is not the property of any individual per-se.  Instead it was born in discussion at open space, and later deliberated upon in a following session and further refined through careful study and critique.  Folded in are some of the values that are upheld by many CNU members, which are particularly prevalent among the members of Next Generation of New Urbanists (Nextgen).  These can be summarized as: openness to new and challenging ideas, openness to new voices, compassion for those uninformed or misinformed, and a desire to advance the profession through the synthesis of ideas and pursuit of tangible goals.

The Premise

The question posed: what if the congress was run like a charrette?  Perhaps one from left field, but when analyzed by means of intentions, the proposition shows its validity.  Groups and firms run charrettes in radically different ways; who is to say one method is superior to another?  However charrettes clearly exhibit a shared and concise intention: bring all stakeholders and professionals with any input on a given topic together at a table to get shit done.  Charrettes are no nonsense.

Certainly the intention of charrettes mirrors that of the greater CNU, which reaches out to a multitude of professions and invites them to collaborate in the pursuit of a better built environment.  Therefore the premise, at its roots, mirrors that of the CNU at large.  How this premise translated into a conference setting, addressing a diverse audience requires careful explanation.

Motivation, however, must be universally noted: charrettes succeed as a model because they include within the whole a number of tangible goals in the form of deliverables.  Assembling a table full of stakeholders will result in nothing if a clear direction and product is not understood as an outcome.  All year members debate within the forum of email listserves, but with relatively few time-sensitive or even tangible goals.  The congress, in addition to a goal of education, should strive to gather these minds to focus upon and propose solutions to the problems, at many scales, facing the world today.  This is the idea of the initiatives, but we must admit than many stagnate or could simply be better served with the time their proprietors have with each other and like-minded, and often influential, individuals.

To further define the scope of participant and scope of presence, it must be understood that the member base and attendee base of the CNU congress is not singular.  Congresses have to deal with newcomers, young professionals, experienced and established professionals from many fields, founders and early adopters, developers, municipal officials, non-profit group representatives from across disciplines, and many officials from governmental entities.  There is no one format to suit all attendees, and therefore a multitude of stimulating environments best serves the whole.

The Model

With many charrette styles, the model may be a point of contention.  The mother of all charrettes, however, clearly performs perfectly: the Mississippi Renewal Forum.  At its height of activity, the forum performed spectacularly with over 200 people in 18 teams as well as a large contingency of roamers.  The charrette, run by the CNU and including many of the contributing professionals of the CNU member base, covered topics from social integration, coding, transportation, recovery architecture, regional planning, environmental issues, and urban planning for a variety of different cities, towns, and villages, all in a single room venue.  The proposed model simply accelerates many of the aspects of the forum and organizes them to deal with all of the topics handled at a typical congress.

The spatial and functional distribution of the forum is similar to the model being proposed, and must be understood in detail.  At the center of the forum ballroom, a clear path ran the length of the space.  To either side of this spine, teams addressing specific topics or sites had full working environments.  Along the spine, just before the working spaces, teams would pin-up their current work.  Many attendees were government officials or volunteers unfamiliar with the process but interested in being involved.  The pin-up space allowed these people access to all of the current ideas being generated and allowed teams to collaborate with each other.  Drawings and documents on the pin-up boards oriented viewers who, if interested, would enter the working space and engage one or more of the designers.

For those working, ample opportunity was available for individuals to roam around other teams’ products and engage colleagues in discussion and analysis.  While they were roaming, production at their stations would continue.  Throughout the day, ideas of each group would be presented from station to station for those who were interested and at such a volume that those working could hear.  Individuals who did roam from station to station acted like bees, pollinating as they touched each project with the ideas of other groups and those of their own.  In addition to this wealth of information sharing, if one group encountered a problem they needed to be solved by someone elsewhere in the room, they spared no time in searching them out and including all of the necessary stakeholders in conversation.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum model holds many lessons, many of which have been summarized here, that form the underlying basis for the model being proposed.  In addition to the physical products and density of information and information sharing produced, the role of media in the event poses and additional opportunity.  At the forum, a whole media outfit focused upon communicating to the public many of the ideas being discussed and proposed in real-time through numerous media formats.  Without concrete goals in mind, communication would have been impossible.  In the context of a congress, reporting may take place, but it is rarely able to reach a diverse audience.  By following a charrette model, with adequate goals and deliverables, communications are able to find many spins and markets.

Congress Program

Congresses have become devastatingly complex and over-scheduled.  Denver, for instance, hosted over 70 sessions, excluding the 101 and 202 sessions on Thursday and some sessions on Wednesday.  This resulted in, as has been common as well in the past, a confusion regarding which sessions to attend.  Often there are conflicts in personal time scheduling when two interesting topics are presented simultaneously.  This is not the fault of topic time-slot allocation, but rather it comes down to overcrowding.

