Monday, August 29, 2011

Ranking "Property Rights"

In a previous post I mentioned the advocacy of economist Hernando de Soto for titling programs in the informal settlements (i.e. slums) of Latin American countries.  De Soto claims that an informal arrangement of land ownership, which is to say an arrangement without the official sanction of a public body, impairs the extraction of capital from land and suppresses property values.  In the 2011 International Property Rights Index, published earlier this year, the Property Rights Alliance attempts to rank property rights protection in over 100 countries using de Soto's particular economic theories as the yardstick.

In addition to "registering property," another of the listed criteria for the ranking is "access to loans," which "is included in the IPRI because access to a bank loan without collateral serves as a proxy for the level of development of financial institutions in a country."  As recently as 2009, however, that year's Index gave a different explanation for the use of this variable: "because accessibility to a bank loan represents the opportunity for an individual to subsequently obtain property. Consequently, the easier it is to become a property owner, the stronger society’s support for a strong formalized property rights system and the investment in property."

At that point, someone may have informed the authors that the rate of homeownership in, say, Mexico, is over 80%, and that only 13% of Mexican homes are encumbered with mortgages.  India, too, has a homeownership rate of over 80%, and it is 79% in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Increasing access to loans actually appears to be correlated with a decrease in the rate of property ownership.  How do countries such as Mexico and India achieve this remarkable result? Through two primary means:
  • As the San Diego Union-Tribune notes: "Because Mexico's building regulations are less stringent than those in the United States, it's possible to build small, attached housing units on a massive scale to achieve large economies of scale."
  • Secondly, describing a situation in Honduras common to many Latin American countries: "[A] high rate of owner occupancy can be attributed to the fact that 46% of all residential properties in Tegucigalpa were obtained through illegal land invasion..."
Let's consider these two explanations.  In the first, because Mexico has far lesser restrictions on private property rights -- for instance, a lack of minimum lot sizes, street widths or square feet per unit -- it is possible to construct immense quantities of highly affordable, and decent, housing that people can purchase without even the need for a loan, and still the developers profit.  And yet, in the Index, Mexico is ranked 78th for its protection of property rights, far behind the United States at 18, which in spite of exceptional "access to bank loans" only pushed homeownership, for a fleeting moment, to 69 percent.

Favela street.
Property obtained through "invasion" of private or public land, on the other hand, is the least regulated of all.  Because the state does not formally recognize the occupants' claim to the land, zoning and land use laws are not enforced, and individual property "rights" (defined as an individual's right to use his land for his chosen purposes) are arguably at their fullest, subject only to the possibility of eviction by the state, yet, in the slums of Mexico, the odds that this will happen are  remote (see p. 14). Yet, bizarrely, it is in this freest of all property rights environments that de Soto perceives protection of property rights most lacking. 

Where vacant public or private land is valued highly for residential use, impoverished squatters essentially condemn the large land holdings of indifferent absentee landowners for the benefit of thousands -- the exact inverse of the typical process of urban renewal in the property-rights protecting United States, where in the late 60s and early 70s alone over two million mostly low-income people were evicted from their titled homes to the ultimate benefit of wealthy and influential interests, whether those of well-connected property developers or land-hungry private institutions.

The home-building squatters are in fact living out a Lockean version of property rights, a vision which appeals to natural rather than legal rights:
"Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others."  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government.
Interestingly, the Index appears to contain some of the seeds of self-doubt.  A study of an informal settlement in Buenos Aires (p. 58tells a story that is at odds with the dire portrait often painted:

"In La Cava, only 16 percent of those polled said they have a property title for their houses. Some even asked what that was. Among the rest, 17 percent said they have an informal document, usually consisting of an informal sale/purchase invoice. Altogether, 84 percent said they do not have formal documentation. On average, they lived 15 years at the same house, which shows low turnover rates. Those who said they have a property title also have lived at the same house 15 years on average. [Note: longer than the U.S. average of 12 years].
There are not many problems in the sale/purchase of housing because deals are made with people they trust and payment is in cash at the moment of possession (90 percent of respondents).  Only 27 percent said there could be installments but much trust or familiar ties were needed.
We asked La Cava dwellers how they solve problems with neighbors when there is conflict related to continued coexistence, such as negative externalities.
Confirming conclusions from a subjective cost interpretation of the Coase Theorem, 76 percent said they solve these problems by talking with the other side. They prefer not having intermediaries, either from the same neighborhood or outside, and they avoid violence at all cost."
This case study calls into question two of de Soto's major assumptions: that informal owners face insecurity of tenure, when they in fact have longer tenure than American homeowners; and that without titles, sales will be difficult to make, when they seem to be easier, quicker and cheaper to make, being bought and sold like any other good.  This informal model of development is not necessarily one to emulate, but one to learn from, and particularly a good way to sharpen thinking as to what exactly is meant when we're talking about "property rights," and what sort of criteria might be best used to rank countries along those lines, if looking beyond the ones used in the Index.

