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….