Within the congress program, each session falls into one of 6 general categories.  I analyzed all of the sessions from the past congress in a spreadsheet and categorized them by topic (analysis following this article): coding, affordable housing, development, transportation, environment, and urban planning.  Some topics overlap, which should be expected, and there were a few outlying topics as well.  When further analyzing the session distribution, it is clear that many topics repeat themselves; perhaps due to necessity in over scheduling, and those people presenting two aspects of one topic are often not in the room together—very much unlike a charrette.

In addition to overlapping topics, the number of sessions and presenters packed into the schedule eliminates any possibility of productive question and answer sessions.  Speakers barely have time to cover their topics, and those participants who wish to learn more are left without an option.  One session that I attended this year broke that mold by quickly covering the topic basics and assembling into circular discussion, much like open space, to work towards a productive goal.  Most others, however, consistently exceeded their time slots, barely allowing more than two follow-up questions.  Clearly programming reform must tackle over-scheduling as well as attendee participation.


Addressing a proposal for a new congress model requires an explanation of the minutia of a given day at the conference.  Rather than begin with a diagram of the space, as most architects and planners would, we will walk through a typical day.

• 9am – 10:15am  Pecha-Kucha  re:This Morning

12 presenters comprise the hour-long morning session.  Each presenter is allowed 20 slides, which are set to automatically change every 20 seconds.  Within the session duration this allows for 12 presenters or 2 per topic.  These presenters are among the Team Leaders within each general topic.  They will take this time to inform the audience of the topics they wish to sponsor in discussion through the day and the goal they have for their discussions.  Goals are formatted as deliverables, meaning that leaders must focus later discussions based upon the premise presented and produce tangible results.

• 10:45 – 1:00pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Attendees move from the grand ballroom through the central open space and into either a topic room, six in total, one of two lectures, or participate in an open space session.  The convention space directs attendees through the central commons between all tasks.  The commons is a large open space where information is posted, food and coffee is served, and discussions, impromptu and organized, take place.


Each topic room is outfitted with pin-up boards, a central table to which chairs are oriented, and one projection screen.  Topics are headed each day by a different group of team leaders, of whom there are at least two per day.  Multiple team leaders are necessary so one is always present and the other one or two has the opportunity to attend other sessions to learn, share ideas, or to break off into other related or unrelated discussion groups.  The leader moderates the discussion and may also present topics or ideas for discussion.

Pin-up boards within the rooms are to be filled with graphics of ideas for discussion, examples, or in-progress work.  Much of this information currently makes up the slide presentations within concurrent presentations, which, once all pinned up next to each other, can be discussed in a comprehensive manner.  The attendees are welcome to participate in the discussion openly, or may begin sub-discussions within the room or just outside in the commons and open space sessions.

Team leaders have set forth goals to direct discussions, and they are to moderate towards those goals or modify their goals to better align with the changing conversation.  Attendees are encouraged to ask questions and participate, to change topic venues as they see fit, and to start their own discussions in the open space between rooms.  Notes and outcomes of conversations are posted on boards outside of each topic room within the open space area.

The Commons and Open Space:

The commons occurs in the central area of the conference, what would be called the 100% corner in urban planning.  This is the area where all action occurs because the layout of the topic rooms, lectures, bookstore and trade show, and food and bar require people to traverse this area between events.  Consider this the central plaza, the market square.  In past congresses, this has been perhaps the most productive area yet has not been capitalized upon.  In this proposal two important elements insert creativity into this space: open space sessions and pin-up boards from each topic room.

Typically the congress commons occurs haphazardly in the largest open areas most directly adjacent to the largest lecture halls.  Here attendees run into colleagues and friends, and make important network connections through the vast web that is the social structure of the congress.  This past year, the bookstore location inhibited this interaction, which a few people communicated to me when discussing reform.

To take advantage of the commons, as it naturally occurs, the conference must spatially orient to encourage interaction and program it with ideas, information, and spaces designed for group discussion.  Pin-up boards, outside of the topic rooms track ideas, proposals, images, and other media being discussed or produced in the topic rooms.  This is the influx of ideas and information.

At the center, open space occurs in areas demarcated simply by a circle of approximately 20 chairs and a small sign-post.  The allocation of discussion topics occurs as it does typically, in which people simply write a topic of interest, pick a time slot and location, and pin-up it up on the open space calendar.  The calendar, as we learned in Denver, must be central in the commons.  At each open space the discussion topic is posted on a sign-post for the duration of that topic.  The timing of the resulting discussions is designed to begin new sessions during the lecture interim period when the most people are in the room.  This allows discussion participants to reach out to their social network in order to include them in conversations.


Concurrent with topic discussions, two lecture spaces operate with selected presenters and topics.  These lectures are given the proper time necessary to devote to each topic as well as ample time for questions and discussion.  Many of the compressed sessions in typical conferences are covered in topic rooms and should be pre-empted in the morning Pecha-Kucha.  Lectures are therefore highly selective and in-depth.  Within this time period, up to 4 lectures may take place between the two lecture spaces, which provides ample time to each lecturer, questions for attendees, and a highly refined selection of topics.

