The Value of “Good Enough Urbanism”

In the urbanist blogosphere, there’s a lot of discussion about “getting density right” — the art and science of designing good urban space and codifying those qualities in zoning.

Top: a Milwaukee gas station that adheres to some good urban design principles but can't overcome the inhospitable streets around it. Bottom: a Houston restaurant that serves as a draw, despite underwhelming design. Images: ##http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2013/4/4/good-enough-urbanism.html## Strong Towns##

Today at Strong Towns blog, Andrew Burleson has something interesting to add. Burleson says many of our cities have been so profoundly weakened that, short of bulldozing and starting over, they will never be “perfect.” A zoning code that attempts to produce a perfect urban environment may not be the right path forward in such a case. What really matters, according to Burleson, is whether a space attracts people. Sometimes places that draw people in are less than perfect from an urban design perspective, Burleson says, and that’s OK:

The most important thing for the 21st Century is that our places be highly productive — meaning they’ve got to generate private sector and public sector cash flow that makes them economically sustainable. The building [above right] probably does OK for public sector cash flow, but it is not good enough because it doesn’t create vitality that will radiate to the adjacent properties and power a chain of transformation.

What creates private-sector vitality — i.e. valuable property that can generate high rents? Well, property value is driven by the ability of a place to attract people (it’s net attraction). How do we attract people to a place? Jane Jacobs and William Whyte taught us this one a long time ago: people are attracted to other people.

Burleson compares two places: a Milwaukee gas station “hidden” by a corner building that has design qualities espoused by urbanists, which is still surrounded by a terrible walking environment; and a Houston restaurant that is lacking from a design perspective but is still very successful as an urban place. Burleson says we can apply these ideas to our imperfect cities to help promote real change:

Good enough urbanism is the next step after tactical urbanism. It’s reclaiming everything we can from the spaces we have, and doing everything possible to put people on the street. It’s just a little bit more durable and longer-lived than a “paint and traffic cones” intervention. But the amazing thing is, this is the kind of stuff that can change the culture of a place — and THAT is the real battle we’re fighting.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bicycle Alliance of Washington prepares for a big vote that could slow traffic considerably on neighborhood streets around the state. Portland Transport reports that the city is preparing to vote on new, impressively low parking minimums. And NRDC Switchboard explains why the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the “most important law you’ve never heard of.”

  • Anonymous

    Since when have cities ever been “perfect”. And we have bulldozed whole sections before. It was called urban renewal. Now urban renewal was opposed by many urbanites as doing nothing more than evicting poor, working class people or minorities out of neighborhoods and replacing them with lifestyle centers and fancy apartments for upper class people, the result was rather than demolish, refurbish homes by interested parties. Turning colorful neighborhoods into architecturally preserved, high end places that eventually ousted the locals anyway. New Urbanism, as everyone knows, is morally superior to old suburbanism (sarcasm), in truth New Urbanism is really an anachronistic portrayal of old urbanism, only cleaner. In an attempt to replicate or mimic the plazas, squares, public realm, avenues, esplanades, narrow streets and urban vitality of Europe but without centuries of history to back it up to justify filling it’s vacancy. Planners use the subsidies to bribe developers into building New Urban
    developments that are less marketable than the lower-density
    developments that home buyers prefer. And there’s no evidence that New Urbanism actually reduces car use. Many successful New Urban towns are revealed to have parking lots or multi-story parking garages and big box stores and fast food restaurants and gas stations and convenience stores, they just happen to blend better with the surrounding housing. They’re architecturally superior, more aesthetically pleasing. One new town featured an IKEA store opening and a hardware store. Both stores featured proper bicycle parking and huge sidewalks for pedestrians. A interesting concept I can just imagine pedestrians lugging hundreds of dollars worth of tools home. I can really imagine someone using their bike to carry hundreds of pounds of furniture. It’s not to be stereotypical, but people who live in New Urban communities tend to be wealthier people and their high levels of walking, biking, jogging and outdoor activities are almost entirely recreational or exercise related. They have a lot more disposable income and free time to go out and jog but they probably drive to work. There’s not a lot of evidence that it supports mixed income development, working class people that cant afford to live in the new town, the housing prices rise way too much per decade, the lowest income earners leave. Even the apartments fetch too high rents. Yes, there is a market for New Urban dwelling and if people wanna pay to live there fine, but mostly the evidence points to what it really is. Elitism, architectural elitism, aesthetic elitism, economic elitism. It’s a gated community without the gates, you don’t need 12 foot high fences to keep out undesirables, the prices do that.

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