Sources and Additional Reading:
2011 International Property Rights Index
Mexico's House Rules
Homeownership Rates: A Global Perspective

Urban Land Tenure Options: Titles or Rights?
Regularization of Informal Settlements in Latin America
Secure Tenure in Latin America and the Caribbean
The Role of Urban Slum Titling in Slum Improvement

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alys Beach: The New Urbanism Samples the Old

Throughout the week, I'll be making the most of a trip to the Florida coast to post on several of the New Urbanist towns and developments in the area from an 'Old Urbanist' perspective. Today's piece, the third and final, examines Alys Beach.

Alys Beach, even in its current embryonic form, is the most promising New Urbanist project of the three I've visited over the past week.  Promising, in that it discards the New Urbanism's 19th century American small town planning model in favor of an unapologetically traditional format, at least in part, and has the potential to show the way forward for subsequent developments.  However, the issue of cars and parking -- the planning challenge of the day -- remains in flux, and it's not clear whether Alys Beach has made much of an advancement in that key area.

Courtyard townhouse under construction: The exterior
walls consist of concrete blocks which are filled with
rebar and solid mortar.
The project is the newest of the group, having been designed in 2003.  In a difficult economic climate, less than 20 percent of all lots have been sold, with even fewer homes actually built.  The developer (Birmingham-based EBSCO) has limited initial sales to a third of the project area and has engaged in very little speculative building.  Homes are largely custom built by purchasers of individual parcels.  With so little completed, there wasn't much to photograph, but enough has been constructed that it's possible to extrapolate the built areas to the remainder of the development.  Encouragingly, several homes were under construction at the time I visited.

The description of designer DPZ focuses mainly on architecture rather than urban form:

"In the tradition of nearby Seaside and Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach will be a model resort town-- a place where the best concepts in town planning are applied to create an ideal urban experience in harmony with nature. ... Seeking to achieve an overall feeling of calm and simplicity for the town, the design team turned to a number of sources for inspiration. A trip to Bermuda led to the discovery of the perfect architectural style for the project. The simple volumes of whitewashed masonry and stucco typical of the style possess an uncomplicated, organic beauty. Buildings are grouped into small compounds and unified by perimeter walls, which are higher and more formal in the urban zones, lower and more rustic in the rural areas. The Bermuda style is combined with a patio house type that originated in Antigua and a courtyard building type that came from California."
The courtyard house is a traditional form, and the streetscape that results from these attached U-shaped dwellings is one which is unmistakably traditional as well:

There are several elements here which are unprecedented, or nearly so, for the New Urbanism.  The exclusive use of attached residential dwellings -- of an outstanding quality -- is one. The flush street surface, with no sidewalk or lane differentiation, is entirely for the person on foot (promotional materials show children biking down a similar street, but when I tried to do the same it somehow did not feel appropriate -- the natural urge, reinforced by the level of architectural detail and glimpses into interior courtyards, is to walk the bike).  The "subtle mechanical order" of Seaside and Rosemary Beach is avoided by a gradual widening of the street as it leaves a public square and by a use of a fina-like design concept in which buildings extend outdoor stairways, window shutters and large planters two or three feet into the right of way.  The street, less than 30 feet at its widest point (lower image) narrows to under 20 (upper image).  The combined effect is entirely traditional, and the resulting streetscape 100% "place," even if it could stand to be narrowed just a bit more.

To observe how Alys Beach deals with the automobile, take a turn down a narrow lane leading off the street in the above photos (an appropriate width for the two-story courtyard format):

At the end of this lane, behind the courtyard homes, we encounter ... a parking lot, complete with nature band-aids, to borrow the terminology of James Howard Kunstler:

Turning left to face the lot:

It's an unusually nice parking lot, but a parking lot nonetheless, making car storage more prominent than at either Rosemary Beach or Seaside.  There appear to be at least two spaces provided for each courtyard house.  These common lots are a fundamental design element of the Alys Beach plan, appearing below as the tree-dotted areas. 