• 1:00 – 2:30pm Lunch

Long lunch breaks foster discussion among peers in relaxed environments.  Scheduling of short lunches simply invites atrophy of attendance in the sessions following.  Suggestions for dining locations should be publicized and topic groups may plan for specific locations, encouraging more personal, small-scale discussion.  As with each part of the conference, no one session or meal or discussion group is mandatory, however each is open to new perspectives.  NextGen’s attractiveness is a state of mind, which is open and non-judgmental.  This lesson needs to propagate throughout the congress schedule and discussions.

• 2:30 – 3:30pm Pecha Kucha re:This Afternoon

The conference gathers once again for a quick-fire session describing what has been discussed through the morning per topic and what the goals are for afternoon discussions / workshops.  Here team leaders describe progress, and hopefully also communicate the ways in which their intended topic path has deviated due to the mornings’ discussions.  This serves as essentially a group pin-up session and teaser for follow-up discussions.

• 3:45 – 5:30pm Concurrent Topics and Lectures

Afternoon topic sessions and lectures proceed in the same manner as morning sessions and lectures.  The topic rooms may be more serious as team leaders attempt to fulfill their goals for the day.  If topics of daily discussion require more time, they can move into open space the following day or synthesize with the next day’s discussions.

  • 5:45 – 7:30pm Keynote

Each night a true keynote presentation wraps up the days’ events.  Lecturers from outside of the CNU are invited — influential people who should be brought into the general discussion.  Gladwell, Florida, and Pollan are three examples of outsiders who should be engaged in our conversations.  There are countless others who can serve to highlight the two or three days of focused lectures that are hosted, each of which should allow for plenty of discussion.  Currently attendance at plenary sessions has been dwindling.  I attribute this to a lack of interest in the topics being presented and often in the presenters being featured.  We need to hear new viewpoint that may be controversial.


Continuing Education:

In my opinion, the lowest on the totem is the attendee simply interested in CE hours.  Of course this is a necessity to be fulfilled, though nothing that I would consider as a contribution beyond that of financing.  Each of the concurrent lecture rooms is programmed to provide CE credits for each session.  Those wishing to fulfill CE requirements have a choice of two concurrent lectures during 4 slots on a given day.

Passive Participants:

Many attendees, due to their given nature or intimidation by the level of discourse, wish to listen, take notes, and learn.  I believe this model will serve this group very well.  Each of the concurrent lecture sessions will allow for an in depth study of a given topic and ample time for discussion to follow.  Additionally each topic room will host both high level discussion and a large enough constituency of mid level participants to allow for stimulating interaction.  Viewing the work and theories of leading practitioners pinned up around the room and listening to productive discussions are perhaps some of the best tools for learning.

Lecturer Equals Attendee:

The role of lecture assignments often allows presenters to attend a congress on their company’s dime.  To accommodate this group, we ask them to be team leaders, and to present during the Pecha Kucha sessions in the morning and afternoon.  They perform the task of presenting, however they also give back to the congress through increased participation.  Knowing the nature of many of these lecturers, they simply wish to present engaging ideas and incite conversation, and attendance is often simply a perk.  This forum benefits the presenter, presenter’s firm, and the congress as a whole.  Each presenter / team leader has a greater presence as they are organizer and authority for a much longer period, tasked to collaborate and achieve goals, and gain insight and experience from fellow leaders and attendees.

The Uninitiated:

Communicating the desire of openness in conversation and welcoming new voices eases the integration of new and young members.  Additionally, by allowing people the freedom to peruse pinned up material at their own pace, encouraging them to ask questions if not to a whole group, then to peers on a smaller scale, and providing small discussion groups in open space, new and young members feel welcomed and able to voice their ideas and ask the questions they may be embarrassed to during large lectures.

The Old Guard:

They have accrued a mass of knowledge on all of the main subjects in discussion and can contribute valuably.  Two formats allow differing old guard personalities to flourish: the long lecture format with discussion and the smaller topic based group discussions.  Concurrent and continuous subject matter allows this group to float, choosing those topics that interest them, or pollinating each discussion.  They also are provided with the forum of full lectures with productive question and answer sessions and the ability to attend other full lectures and participate extensively.

The Middle Ground:

For all other members, considered here as the middle ground, the opportunities in discussion, team leading, and production are substantial.  By conducting the congress at more intimate scales, new connections may be more easily initiated.  Break-offs from main groups is welcomed for tackling sub-issues or in pursuing new issues altogether.  A leveled playing field of discussion greatly increases the opportunities any individual may have for contribution and recognition.


The Model:

Over two days I sketched and refined a symbolic model configuration for this type of congress set-up.  Though diagrammatic, these points are incredibly important: foot traffic must be contained, directed, and funneled through a central, wide corridor; locate anchors on either ends of the central corridor, preferably along two axes; the central space must be ample enough to handle the foot traffic, pin-up space, and impromptu and scheduled discussions.

