Archive for February, 2009

What does urban density look like? When we hear the “D” word, our first thoughts are often of high-rises and sunless streets. But in point of fact, density’s appearance might surprise you.

Mumbai is the most densely populated city in the world. Its 14,350,000 inhabitants are packed into 484 square kilometers. This works out to 120 people per acre.

But check this out. The Manhattan zip code of 10012, which is Greenwich Village, weighs in at more than 120 people per acre. It looks like this:


There are a few tall buildings, mostly associated with NYU, and some tall apartment buildings, but the great majority of the neighborhood looks like this:


Photo from flickr.

The Upper East Side in Manhattan weighs in at 138 people per acre, way more than Mumbai, and while it too has high rises, most of that neighborhood looks like this:


Photo from flickr.

The North End, in Boston, comes in at just a hair under 100 people per acre, 98 to be exact, and it looks like this:


Photo from Panoramio.

Interestingly, each of these neighborhoods is extremely diverse, highly walkable, filled with all one might need to thrive within a stroll. Not a long trek – a stroll.

Just as a frame of reference, Mumbai looks like this:


Density is about access to a rich array of goods, services, opportunities for social interaction, and the ability to lead carless and local lives. And maybe it’s not that hard to imagine.

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I posted a proposal here yesterday that examined a way to make the existing city dense enough, and with a sufficient mixture of uses, to become a possible next city. My ideas have our readers stirred up. So, as usual, I will say more.

As a preface, let me acknowledge that many architects and urbanists are thinking about and drawing what they believe might constitute the city of the future. I look at their images nearly every day, and I think most of their ideas are not very palatable, and not very helpful. Filled with goofy computer-enabled shapes, organized like diagrams of topography, rather than streets and blocks arising from local traditions of community-making, some are actually pretty awful. The architects of the ‘city’ shown here, MAD they call themselves, are located in a city with great urban traditions: Beijing. Which makes their proposal even sadder, or madder.

This one has modern ‘towers in a garden’, ala Corbusier (you know – ala bad public housing, most of which we have thankfully destroyed).


Will we ever stop doing this? And sea anemone buildings too. Tasty.

I think this is what one of my dear friends calls the architecture of the therapeutic – “I am drawing this because I feel like it – I need to express myself.” Who cares, really?


MAD’s proposal for Huaxi City Center, in Guiyang, China.


Another view of MAD’s proposal.

I don’t want to live in a place like this. I want to live in a place where I can remain in touch with my community’s long urban history (like the Hutong, in Beijing – a fabulous and traditional local urban form, rapidly disappearing), rather than a place that looks like a stage set for Wall*E. This place might reach appropriate density, and may contain an appropriate mixture of uses, and may even be sustainable (though I doubt it), but it’s not a city. A physical place, maybe, but not a city. In the end, it’s an intersection in the road with a sextet of towers and some lumpy constructions for troglodytes.

Yesterday I proposed that we build approximately 25′ wide mixed use structures in the rights-of-way of certain streets in our neighborhood,  at heights compatible with the surrounding historic buildings, thus allowing density and types of uses to substantially increase while conserving existing structures and patterns of urbanism. Blocks would remain legible in my proposal, and street patterns legible as well – some even remaining open to limited traffic in what will become a near-carless city. L’Enfant’s plan, his pattern of gridded and diagonal streets and blocks, will certainly be discernible, and even more critical since it will act as an armature for the next layer of Washington urbanism.

At the back of my proposal is a simple assumption, and a simple question. The assumption: the city we need is not the one we inhabit today. The question: can we build a next urbanism upon existing and traditional city patterns? Can we have new and old?

Change we must, but into what?


The city of the future? From Star Wars.

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Our neighborhood, from about 650 feet. We live on the long rectangular block, and it features 57 rowhouses. We live on the south face of the block. It was designed in 1909 by Albert Beers, and was developed by notable DC developer Harry Wardman (he built something like 80,000 units of housing here during his career). In September we are having a party – the building permit for our house is dated September 18, 1909.

There are 57 units on our block. This results in a density of about 25 dwellings per acre. Compare this to the average density of Manhattan – 110 units per acre. Our block is about half again more dense than the DC average, but pretty normal for a rowhouse neighborhood in many older US cities.

I have been puzzling and puzzling about our neighborhood. Let me explain.