In this plan, we see that there are actually three different types of street: the pedestrian street, vehicular ways with raised sidewalks, and the paths leading between and around the network of parking lots.  Only half of the courtyard homes open onto pedestrian ways, while two thirds of the street network is primarily or exclusively for the car, a proportion similar or greater than at Rosemary Beach. 

An example of one of the vehicular streets is below, showing a 30-foot right-of-way:
The building lots in this area have a refreshing variety that characterizes the development as a whole, with dimensions including 60'x50', 30'x80' and ranging up to 40'x110'.  Zero lot line designs are the norm.  On the narrowest lots, suggested designs show a large townhouse, abutting the street, separated from a loft unit at the rear of the lot by a spacious courtyard (the photo shows such a design).  Unlike the mini-cottages of Seaside or the granny flats of Rosemary Beach, these loft units will not be available for separate rental, according to the sales office.  One doubts how much use they are likely to receive.

The area immediately adjacent to the beach incorporates a somewhat more irregular, if not organic, plan, and it turns out this area was not actually designed by DPZ, but by Porphyrios Associates,  the firm of classicist Demetri Porphyrios:

In this area, lots sizes are as small as 30'x40', yet the insistence on providing two parking places per unit prevails even here, in the form of on-site parking rather than common lots.  The overall plan provides for increasing lot sizes away from the beach, but it's not clear if this distribution actually reflects market demand since -- as the very helpful realtor at the sales office informed me -- subdividing lots will not be permitted.  The smallest lots seem undersupplied, while the 40'x110' lots, offered at such high prices, look like strong candidates for partition.  The designer explains that the distribution of lot sizes is attributable to the "urban-to-rural transect," yet the practical effect is to flatten the price distribution for lots, compensating for lower land values farther from the beach by setting larger minimum lot sizes. 

One final point: like Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach shies away from embracing Highway 30A, adding large landscaped buffers with blocking hedges and broad bike paths and/or access roads which are nearly as wide as 30A itself.  At 120 feet between facing buildings, the gap is not quite as large as at Rosemary Beach, but given the modest and traditional scale of the pedestrian paths and elegant buildings, the contrast is even more jarring.  Although traffic noise from the road was a design concern here, the effect of drawing back from 30A in this manner will be to encourage higher traffic speeds, partially negating the intended benefits of the setback.

Despite quibbles with street layouts and lot dimensions, Alys Beach appears to be a true breakthrough for the New Urbanism.  The architecture hits a high note of elegant simplicity, the pattern of attached courtyard dwellings is a welcome change, and the presence of narrow, pedestrian-centric streets shows a confident embrace of traditional urbanism.  One nagging concern, though, is whether this community represents a turning point in design, or is simply a magnificent one-off, the product of a particular architectural vision that is unlikely to be repeated.

The issue of cars and parking, though, needs some creative rethinking.  In a community envisoned as "a place where our feet will take us where we want to go," as the Alys Beach exhibit proclaims, surely the designers imagined feet taking residents elsewhere than the driver's side door of a conveniently-parked SUV.  Nathan Lewis in previous comments suggested the idea of a single parking garage at the edge of the community from which residents could proceed on foot, bike or golf cart -- an approach which has been implemented in other resort towns, and which is especially feasible in Florida's mild climate.  Seaside's founder Robert Davis suggested valet parking some years ago to deal with a crush of cars there.  There are many potential alternatives, but a community explicitly designed around walking, the notion of prioritizing access to the car above all else must be reconsidered. 

That about wraps up my look at these three fascinating communities on the Florida panhandle.  Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Successor: Rosemary Beach

 Throughout the week, I'll be making the most of a trip to the Florida coast to post on several of the New Urbanist towns and developments in the area from an 'Old Urbanist' perspective. Today's piece examines Rosemary Beach.

Rosemary Beach's origin dates to 1995, a time when the New Urbanism was in rapid ascendance.  The Congress for the New Urbanism had been formed two years before, Seaside and Kentlands had already enjoyed great success, and as real estate began to enter its 10-year boom period work was abundant.  Given the chance to design another coastal Florida town, DPZ might have simply copied Seaside's successful formula, but as the designers themselves explain, they chose not to:     
"Fifteen years after the design of Seaside, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company was given the opportunity to return to the Florida Panhandle to create another new neighborhood on Scenic Highway 30-A. A New York-based investment firm had purchased a 52-acre property just seven miles east of Seaside, hoping to reproduce that project’s success. Given this objective, the clear mandate was to differ from that earlier model as little as possible. However, the opportunity to revisit the concept of the coastal resort town after fifteen years of experience allowed the design team to apply techniques that distinguish Rosemary Beach from Seaside in several fundamental ways. ...