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Rough sketch of the CNU proposed layout

Application in Atlanta:

To further develop this idea, I took the conference center configuration in the Atlanta Hilton and tested the functionality.  Though the layout doesn’t lend itself to a perfect diagram, it may function appropriately and led to the realization that we still must provide at a minimum one large lecture and keynote space, which may be programmed as the principal lecture hall.  A hall such as this helps to balance the rest of the program and reduce the required size of the remaining group spaces.  The result of the topic rooms, open space, and small conference room are illustrated below.  The trade show, bookstore, and main lecture space have not been modeled, however they have been included within the program space.

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

Overview of the part of the proposed layout for Atlanta

This overview shows the commons and open space at the center with topic rooms to the sides and the small lecture hall in the background.  In the space not illustrated just below this image

Illustration of a typical open space session

Illustration of a typical open space session

Open space groups are comprised of a small set of individuals who are interested in discussing the topic proposed and posted.  Those not interested or who lose interest are encouraged to move to another discussion, topic room, or lecture space.

Typical discussion room layout

Typical discussion room layout

Discussion rooms are the heart of the productive conference.  Ample space should be provided to pin-up discussion materials and for people to work as a large group or to break into sub-groups within the space.  The large table space may remain as such or be spread into smaller working groups as part of the whole.

Small lecture room

Small lecture room

The typical lecture hall remains as an important element within the congress.  Its programming is taken extremely seriously.  Each session intends to draw a diverse audience and cover topics in depth.


The premise of this article is to question the way that CNU congresses are currently run and organized in light of the diverse needs of the congress membership.  This particular proposal has been worked out in detail, beyond what can be described here.  Open space comments regarding this idea can be found on the CNU website.  Debate and proposals are welcome. I only ask that you push aside shock and prejudice to evaluate this idea and its motivations.

1 For those unfamiliar with Open Space sessions I’ll briefly describe them:  Open Space begins by allowing everyone present to propose discussion topic.  Topics are introduced and then compared for conflict or similarity with other proposed sessions.  The resulting discussions are scheduled in time slots throught a day.  Each discussion takes place as a small group, typically between 5 and 15 people, where a moderator keeps the topic flowing and ensures that all participants have the opportunity to contribute.


Matthew Lambert is Director of Technology and a Project Manager at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.  He is also an editor of Living Urbanism.

A Living Urbanism by Steve Mouzon by russellpreston

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“Living Urbanism” seems at first glance to be an oxymoron. Urbanism is composed primarily of things that are not alive, like bricks and stone. Other than trees lining the streets, what aspect of urbanism is alive? But if “life” includes things without flesh, bone, fur, or feather that can nonetheless take on a life of their own, independent of that which created them, then the term “Living Urbanism” has meaning. Several things are required in order that something might be considered to be alive.

Characteristics of Life


No form of life is completely self-serving. Rather, each species is useful in some way to some of the other species of its ecosystem.


Every species has a recognizable physical form. There is great variety amongst individual organisms of the species, but only within a very narrow range. This combination of great variety within a narrow range is a characteristic of all life.


The entire creature is alive, other than certain protective structures such as nails and shells.


Each creature carries a genetic code that describes the design of the species.


Through a process of cell sub-division, creatures grow by making more cells. At each stage of growth, the specimen is whole and complete.


Every form of life has the ability to replicate without the involvement of any ancestral specimens that are replicating. Ancestors may die and be forgotten, but still, the current specimens can replicate, spreading the genetic material of the species.


Disease can come, in general, from two sources: It can originate from outside the creature: in this case, a foreign life form which works against the purpose of the organism enters the organism and reproduces. Or it can originate from within: in this case, the cells within begin to work against the purpose of the organism. Often, they reproduce wildly as cancerous growths, spreading across the organism, eventually killing it.


Death occurs at three levels: Cells of a creature live for a short period of time and then die, giving place to new cells during the life of the creature. The death of the cells is a natural and healthy part of the life of the creature because it allows the creature to renew itself, lengthening its life. Individual specimens within a species live for an intermediate period of time and then die, giving place to their descendants. The death of individual specimens is a natural and healthy part of the life of the species because it allows the species to strengthen itself. Species exist for a long period of time, but eventually go extinct. The extinction of species can also be a natural and healthy process when it is due to naturally-occurring reasons, because the extinction of one species might make room in an ecosystem for the ascent of a more advanced species.
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Characteristics of a Living Urbanism

Urbanism is analogous to life in many ways. That is to say, a city is not a living creature, a city is like a living creature in useful ways. Types of settlements are similar to distinct species. A farming hamlet, for example, is far different from a metropolitan borough on many counts. They have far different habitats, food sources, life cycles, metabolic rates, waste materials, and appearances. So if types of settlements are like distinct species, then a particular city, town, village, or hamlet is like a single creature, and individual buildings within the city, town, village, or hamlet is like individual cells within the creature.

