Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New World Economics on SFDR in the Traditional Style

Nathan Lewis's latest urbanism post is up at his website, this time dealing with the topic of whether it is possible to create a neighborhood of single-family detached residential (SFDR) with room for cars which nonetheless is dense, walkable and pedestrian-centered on narrow streets:

Seijo neighborhood, Tokyo

"I am rather hesitant to take up this topic, because it is not my goal at all to build some sort of slightly improved auto-dependent suburb in Suburban Hell, but to create Traditional Cities instead where a car is not at all necessary. However, there is a place for this I think. First, the SFDR pattern is also a valid one for the pedestrian Traditional City. European examples of Traditional Cities tend to have a lot of apartments, but Tokyo in fact had very few apartments until the 20th century. The normal pattern was for very small SFD houses on very small plots. In fact, the first Western-style apartment building in Tokyo wasn't built until the 1920s. It was a Western idea they borrowed. ...
Second, although I promote a Traditional City in which cars are entirely unnecessary, and that you can walk everywhere or take a train to another place where you can walk everywhere, nevertheless there is perhaps a need for a kind of transition format in the U.S. For example, let's say you lived in the Washington DC area within walking distance of a train station, that you can take to work in downtown DC. So, you don't need a car for commuting, but still you need a car to interact with the rest of the U.S., which is still car dependent."
Thus, can we think of a pattern which is compatible with BOTH today's need for two to three cars per household, the desire for the SFDR format, and ALSO compatible with the Traditional City pedestrian-centric design including of course Really Narrow Streets? This is a rather touchy design goal, as you can see, since we want to have one foot in two worlds which have a fundamental incompatibility.
Let's formulate some ideas along these lines..."
Read the whole thing, with tons of illustrative maps and photos, here, and feel free to leave any feedback below as Nathan's website doesn't allow comments.


  1. In _A_Pattern_Language_, C. Alexander writes that there ought to be a fixed rule in city development that parking should never take more than 9% of the land area in any tract. That 9% includes driveways, curb cuts, access lanes in parking lots, and the parts of underground parking structures that change or limit the use of surface property.

    I don't know why he comes up with exactly 9% instead of 8% or 10% but experience shows it does mark the difference between quality urban life and suburban misery quite well. Cities that hover on the edge like San Francisco have nice desirable districts with under 9% and awful, noisy areas with over 9%.

    The Tokyo example areas in Nathan's blog show roughly 3% to 8% parking by my figuring, which seems large to me for a place with no on-street parking.

    We need to consider that in order to make the small squarish lots for SFDR (and Tokyo in general), the blocks have to be very small. Just 100' by 200' blocks are typical where in San Francisco or New York or Mexico City or Buenos Aires we would see 250'x600' blocks typically. Those cities usually have long lots suitable for apartment buildings. You can fit a narrow, long single family home into them but most people live in multi-family housing.

    Block size is also why those cities have about the same street-to-lot ratio as Tokyo with much wider streets and sidewalks.

    In Mexico City, some single family neighborhoods follow the Tokyo example in full with small blocks and very narrow streets and they work well as pleasant places for families integrated into a larger urban fabric. They are especially common in ritzy Coyoacán (pop 650,000) and date variously from the Eighteenth and Twentieth centuries.

    I suppose that was the central question. Can we achieve the New Urbanist project of SFDR in a quality neighborhood? When the surrounding is a fantastic quality urban fabric like Mexico City with a culture of local small business, walking, and urban rail we sure can. I don't know how well it would do in an armpit like LA or Dallas.

    Bicycling through those neighborhoods of Coyoacán daily was a bit of a bother (there were three on my commute); the wider streets of apartment neighborhoods are more pleasant for personal vehicles.

    I'd like to see wise speculation on the influence of small block size and small street width in making this work. Experience indicates the quality of urban life is much more closely tied to parking percentage but I need more examples of SFDR working on larger blocks. Is that how Greenwich Village is arranged, or are those mostly three-flats?

  2. Greenwich Village is not SFDR. Nothing in Manhattan is SFDR; that's why Manhattan is denser than any single neighborhood in Tokyo. The closest thing to SFDR in Manhattan is rowhouses on the Upper East Side that are owned and inhabited entirely by a single household; those are big and used only by the very rich, and elsewhere the same buildings are divided into 2-4 apartments per floor.

    The blocks between 1st and 2nd Avenue have 8.5% of their total area used for parking lanes.

  3. You can't make small blocks when you have wide streets. If you take a typical 60-70 foot street width in Manhattan and have a 100' block, then obviously a minimum of 70/170 of your land area is taken by streets. However, if you have a 16' street like this, then you can have 100' blocks because only 16/116 of your land area is taken by streets.

  4. Sorry - I can't get past the utopian/elitist ranting against cars.

    Lewis constantly asks "would you like to raise kids here" - completely ignoring the logistical realities of modern child-rearing.

    How exactly does one shlep the jumbo pack of Pampers home along these romantic "walkable" streets? Or get the whiny 2-year-old - and her friend - home from the park with 2 heavy tricycles after she's had a tantrum and melted down?

    We've seen the confluence of elitism and union thuggery keep large bargain retailers out of Manhattan and other "walkable" regions - what non-elite family is going to pay the price premiums for retail in these areas? What family - elite or not - can even accommodate the disruptive, daily shopping patterns that small stores and small houses dictate?

    How many real, actual children are visible in the cobble-stoned, carless urban streets Nathan praises?