Since most residents of Seaside use their cars rarely, the plan of Rosemary Beach introduces a rear alley system so that cars can be parked in garages that are not visible from the street. About half of these garages are topped by granny flats, small apartments that can be rented out to help finance the construction of the main house. The presence of alleys also means that not every house needs street access at the front, allowing many of the smaller streets to be replaced by boardwalks. The wooden boardwalks, inspired by northern seaside towns like Fire Island, allow direct pedestrian to access the beach and bring the beach experience deep into the plan. Two public squares on the southern boundary further focus the neighborhood’s activity on the ocean."
So right away we have a fundamental reconfiguration of the street network -- or do we?  In fact, both Seaside and Rosemary Beach share the same pattern of having a paved street on one side of homes, and a pedestrian path on the other, as can be seen by comparing the photos below with those from Tuesday's post:

"Back" and ...

... "Front."
So perhaps no "alley" has been introduced after all. Only the names have been changed.  The logic of the decision to add garages is a bit obscure: because cars are used rarely, does it follow that large and expensive garages should be built to accommodate them?

The garage-facing side with its 30-foot wide flush road surface and lack of green space presents a far more traditional urban appearance than the side that has now been designated the front, yet the designer does not appear to consider this a virtue, noting approvingly that the garages "are not visible from the street," in spite of the fact that we've just been told that in many cases there are no streets, only boardwalks.  Still, the arrival of the garages has, intentionally or not, created a traditionalist feel distinctively different from that of Seaside along certain of the so-called alleys, albeit one which depends heavily on the existence of homes above the garage to enliven and humanize the space.

The suggestion that the boardwalks were inspired by Fire Island is intriguing.  Let's take a quick look at Fire Island's plan:

Do you notice anything unusual here?  Access to Fire Island homes is only by boardwalks and pedestrian paths for a very simple reason, as the Fire Island website explains:
"There are no paved roads on Fire Island and only service and emergency vehicles are allowed on the island. Free of cars, traffic, pollution, and noise Fire Island offers a peaceful getaway unlike any other vacation destination. ... Walking, biking, and golf-carting are the modes of transportation and help to preserve our island’s natural beauty."
Here is a Fire Island "street," "alley," call it what you will:

Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik
Now, like Rosemary Beach and Seaside, Fire Island is largely a vacation getaway, but one which accommodates over four thousand housing units containing a summer population in the tens of thousands, all without cars!  Could that be a viable planning model?  The design statement for Rosemary Beach shows, I think, the ambiguous role of cars in New Urbanist projects.  It is understood that cars are not an asset to the development and the feel of the community, yet they are guiding fundamental design choices.  The mode of accommodation changes, but this unresolved design tension persists.  The car-free option remains unexplored despite its obvious viability in the context of vacation destinations.

Moving on: here is the main commercial corridor of Rosemary Beach:

The architecture is of an outstanding quality, even exceeding the standard set at Seaside.  Each building shows a meticulous attention to detail and proportion in every part, and in its relationship to its neighbors (complaints about New Urbanist developments such as these often point to the alleged "fakeness" of the architecture, as though use of historicist elements and detail were somehow insincere.  I reject these arguments completely -- architectural beauty is not only a legitimate but highly important end, no matter how or through use of what styles it might be achieved).  There is a wonderful lack of large surface lots or garage parking -- a tremendous improvement over almost any other development in the surrounding area.  Notice again, though, two features of the design that have been seen before in Seaside: an excessive width of the street, and a reappearance of Christopher Alexander's "subtle mechanical character" in that the street, although angled NE/SW in defiance of a strict orthogonal plan, is perfectly straight, and of a regular width along its length.

The streets of Rosemary Beach do bend a bit more than those in Seaside, however.  The overall plan has a pleasing asymmetry, yet the surveyor's aesthetic is still evident here.  The 19th century pattern of large-scale, attached commercial buildings and detached single family homes persists, although in an extraordinary architectural form that is a delight to explore and take in.