The idea that settlement types are like species was first proposed by Christina Miller; many characteristics of her model are incorporated here. A living urbanism exhibits all of the characteristics of biological life listed below:


Each type of settlement has its purpose. The purpose is often communicated explicitly: Farming Hamlet, Fishing Village, Market Town, etc.

Each individual settlement must also have a purpose if it is to be considered living urbanism. That purpose must include all of the functions of daily life if the settlement is to be considered a living thing. If people can’t live in a settlement without leaving for the necessities of life, it’s not a living place. Suburbia is comprised primarily of warehouses for sleeping humans and cannot be considered a living thing because you can’t live there; you can only sleep (and do a few other related activities) there. A liver or a spleen cannot live on its own, nor can suburbia.

Individual buildings also have their purposes, and therefore their types. But just as most cells in a body have multiple functions, the best buildings are those which have many possible uses. There are very few cells in a healthy body that have only a single function. An entire body composed of single-purpose cells could not remain alive for very long, if it could live at all. And a city composed only of single-purpose buildings is not living urbanism, nor is it sustainable.


Every type of settlement has a particular form. A River Port City, for example, snakes along both sides of a river, with one side built more intensely than the other. A Market Town has its heart at an intersection where two or more roads meet. The form of each settlement type begins with the thing that feeds it (the river, the ocean, the roads, the mines, etc.) But settlements are species that can undergo metamorphosis. Hamlets and villages usually have a single initial purpose, as do towns. But as they metamorphosize into cities and metropolises, they take on more and more purposes until they no longer reflect their primary purpose. For example, New York began as a Port Town, but that purpose is now only one of many, and so its form is now more complex than before the city’s most recent metamorphosis.


A living urbanism is produced by a culture at large, not just by a few specialists. If the citizens are not participating in the building of their town to a significant degree, then the settlement that is being created is not alive. Urbanism may be created either through a living process or through a mechanical process. The mechanical process for creating urbanism focuses on the specialties of the specialists that make the system. The New Urbanism admires and aspires to the old places, of living urbanism, but nearly all New Urbanist developments are still built by a mechanism comprised primarily of specialists. We cannot yet claim, therefore, that New Urbanism contains the pervasiveness of life found in a truly living urbanism.


Each type of settlement, each type of Transect zone, and each type of building in a living urbanism springs from a genetic code that contains the essential character of the settlement type, Transect zone, or building. But today, our codes are not helping to create living urbanism because they are based on the mechanical model rather than the model of life. For evidence, consider this: today, there are only a handful of planners alive that can plan a medieval (organic) town to a competent level. Yet in the medieval era, the townspeople built their towns.

Often, these townspeople were illiterate, and they certainly did not draw. So how were they able to build places so great that even the best planners alive today cannot exceed them and seldom even match them? How were they able to transmit the wisdom to the next generation? This transmission device remained a mystery for many years. Some assumed that is was some sort of mystical force that post-industrial people could not understand. Now, however, some believe that the transmission device has been rediscovered, and that it is something very simple, based on the purpose of each pattern: “We do this because…”

Because there is a purpose and a form for each type, and because the culture at large must be part of the process of creating a living urbanism, the code must be simple so that it is easily communicated and easily understood. Each pattern in the code of a settlement type, Transect zone type, or building type should be framed as “We do this because…” “We” signifies that this is a place “we” are building, not a place “they” are building. “Do” signifies that the code is not just theoretical, but that it requires action. “This” signifies the particularity; the code is not just some vague collection of good intentions. “Because” signifies that each pattern has a purpose. If every pattern of every code is framed in this manner, with the plain-spoken rule of thumb of the pattern connected to the reason for the pattern with “We do this because…” then this activates everyone in the culture, and everyone is allowed to think again. Until very recently, this aspect has been missing from nearly all codes, or has been only tenuously attached by a separate commentary document.


A living urbanism grows through a natural process that approximates cell division. Low-Transect-Zone lots are subdivided to make Higher-Transect-Zone lots. This method of growth drove human settlements until about a century ago, having entirely disappeared in new developments. One of the many benefits of the former method is that a settlement is complete at all times, just as an organism is complete at all stages of growth. You don’t see children walking around with one arm until a certain age, nor are they missing fingers or toes as infants. Living urbanism begins with a community of farmsteads. Each farmstead is complete, as is the sub-urban neighborhood block that it is divided into, as are the general urban lots that are further subdivided from the sub-urban lots, as are the Main Street lots that those are further subdivided and densified. This is a quick description of the Sky Method, which has only recently been proposed to approximate the old methods of growth of a living urbanism. This may sound like an entirely foreign concept to anyone steeped in modern development methods, but look back at a series of maps about a century apart showing the growth of an old city. You will see that this was the normal method of growth of living urbanism. So it is our recent system of development that is the foreign interloper instead.