First,  for first-time visitors, I will rehash why our cities are obsolete, and describe what they need to become. As I have said endlessly here, I believe that the next city must be characterized by a hefty density increase (something like 3 to 5 times more dense than our existing neighborhood), a rich mixture of uses throughout (live, work, dine, shop, play, grow, read, heal, more), walkability, and new kinds of localized infrastructure for energy and water treatment, among other features. Next urbanism is nodal – clustered around cores of institutions and centers of goods and services – and the nodes are a mile or two in diameter. Nodes are walkable in 20 or 30 minutes.

Transit connects nodes, or urban quarters, and all of the quarters together make a city. Cities have edges, not strip malls and suburbs with densities of 3 or 4 dwellings per acre or less. Auto domination is absent. Agriculture is now close to or in the midst of the city.

Our pattern of living is quite different in the next city. We consume much less, and much of what we consume is generated locally. Most of us work where we live. The next city doesn’t have single-use zones. Car ownership has ceased, and parking is unnecessary. If we need a vehicle, we reserve an electric model, on a car-share basis like the current Zipcar format. Otherwise we bike, or walk.

All of this is a bit like crossing Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City with an ant farm. You get the picture.



Now that we have all of that out of the way, I can return to our neighborhood. The question I have been puzzling over is: how to make our existing place more dense, without tearing anything down. Tearing down is not allowed in the next city – buildings represent embodied energy, and must be conserved (notwithstanding their precious narratives).

So now what? Well – I have been doing some calculations, and I have a crazy idea. See that diagonal street in the Google Earth image? That right-of-way is about 160′ wide. If we retain a driving lane in each direction (no parking, but then parking is not needed), we can get a swath in the middle of the street wide enough (about 26′, excluding sidewalks) to build on.

And what if we closed off the street in front of our house? With vastly reduced traffic, some streets can go away. If we close the street and widen the existing sidewalks a bit, we still end up with a 24′ wide buildable strip.

If we build 3 and 4 story buildings in the streets, with some shops or leasable space at the first floor, and a few plazas punctuating their length, and with housing above, we can easily double or triple the density of the neighborhood. 

Drawings of this crazy idea are under way – I should be able to show you something shortly. And we haven’t even started work on the alleys yet….

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Out and About


Photo by Kelly Hoffart.

We’re traveling again this week, so feel free to sit in the shade and have a look around. Back next week.

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Okay, so you read the last post here, on the idiocy of the functional zoning laws that grip almost all American cities, and you said: “This guy is really with it – Jane Jacobs was saying more or less the same thing almost 50 years ago.”  True. 1961, to be precise.


Urban cyclist Jane Jacobs.

Jacobs called for a close-grained city of diversity in uses, forms, shapes, peoples, economies. She argued for density. She pled for walkability and easy access to all of the resources any community needs to assure a good life for its citizens. She understood cities as critical economic engines. She even warned us, in her last work, that there were dark days ahead for a self destructive and increasingly superficial culture. And here we are.

There is plenty to quibble about in her writings, but she did get it mostly right. Over and over and over.

And still we live and work in cities that are less equipped to sustain us than the city she inhabited 50 years ago. Since then, we’ve built loopy beltways around our cities, giant and now empty shopping malls, horrific public housing, atomized suburbs: at bottom, everything we could do to wreck our cities we have completed. Mission accomplished.


Rochester, NY’s Inner Loop.

Now cities are extremely complex organisms, filled with as many ambitions as souls. And clearly, not all ambitions are good ones. So we realize that some form of legal instrument may be necessary to lead the way to creating richly textured, durable, sustainable communities. Whatever that instrument may be, it is not a zoning ordinance.

In a near perfect example of unintended consequence, we made zoning ordinances to end squalor and disease and overcrowding, and ended up with a gigantic, wasteful, expensive, unusable urban mess.

So what do we replace zoning with? Good question. These days we have endless layers of bureaucracy overseeing the building of our cities. And still our cities don’t work.

From the cheesy and horrific addition one of our neighbors put on their unsuspecting Capitol Hill rowhouse across the alley, to the billions spent on a spaghetti bowl of an interstate interchange just south of the city, and in cities across the nation, zoning is not a tool for sanity in urbanism. Never has been. Look around.

As I have been thinking about life after zoning, I have found myself reflecting on Chicagoan Charles Wacker. In 1909 Wacker was the first Chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, a position he held for 17 years. Wacker was a beer baron, and a member of the Board of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. His charge: build the Burnham and Bennett 1909 Plan of Chicago.