A final point concerns the drastic difference in the way Rosemary Beach and Seaside incorporate Highway 30A (which both towns span) into their designs.  At Seaside, establishments are set back only 15-20 feet from 30A, which, despite its name, is only a 22-foot wide roadway with no shoulders.  Seaside does not shy away from this road, but encroaches upon it and tames it, inducing drivers to slow naturally in response to pedestrian activity.  Rosemary Beach, on the other hand, drops everything and runs away:

At the right hand side is the 22-foot wide 30A, appearing wider due to gigantic turning areas.  Grass buffers extend for 20 feet on either side, followed by ten-foot bike paths, and then another 35 feet of grass for a grand total of 150 feet of sun-baked open ground between buildings at the narrowest point.  On either side, the grassy buffers widen, creating a yawning gap of over 200 feet.  There is no shade at the crosswalk.  At high noon, the feel is of a no man's land, and I saw very few people bold enough to attempt this crossing on foot.

Why Rosemary Beach chose to abandon Seaside's approach and turned its back on this humble state road as though it were the Cross Bronx Expressway, I don't know.  But it need not remain that way -- a solution is as easy as constructing additional homes and shops to link the existing areas north and south of the road.

Overall, Rosemary Beach feels like a place torn in two directions: between a traditionalist European village and a 19th century American resort town with its boardwalks and scrub plants, and between excluding and indulging the automobile.  The clash produces an interesting, if not entirely harmonious, result.  In terms of creating a consistent style and successfully integrating the automobile, Seaside comes out on top -- which is not so much a critique of Rosemary as a compliment of Seaside.

In the next post I'll take a look at the third and latest of DPZ's towns along the coastline -- Alys Beach.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Exploring Seaside

[Updated 8/17, 10:00 p.m.] Throughout the week, I'll be making the most of a trip to the Florida coast to post on several of the New Urbanist towns and developments in the area from an 'Old Urbanist' perspective. Today's piece examines Seaside, FL.

For a person with New Urbanist (or Old Urbanist) leanings, a visit to Seaside feels a bit like a pilgrimage to a sacred site.  Although the merits of the town have been debated for years, its significance in the history of American urban planning is undeniable.  As one of the earliest steps in the evolution of the New Urbanism, which wouldn't formally arrive until more than a decade after the town's 1981 founding, Seaside is an intriguing glimpse into the origins of the movement.  For me, it was a chance to examine the planning decisions made at this early juncture, including those that were repeated in later New Urbanist developments, and those which, for various reasons, largely fizzled out.

First, though, the intentions of the designers, in their own words:
"Seaside is widely acclaimed, financially successful, and almost completely built-out. It has become a symbol of the New Urbanism, exemplifying the movement’s underlying principles, which can be applied to all urban conditions: the built environment must be diverse in use and population; it must be scaled for the pedestrian yet capable of accommodating the automobile and mass transit; and it must have a well defined public realm supported by an architecture that reflects the ecology and culture of the region."
On the count of architecture, the assessment of a 2002 New York Times article that "the best part of Seaside is the houses" is not too far off the mark, though the planning achievements are ultimately more noteworthy.  The tastefulness, elegance and attention to detail in many of the homes  is astonishing. The achievement of creating (and encoding) a regional vernacular which is capable of endless varied repetition is truly remarkable. Notably, the style appears to have carried over into the local building industry, as "Seaside-style" homes are cropping up far north and south of Seaside itself.   

Urbanism is distinct from architecture, however.  On that count, does Seaside deliver on its promise of an environment "scaled for the pedestrian yet capable of accommodating the automobile"?  Let's look at a typical Seaside street:

From white picket fence to white picket fence, the street spans 40 feet (a 20 foot roadway, plus two 10-foot parking lanes).  Homes are set back another ten feet or so, making for a total distance between facing buildings of around 60 feet.  Thanks to attractive paving and extremely light traffic, the street is not hostile to pedestrians, but this is clearly an environment scaled for the automobile.  Cars were observed driving at high speeds through the neighborhood, a problem which has been addressed by marking intersections with all-way stop signs. Yet this decision actually seems to be aggravating the problem of speeding.  I witnessed several drivers roaring up to stop signs, coming to rolling stops, then gunning the accelerator in frustration.  That Seaside has lately been overrun by cars has not escaped notice.

Interestingly, Seaside for the most part has no rear alleys.  This New Urbanist calling card is present only in the newest areas of the town. On the above street, parking spaces are tastefully integrated alongside the single family homes a far more economical solution than rear parking garages, but one which is undermined by the addition of the two additional parking lanes along the brick roadway.  Do vacation homes really need three parking spaces each?  This in excess of most municipal standards for single-family homes, which generally require no more than two spaces.

In the area along the beach south of Highway 30A, however, a handful of really narrow streets do appear, and these are some of the most beautiful and memorable parts of the town.