The way we build today attempts to jump straight to final completion of a town by anticipating its climax condition, including that work of new urbanist firms. Until an entire town is complete, it looks like a stage-set. The corollary of a development in its early stages would be a creature missing most of its limbs, muscles, and organs. The only thing it would have in full supply is its bones, because the municipalities insist that the entire infrastructure for a phase be complete before lots can be sold. A skeleton with only a few pieces of tissue attached obviously could not be alive. Nor would you make it alive by continuing to add tissue here and there.

Lest there be any doubt about this poor creature’s inability to live, we have devised the Homeowner’s Association, which is Urbanism’s Chloroform. Because we are terrified of uncertainty, we want to make sure that the climax condition the planners tried to create at the beginning is perpetuated forever, so we immerse the entire place in Urbanism’s Chloroform, ensuring that it never has any chance of taking on life by unknown means in the future. By making change impractical, we make growth impossible. With no chance of growth, there can be no life. So the best that the New Urbanism can do under these conditions is to create portraits of living places, but these portraits are no more alive than any canvas on the wall.


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Our system of higher education is the best structure that exists today for spreading wisdom. This structure requires students to spend years in classes, working through countless problems, showing their work and eventually earning a degree. But it is a terribly inefficient structure, as can easily be determined by looking at the proportion of PhDs in a particular population to the total population.

Nature has a better way. Consider humans: each one contains the most complicated code ever contemplated, the human genome. Yet this incredibly complicated genetic material is replicated hundreds of thousands of times every single day, and almost always by humans with no formal training and nothing more than experience learned through observation. Human replication begins when two humans consider each other to be attractive. If the attraction is strong enough, they mate, they breed (not necessarily in that order,) and the genetic material is passed on.

Living urbanism was once built by a very similar process that has now been lost: the Living Tradition. Every tradition begins as a great idea by a single person about how to build something better. If the pattern efficiently achieves its purpose and resonates with their neighbors, it is replicated, and therefore becomes a local pattern. Later, when the local pattern has existed long enough that other people in the region have seen it, they may say “We love this pattern; we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” Most architects today equate tradition to history, but a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil; they may both have a similar shape, but one is alive while the other is dead.

So living traditions work because people resonate with, or find beauty in, a particular pattern. Just as nature’s system works because one person resonates with, or finds beauty in, another. But just as people breeding have no need of any detailed knowledge of genetics, people who are replicating a beloved detail have no need of the detailed calculations of the person who first designed the detail. A living tradition embeds wisdom in beauty, just as nature does. So the people only need to know the general “we do this because…”, not the specific details the originator had to work out.

Disease & Death

Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Patterns designed by specialists rather than generalists should be considered highly suspect as potential disease agents. Thoroughfares designed by traffic engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution with a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the urbanism. So almost everywhere such patterns are inflicted by the specialists — beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s — they cause disease in the living urbanism.

The rapid, cancerous growth of the very fabric of urbanism is sprawl. Bloated, super-sized cells replicate rapidly, sucking up the resources of the living urbanism until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies.

Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion, and we watched it happen. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.

What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. As a matter of fact, so long as it is understood that buildings are as much a part of urbanism as cells are of a body, it’s not too great a stretch to say that sustainability is a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked; you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism.

And so, we must revive living traditions, because they are the operating systems of living urbanism. Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.

But there is an even worse way to fail. Modernism has at its core the precept that if you are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must re-awaken them now!

The 2.0 Revolution: How new technology is driving a radical shift in the building industry. By Andrew Malone by russellpreston

long_tail_graphThere has been a lot of talk over the past couple of years regarding the interactivity of web 2.0 technology and how it is profoundly changing the way we think about life and business.  Applying this to the New Urbanist movement poses some interesting questions.  To me, the 1.0 way to look at the New Urbanism is “How do we avoid building more sprawl, and start building vibrant urban neighborhoods?”  I believe the 2.0 version of this question flips the problem statement on its head, “How do we identify vibrant communities and build neighborhoods for them?”

In other words, how do we empower people to live where and how they want to, within the confines of a sustainable economic reality?  This is not new.  The Transect embraces the idea that there is a place in the built environment for everyone.  Indeed, the next step for savvy builders may be to profile a given community’s preference for each T-zone and build to meet the expected, but unmet demand.

The future of real estate is in The Long Tail, which is the concept that many small markets are often more valuable than a handful of large ones.  The legacy of the information age may well be in granting people the power to organize themselves based on interest, not geography, and the real estate developer of the future will need to recognize that these interest groups offer pre-built markets begging to be served.  Each one may be small, but the whole spread is significant if that spread can be funneled into what we consider to be a single product – the diverse neighborhood.  This leads to a new set of questions: What if any individual could participate in the decisions that create place?  Presume the city is always in a perpetual state of change.  Constant planning already occurs; but how can we improve this sometimes ugly, political process?  Imagine a continuous online charette for new and existing blocks and buildings, bringing a disparate group of people together to design and build a place that represents this diversity.  Is this vision to find, funnel and serve the long tail at one source even possible given the complex nature of the product?