    Not many - even Manhattanites move to less-dense Brooklyn when they transition from yuppie singles to breeding couples.

    Cars are not going anywhere.

    Cars have gotten smaller, cheaper, and more city-friendly.

    Cars free people to move beyond the limits set for them by elitist-planner-dictated public transportation.

    People like that. :)

    So can we stop the romantic, futile rant against cars - and the planner's elitist wish to tell other folks how to live?

  5. Nathan: fine, then don't have very small blocks. New York, Zurich, Copenhagen, etc. do fine without them. Or, have very small blocks with very narrow streets, with an avenue-sized street once every 200 or 300 meters, like a bunch of districts in Tokyo.

  6. "How exactly does one shlep the jumbo pack of Pampers home along these romantic "walkable" streets? Or get the whiny 2-year-old - and her friend - home from the park with 2 heavy tricycles after she's had a tantrum and melted down?"

    I have one 4 year old daughter and another on the way. Actually, we end up doing quite a bit of walking - across those gigantic parking lots and through those long aisles at the warehouses we are forced to shop at. I suspect we do just about as much walking to and from the car and house/mega store as we would in a traditional city environment. Luckily, the store has carts! I imagine in a traditional city we'd use something similar.

    "Not many - even Manhattanites move to less-dense Brooklyn when they transition from yuppie singles to breeding couples."

    No one is calling Manhattan walkable or desirable for families! Quite the opposite, actually. Nathan Lewis has argued that Manhattan is an example of what not to do: Hypertrophism.

    "Cars free people to move beyond the limits set for them by elitist-planner-dictated public transportation.

    People like that. :)

    So can we stop the romantic, futile rant against cars - and the planner's elitist wish to tell other folks how to live?"

    This is funny, because I have a similar perspective as you. I don't want elitist planners telling me how to live, which is why I advocate an organic, hands off approach to city planning. I think the evidence shows that "elitist planners" have conspired to force us into automobile ownership, intentional or not, through zoning laws, density laws, street width minimums, set backs, and grossly subsidized highway infrastructure that favors suburbs and big box retailers over other models. So who is doing the planning, exactly?

  7. Vince - thanks for the challenging counter-perspective!

    You write:
    I advocate an organic, hands off approach to city planning.
    - - - - - - - - - -
    Once rail or other public transit is part of the mix, you are talking about people living at the mercy of planners.

    I think a lot of what you (and I) object to about suburban sprawl can be solved by eliminating setbacks, enabling higher-density planning alternatives, and amending other regulations. It is certainly possible to accommodate suburban living at near-townhouse densities.

    The result will likely be more walkable and livable - but still accommodate the modern reality of most families having at least one car.

    (And if most people also want to benefit from the economies of large-scale retailers, the future will include that, too. As a former New Yorker, I vividly remember carless Manhattan friends asking me to drive them to the strip malls and big box stores across the river in New Jersey.)

    I cannot connect in any way to Lewis' contention that the ideal in modern times is a return to the "Traditional City" plan that grew out of pre-industrial patterns of work, transportation, and consumption.

    I now live in Israel - and see first hand how inconvenient, impractical - and therefore expensive - the "Traditional City" parts of Jerusalem, Acco, and Jaffa are for the residents and their visiting friends.

    This is not a model for the future.

  8. I think what Lewis is advocating is extracting the principles of the traditional city to produce better places to live. He has provided many examples where cars are a part of the equation. That being said it is a greatly diminished part of the equation, which I agree with whole heartedly. It is tough to argue that the use of public transit or bicycles are ‘easier’ than driving, clearly picking up groceries in your car is less of a hassle in a personal vehicle (although traffic and parking can make that untrue) but the real question is at what cost? What are the things are we willing to sacrifice to be able to pick up diapers in our own little cars. Right now we are giving up healthier populations, stronger communities, a more attractive public realm, and a sustainable pattern of energy consumption. Personally I am willing to explore some other options or picking up groceries if it means we can put some of these more important things (I think anyway) back into our cities.

    The consequences of the auto centric city are quite severe, but we’ve put up with them for long enough that we have forgotten what the other options are. This is how we are left with people wondering how they will manage to afford and transport diapers to their houses if we take away cars!

  9. Japan specifically is rather unplanned. The private sector (and to some extent the government) built railways and people lived in them. They're not really at the mercy of planners.

    The urban form Nathan is showcasing is more for the higher-income regions of Tokyo, where people value SFDR more than anything, and building higher is more expensive because of earthquake issues. (California has a similar issue - six-story stone masonry is not earthquake-safe.) In the rest of Tokyo, there are plenty of wide streets, and multistory apartment buildings.

    Israel is, well, Israel. Public transportation consists of substandard buses, and the attempts to make it better don't improve much. Go read anything written by local residents about the Jerusalem light rail. It's nothing like how things work in places where transit is simply there, and can get you to where you want to go - places such as Tokyo, Zurich, Vienna, and Hong Kong. Living in Tel Aviv, I never even conceived of the option of an adult using buses to get to work, certainly not an adult who wasn't poor.

  10. Hasn't free amazon.com delivery destroyed the "How am I going to get my Pampers home?" argument?

  11. If it is fully furnished it should be worth a lot of money since it is very expensive having to furnish a house for the first time when you do not have absolutely nothing but you bed. Last year I travelled to Argentina and decided to rent an apartment in buenos aires  that was fully furnished. My roommate was Argentinean and she was living there because she said that buying all of the furniture would cost her a fortune she did not have so she preferred this way!