This lane is so narrow that even biking feels inappropriate and intrusive an excellent indicator of intrinsically pedestrian-centric design.  The sand-and-gravel surface physically impedes bikes as well.  Although lanes like this feature only in the small area south of 30A, an extensive series of extremely narrow paths, invisible in any aerial view, run in place of where rear alleys might otherwise appear through most other blocks:

These paths, apparently introduced at the suggestion of Léon Krier (whose Classicist architectural fingerprints are evident everywhere you look), run in between rear property lines in most blocks.  The scale is delightfully human-centric and fine-grained.  The paths are not really functionally necessary, but instead seem to be a foil to the wide streets, a means of providing an additional layer of connectivity that offers the same thrill of unexpected discovery that accompanies the very narrow traditional urban lane, a thrill that the wider streets do not offer.  Notably, though, this is not a design feature that has reappeared in most other New Urbanist developments.  By no later than 1992, the New Urbanist pendulum had swung in favor of rear alleys, and the front parking pads and footpaths largely gave way to the detached rear garage, as at Kentlands, although pedestrian paths continued to appear in a much-reduced role.

 The commercial portion of the town reflects an eclectic mix of influences.  A sloping, semi-circular grassy amphitheater, in scale and form reminiscent of the Piazza del Campo, occupies the center.  A lack of shade or any real seating area leaves this important civic space a sun-baked void from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on hot summer days (perhaps an unfair critique, as the same goes for many an Italian piazza, too, except the Florida panhandle has not yet embraced the concept of the afternoon siesta).  The space is so vast, meanwhile, that even four-story buildings around the perimeter fail to define it. 

The area behind this first row of buildings feels somewhat neglected, with over-scaled buildings, wide streets and little attention to detail.  Few people are out and about  in this area.  Much more interesting, again, is the area along the beach, which has a densely-packed cluster of one and two-story restaurants and shops with pedestrian paths running through and between them.  One gets the sense that there really are two Seasides: the traditionalist village south of 30A, with its pedestrian paths and human-scaled buildings, and the vaguely 19th century lookalike north of the road.

[8/17 update: After returning to Seaside at 9:00 p.m., I'm more confident about my earlier observations of the area.  At that time of day, activity is heavily concentrated around the beach-side restaurant and retail area.  In recognition of this, the town has introduced numerous mini-trailer eating establishments (presumably seasonal) along the southern perimeter of the amphitheater, facing across 30A toward the small-scale shops and eateries on the other side of the road.  Even at midday they are running a steady business (see below):]

The exception is a beautiful square framed by Seaside's handful of townhouses -- the feel is part Charleston, part French Quarter:

As to the big picture issues of street layout and population density, a few words from Christopher Alexander, who is generally very positive about Seaside:
"First off, there is a humane environment, pleasant, avoiding many of the mishaps and ugliness of modern American development. It has charm. It has some atmosphere. ... In order to achieve this very large, and humane effect [at Seaside], Andrés [Duany] has used what is a partly mechanical method. He has therefore been forced, in this first round of experiments ... to make a somewhat mechanical version of the ideal.

It is the nature of this 'mechanical' aspect which has to be examined carefully.

In essence it consists of making a rigid framework, and allowing, then considerable individual variation within it. But the carcase, the street grid, is rigid: it does not arise from the give and take of real events. In this regard it is unlike an organic community. It is as if one were to have a rigid mechanical skeleton and hang variational flesh on it. That is not the same as making a coherent whole, in which the public space arises organically from detailed, and subtle adaptations to terrain, human idiosyncracy, individual trees, accidental paths, and so on. ...

The subtle mechanical character which underlies the production of the street grid, is visible, though, in a more disturbing quality. Occasionally one hears that there is something 'unreal' about Seaside. Some of it is carping. Perhaps jealousy. But there is something about this comment that is real, and which goes to the very root of our current inability to make living space in towns
The street layout at Seaside melds together a concentric ringed pattern with a typical 19th century grid of blocks generally 200' wide and 400' long.  The influence of John Nolen, and in particular his plan for Venice, is evident.  Yet, unlike in Nolen's plan, the individual street segments are resolutely straight, refusing to bend or meander (with a handful of exceptions).  The block lengths, too, are of predictable dimensions.  I think this is the "subtle mechanical character" which Alexander is referring to.