What might it look like?  Who gets the final say on design?  Can residents give an existing neighborhood a new identity using the power of the internet?  If I can select the people I spend time with online, why can’t I select them for the physical environment; ethnic groups do it, but how about kayakers, trapeze artists, businessmen, bicyclists, or the myriad of other interest groups?

I’ve been working as a project manager on construction projects for the past six years and worked as a general laborer while completing my mechanical engineering degree.  As a contractor you’re placed in the center of the design and development process and are frequently called upon to make suggestions that have wide reaching impacts on the project for all parties involved.  This has given me an exceptional opportunity to observe the building industry from the implementer’s perspective.  At this moment, I believe there are four “tectonic shifts” altering the building industry as a business environment.  Each area promises enormous payoffs, but will not realize its full potential until they are properly unified into one complete business model.  They are:

  • Information systems
  • Building Information Modeling (BIM)
  • Green building & sustainable efficiency
  • Crowdsourcing

1) Information Systems

Much of the project management process could be simply and easily improved by using more intelligently conceived documentation software.  This “smart” documentation software should help track contract costs, change orders, RFI’s, approvals and submittals seamlessly.  Too often, these systems work as stand alone programs separate from your AutoCAD plans and shop drawings, MS Outlook email inbox and MS Excel based tracking sheets.  While working for URS Corp at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), I was blessed with the opportunity to use a state of the art program/project management system coordinated by Kristine Fallon Associates.  The CTA’s system was completely integrated with all processes and every document that passed through their office was scanned and available on their servers.  The centerpiece of the system was a customized version of Citadon’s ProjectNet software. I didn’t realize what a gem they had created until I joined Bovis Lend Lease in NYC and began using another uninspiring software system. One thing the URS/CTA team understood well is that this change must be led from the top. The CTA used its $5.1 billion charter to force its general contractors and subcontractors to make the necessary changes in each of their organizations.

Kristine Fallon Associates (KFA) is a Chicago based consulting company specializing in online collaboration for the technical professions.  They served as a consultant to the CTA and helped to put the CTA’s information systems in place.  More information on the project can be found in the whitepaper published on KFA’s website, but a few of the concluding points are telling of the problems with implementing new changes to the construction industry:

  • For many parties within a construction project, productivity is not a clearly defined concept. To put it bluntly, if one is being paid by the hour, reducing the number of hours required to get the job done is not an attractive proposition – unless there are balancing considerations, such as competitive pressures. Only the owner is clearly motivated to do more with less. And only a fraction of Web-based project-management systems are bought by owners.
  • Most Web-based project-management vendors underestimate the extent of computer-illiteracy in the construction community, and thus underestimate the amount of training required for successful project implementation.
  • Construction projects are not highly disciplined affairs. Unless the use of a new tool can be tied to payment, subcontractors will tend to do things “the old familiar way,” despite any benefits they might gain from the new tool.

Probably the most important point here is the first one. Best practices, including new technological solutions in construction management can only come with the support of owners, because they are most incentivized to realize the gains.

2) BIM

Building Information Modeling is possibly the most revolutionary technology in the history of design and real estate project finance. It is still a technological toddler, but the first developers, investment groups or architects to properly use it will reap huge rewards.

The principle is simple. Instead of creating a voluminous set of drawings and construction specifications, a precise computer model is created for the building or renovation. Ideally the software will generate the construction documents, error and omission free.  In reality, contractors will probably be better served by learning to build directly from the model rather than rely on paper drawings.

Because the model has every component that the physical construction will have, it should be easy for the software to count quantities and compare them to online directories of cost data. This gives owners, investors and architects the ability to price proposed changes in real time. It also has the potential to calculate schedule changes, zoning or code compliance and several other major hiccups common in the building process due to proposed changes.

AutoCAD Revit software is a popular choice, but Google Sketch-Up and the simulation software from Second Life offer less technical modeling capabilities that could be used by amateurs to interface with a base model. Some examples of successful projects using the technology can be found in the TAP BIM Archives on the AIA’s website.

Using BIM, will open developers and investors up to a much more flexible design environment. While working for Bovis Lend Lease (BLL) on several of Extell Development’s projects, I realized that one of the things Extell does very well is work hard to please its clients (the condo buyer) through customization. Extell is on the cutting edge in NYC of customizable new construction. While at BLL, I oversaw several major unit combinations, partition modifications and finish changes, and every single one of them was a construction coordination nightmare. Unfortunately, the cost of modifications to a building as it is being built is astronomical primarily because the design is static. The construction documents have to be manually adjusted with each change, and when something is inevitably missed, it costs the builder and the owner money. Until BIM, there was no way a design team could effectively find every drawing and specification that each change affects and make the required notations in the middle of the project cycle. That is all starting to change.

The potential value of predictability to investors, developers and buyers is enormous. Soon homes, apartments and offices will be as easy to customize as tennis shoes, and the developer most capable of doing it will reap serious financial rewards.