Now Wacker was a pretty smart guy. He realized that building the 1909 Plan would take lots of money – taxpayer’s money. And so he, with the help of Walter Moody, published Wacker’s Manual, so that school children could be educated in urban stewardship, and would thus become willing to support, and pay for, the Plan’s improvements. The book went through many editions, the Plan was widely supported, and much of it was built before the Depression intervened.


Maybe we need a new Wacker’s Manual more than we need zoning. Maybe we need to reteach ourselves, and our children, what our cities could be, and must be, in order to sustain the best life now and in the future.

We could start by simply rereading a little book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by a far-thinking woman named Jane Jacobs. Go to your bookshelf now, pull out your old and well worn copy of this amazing book, and read it again. Aloud if you like. With your neighbors.

Better than reading your local zoning ordinance.

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“Our existing ordinance is rather antique.” Elwood Taylor, former chairman of the Planning Commission, Upper Pottsgrove Township, Pennsylvania.

“There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.” Louis Armstrong.

Most cities have zoning ordinances. Zoning ordinances create zones in cities. Okay so far.

The zones that ordinances create are zones that legally limit allowable uses (residential, commercial, manufacturing, institutional), building sizes (usually maximum building floor area per lot, sometimes heights) building locations (setbacks from streets, side yards, alleys), parking and loading requirements, and a myriad of other kinds of limitations.

Zoning was originally undertaken to promote and protect health and welfare in choking, filthy urban tenements. Ultimately, it became a tool to atomize the city, segregating uses and driving density down. Zoning has wrecked cities and given us drive-by suburbanism: mall here, school there, supermarket a few miles over there, quarter acre lots with lots of lawn, office 30 minutes away in the city center. This, of course, is precisely the kind of idea about cities that we must abandon. Fast. 

Using most contemporary zoning ordinances for most cities, the neighborhood shown here would be illegal.



Too dense, too tall. Too many different uses. Not enough parking. Not enough loading docks. And of course, just what we need in the next city.

These days there are some additional tools that can get us closer to what we need, such as overlay districts, where limitations are customized as overlays of existing zones. Or form based codes, pioneered by the new urbanists, to get buildings to meet certain physical goals like massing, building-to-building relationships, even the shape of roofs or the presence of porches.

Fine. But what we need now is something very different. What we need now is some kind of no-zoning ordinance. No zones. Just all kinds of uses jumbled up, densely. No requirement of any kind for parking. No requirement for loading. None of the usual zoning restrictions.

Well, okay, I don’t want an oil refinery next door to me here on Capitol Hill, or a tannery, or a Wal-Mart. Or a skyscraper: we all need access to the sun, so nobody can hog by casting shadows on others. Some restrictions are needed.

But we live in what’s called an R-4 zoning district here in Washington. That means day-care is permitted, churches, medical offices and health care facilities, home occupations no larger than 250 square feet (permit required), parking lots (!), rehab centers. But no retail.

No cafes, no green grocers, no meat markets, no cozy neighborhood bars, no news stands (for those of us old fogeys who still read newspapers). For retail you have to go to a C (commercial) district. Our closest here on the Hill features a 7-Eleven, which sells tons of junk food and other useless crap and spews out mountains of trash everywhere in the neighborhood; a hair dresser; and a lone cafe.

The dense, mixed use, walkable city we need is illegal. Ack!

It was instructive to see Washington (population about 592,000) with nearly 2,000,000 visitors on Inauguration Day. The roads were mostly closed on that memorable day, and the trains were crammed way beyond capacity. So for 48 hours or so everyone across the city was on foot. The sidewalks, even in our quiet residential neighborhood, were jammed. Folding tables were set up in various spots to hawk water, coffee, hand warmers (it was really cold) and memorabilia. Most of us thought nothing of a walk of 2 or 5 or 10 miles.

In that one delicious moment we could see what our city could be, or needs to be. Dense. Walkable. Mixed up – with all kinds of uses close at hand to every neighborhood. Easy access to many more transit options, and way fewer cars. What we really need is a city that the zoning ordinance prohibits. I think we know what we have to do next.

A colleague in Chicago, a fellow architect, once remarked that our cities are nothing more than diagrams of our zoning ordinances. The real designers of cities are zoning officials.

Somebody call rewrite.

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