A perfectly straight street, after all, tells us no more than: "A planner drew me with a T-square, and a surveyor marked me out."  We intuitively sense this, since the march of human feet over ground will almost never proceed in a perfectly straight line.  Is it more efficient than a street which emerges from "detailed and subtle adaptations to terrain"?  Not necessarily it may be less responsive to topography and may require more grading, as was the case with the grids of New York or San Francisco.  The perfectly straight street itself is a mechanical, or utilitarian aesthetic (to borrow Nathan Lewis' terminology), the aesthetic of the professional surveyor whose instruments are designed to mark straight lines and right angles, whether with the ancient groma or the modern laser theodolite.

The grid appears a preferred alternative to the modern suburban streets which meander purely for aesthetic effect, as did the early suburban plans such as Riverside, and in a true utilitarian sense that is probably correct, as the grid provides better connectivity and is easier to navigate.  But in comparison to an organic plan, especially in a town of small size, the advantages as against the process Alexander describes may be less clear. 

In terms of density, Seaside's use of single-family homes on small lots with modest setbacks and small backyards (and with very few grass lawns in evidence) is a separate achievement in and of itself.  Although the houses are large and gracious, densities of about 6 units/acre are achieved.  Backyards are considerably smaller than in the typical 19th century streetcar suburb.  Overall, Seaside's density, in high season, appears to rise to as high as 12-14,000 people per square mile.  This seems to be only slightly less than at Kentlands, despite Kentlands' much greater use of attached housing, perhaps due in part to the presence of space-devouring alleys in the Maryland development.

Overall, despite the critiques I've included here, I found Seaside to be more impressive than I had expected.  The architectural achievement alone is inspiring, and one's hat has to go off to Duany and other architects who, during a nadir in design in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recreated so much beauty in the built environment.  The town continues to improve and refine itself with infill and new design ideas.  The area south of 30A, meanwhile, hints at a genuine traditionalist approach to urbanism.  It is not an approach that has characterized most subsequent New Urbanist developments, however. 

For the next installment in this series, I'll look at Seaside's successor: Rosemary Beach.

The architecture book selection at the Seaside bookstore.
In response to Joseph's comment, the above photo is of Thyme Street, two blocks over from where Seaside officially begins, looking toward Highway 30A.  This is characteristic of many of the residential lanes leading off 30A.  The sand-and-gravel surface is about 16 feet across, and traffic naturally proceeds at 10-15 mph.  Setbacks are much greater than at Seaside, however, with the result that houses are about the same distance apart.  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Links, and Seaside

For the next week, I'll be writing from near Seaside, FL, where instead of lying at the beach, I'll be biking around to explore and report on the various New Urbanist communities in the area, including not only Seaside and its successor, Rosemary Beach, but also the intriguing Alys Beach, a DPZ project which appears to break from Seaside by embracing really narrow streets, attached houses as a principal design choice, and sharply defined public spaces.  Posts to follow shortly.

In the meantime, commenter Vince has written a critique of Portland's plans to regulate its burgeoning urban gardening movement which he develops into a thoughtful statement on the goals of planning and zoning itself:
"City planning and zoning departments have in mind exactly the sorts of things that ought to happen in exactly which places. They claim to be able to handle and mitigate the messy intricacies of highly complex cities and their inner workings. They seem to know precisely how many shopping centers we need, where they should be located, and how we should get there (exclusively by car.) They take measures to boldly separate people from where they work, dine and play so as to create economic dead zones (residential areas) across great swathes of our cities. The truth of the matter is that no one is able to accomplish the feat of city planning. Cities are a complex accumulation of unplanned human action, interaction and activity. To regulate that is to regulate human nature and civilization itself. At the city level, the best we can hope for is that some shot-gun style regulation doesn’t hit us in the rear end as planners try to make sweeping regulations that effect the lives of half a million people."
For more critical writing on zoning and urban planning, try Bernard Siegan's 35 year old, but still relevant, article.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Suburban Follies Quick Update

It would be easy to devote an entire blog to chronicling the absurdities and occasional successes of contemporary American surbuban development.  Whereas only 20 years ago, subdivisions generally held to a predictable form, today's developments have begun to vary in interesting and unpredictable ways. 

A couple months ago, I ran a post on the "folly" of the rear alleyway in suburban developments, noting how the presence of an alley, in combination with an HOA prohibiting parking on front streets, makes the front streets functionally redundant.  Well, perhaps it was only a matter of time, but one developer in Franklin, Tennessee, has, I guess, noticed the same thing, and is building a subdivision without fronting streets, except where connectivity demands it:

The right of way where the street would normally run has been left what appears to be a common park-like space with footpaths:

Since the architect is designing under the assumption that the green space is at the "front" of the houses, in the sense of the side of the house intended for presentation to the public, the side facing the alley receives commercial loading-dock aesthetics.  Note that although the alley is the only paved way abutting the houses, its width is only about 25 feet.