3) Crowdsourcing/Crowdfunding

Crowdsourcing is a popular topic at the moment. I believe that it has and will continue to fundamentally alter the business environment. The goal of crowdsourcing is to leverage mass collaboration enabled by Web 2.0 technology to achieve business goals. It is commonly used to compile building data, provide tech-support, solve complicated research problems, or create t-shirts that sell out every batch.

The opportunities in real estate are endless. Several ideas are to adapt the technology to improve building management services, revolutionize the design process, alter the property search/acquisitions process (already in progress at,,, etc.), and to identify specific demand for a product type before investing in it.  This real-time marketing effect could be a way for New Urbanists to prove demand and hopefully secure better financing terms than with the conventional economic market study.

In fact, the traditional financing model may be completely altered with the introduction of “crowdfunding.” The concept is to use small deposits from a large number of potential end users and cause-motivated investors before a design is even started.  The funds would be used to purchase and construct projects in a much more fine-grained, sensible manner than the large funds currently building cities with limited and unidentifiable character. As I see it, large investment funds will continue building the raw spaces and crowdfunded smaller projects will occupy them or create infill spaces with the character and diversity typical of the best old cities.

4) Sustainable Efficiency (Green Technology Old & New)

There are several new city plans including PLANYC 2030 plan and the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan that extensively reference a city with intelligently designed transit, water, electrical, communications and other building infrastructure. They also heavily emphasize sustainability goals. I believe the concepts behind these plans will become increasingly relevant to our cities of the future as traditional energy sources become scarce.  Conservation of resources is not just important environmentally, it is fiscally intelligent as well. The enthusiasm for green technology will continue to drive improvements in the real estate products that can be provided, and while conferences like GREENbuild may not reach the deeper sustainability movement, they do serve to educate the masses.


and other rating organizations like it (BREEAM



, GreenGlobes, etc.) are achieving meaningful results through the use of standards which (for better or worse) are increasingly becoming law across the globe. International real estate investors and consultants need to understand the principles and goals behind these systems as they become increasingly popular in the marketplace and in regulation.

The more fundamental solution to our environmental problems comes from a historical understanding of transportation, planning and architecture. Before the US and British industrial revolutions, all forms of energy were expensive. There are thousands of years of building tradition in cities from all types of local climates around the world.  The buildings constructed using these ancient techniques perform admirably as human shelter without the use of electricity or fossil fuel.  These traditions incorporate the best practices from generations of master builders and end users. Modern technological solutions designed to maintain a comfortable indoor environment make financial sense in the current economy, but may not always be so cost effective.  We should be doing as much as possible to combine new passive green technology with well designed traditional methods.  Our reliance on mechanical ventilation, unnatural lighting and “maintenance free” materials that can not be repaired must be curbed if we are to create places that can be used for generations.

This leads to a concept called the Original Green, which discusses the more fundamental issues I’m referring to. As architect and author Steve Mouzon states, “If a building cannot be loved, it will not last. And its carbon footprint is absolutely meaningless once its parts have been hauled off to the landfill.” In a nutshell he argues the following:

1.     We must first build sustainable places before it is meaningful to even discuss sustainable buildings.

2.     Sustainable places should be nourishing, accessible, serviceable, and secure.

3.     Sustainable buildings should be lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal.

These tenants encompass the entire green movement and are the universal principals PLANYC and Abu Dhabi 2030 claim to be based on. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) works to create compact, walkable and diverse places that are inherently sustainable and enjoyable to live in. The Original Green concepts derive from many of the principles discovered by the CNU.

Predicting the Future

As New Urbanists, we should be asking ourselves first “what is our mission?”  Now that the principles of good urbanism have been largely rediscovered, where do we fit in as thought leaders?  The CNU can no longer afford to operate at the small scale it has been working at for so many years.  It’s time to take it to the masses.  The only way to do this quickly will be by embracing the technological solutions I’ve discussed above.  I’m describing a world where the end user becomes the designer.

Will they be educated enough to help design quality urban spaces?  Is there an architect within our network who can tell an owner exactly what a building will cost before it’s built?  How many architects or general contractors do we work with that can organize and share all of the data involved in constructing a building so that it produces a change-order free construction process?

Is there a developer who has already discovered and consulted his target market to pre-sell the building to a crowd of people with similar interests and taste before taking out a loan?  Can that developer also put a new commercial tenant in the building with confidence that they will grow and prosper?

Does the developer even need a loan in this scenario or can he use the money of the end users?   We are at the edge of a massive building industry revolution!  None of these concepts are more than five to ten years away.  Let’s assume the CNU’s actual mission is to “empower people to live where and how they want to?”

How are we doing?


Andrew Malone is a construction project manager based out of New York City.  He currently works for Conelle Construction Corp. completing renovation projects throughout Manhattan.  Follow him at, at or email him at amalone [at] asgarddev [dot] com.

If you would like to participate in discussions on the ideas presented in this paper, please join the “Real Estate 2.0” facebook group, sponsored by Andrew.

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