Despite the elimination of the fronting streets, this plan again makes virtually no provision for private outdoor space.  The only such space is a tiny patio wedged in between the shed garage and the rear of the house, barely visible in the aerial view.  In this respect, this plan is no better than the Orlando subdivision I looked at previously. 

Overall, is this plan much of an improvement over the standard setup of garage-fronted streets and private backyards of most late 20th century suburbs?  It may be a slight improvement over the Orlando design, but while eliminating one of its drawbacks it retains most of the same limitations.  In the meantime, I'll keep looking.

Related posts: Suburban Follies: The Rear Alley

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Preservationist's Dilemma

Over Market Urbanism, Emily Washington has called attention to a story out of Arlington, Virginia, where county planners have begun an effort to identify "historic" structures in the area in spite of the fact that few buildings in the area, which has been intensively redeveloped in the last 30 years, are more than 100 years old.  In the planners' sights: "garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial properties more than 50 years old."  Noting the conflict here between preservationist and smart growth goals, she writes:

"While Smart Growth supporters and historic preservation activists share the same propensity for top-down control of development, this issue gets to the core of their inherent conflict. The preservation of car-centric development prevents higher density, walkable communities, even when this is what the market demands. While individuals may attempt to embrace both ideologies, protecting mediocre mid-century suburban architecture necessarily comes at the expense of Smart Growth principles."

The use of historic preservation to preserve not only architecture, but the urban form itself, is not a new development.  The National Register of Historic Places and municipal organizations have been listing and protecting entire neighborhoods, many of them consisting of low-density single-family detached residential homes, for decades now, the only change being that the National Register's 50-year rolling cutoff for historic eligibility has lately encompassed the equally low-density but less architecturally noteworthy suburbs of the 1950s and early 1960s.

In Nashville, for instance, the city council has gradually been increasing the number of neighborhoods subject to oversight by the Metro Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) since the first designation in 1977, nearly all of them inner-ring suburban  residential neighborhoods laid out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

Nashville's newest historically protected neighborhood:
"historic" houses, but entirely suburban in form and density.

Although the stated purpose of the historic overlays is "to protect the architectural and historic character" of these neighborhoods, vague historic guidelines regarding scale have been  used to pressure the Commission into increasing setbacks, limiting heights, reducing permissible building footprints and shrinking accessory dwellings below what is permitted even by the city's restrictive zoning code – in short, impeding efforts to densify the neighborhood even by gradual and architecturally respectful additions and infill.  As long as this authority remains, even a liberalization of local zoning will not have the desired effect. 

This situation might not even be especially objectionable were it not for the fact that these early suburbs are invariably located in the very places – adjacent, or close to, to city centers – where the market pressure for densification is highest, and where such density will be most beneficial to the city, being located along already-existing mass transit lines and close to urban employment centers. 

For a person who appreciates the craftsmanship and beauty of the residential architecture of the streetcar suburb era, and yet recognizes the long-term need for cities to densify their centers, this seems to present a rather painful dilemma.  Is a compromise solution possible?  If the architectural aspects of historical zoning are retained, while the restrictions as to architecturally-compatible infill and expansion are loosened, there may be a chance to satisfy both interests.  Such a change would require a rethinkinking of status-quo obsessed historic zoning guidelines in the the context of a long-term vision for increased urban density.  The laneway house, at least, represents one possible approach that could be easily integrated into a historic zoning framework, but one which has not yet found widespread acceptance in the United States.

Monday, August 1, 2011

New World Economics on the New New Suburbanism

Note: I'll be reposting Nathan Lewis' urbanism-related content as it becomes available.  Feel free to comment on his articles here.

In his latest post, Nathan Lewis wants to tell you how to make a pile of dough with the traditional city, and has provided illustrative drawings and calculations to show exactly what he has in mind, among many other observations on the New Urbanism, the history of American home sizes, and the issue of affordable housing:

"City governments everywhere wonder how to create "affordable" housing, but how is that possible when everyone has to buy way too much land, and build a house that is way too big, and also indirectly support an incredibly excessive roadway system, and a system of school buses for the public school, and also a second or third car to get around this ridiculous landscape? The larger houses themselves have a certain logic: once you have the way-too-big land plot, the second and third car, and the vastly excessive roadway system, you might as well go whole hog and get the big house too. You're already 80% committed."
 It's an in-depth piece, but I strongly recommend reading through the whole thing.