Building incrementally

Andrew Price writes on what incrementalism actually means for developing healthy and organic communities. He presents four types of incremental development: incremental intensification, incremental implementation, incremental repurposing, and incremental architecture:

Incremental intensification often goes hand in hand with granularity. It keeps land ownership diversified, and it enforces good urban bones, since a separate building every so many feet means a destination such as a housefront or a shopfront every so many feet. It lowers the risk that an area will be negatively transformed, as it takes the form of many small bets (a few apartment buildings will pop up first, and if the demand is not there, no more apartment buildings will appear) rather than fewer large bets (the entire block is being replaced with 200 units). …

Incremental implementation means looking for low cost ways to rapidly prototype and iteratively improve. Henry Ford has a famous quote: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses.” As with all products, the best way to design a product is to see what sells and watch people use it. By testing out the placement of the bike lanes and trees with chalk and cones first, we were able to try out multiple configurations and we even have the option of rolling back before we spent too much money. …

Incremental repurposing … It is often cheaper, faster, and less resource-intensive to adapt and reuse what already exists than to build new each time. … Our older urban areas and main streets are filled with buildings that have seen many generations of owners and uses. Zoning codes that allow uses to be mixed together, and allow older buildings to be incrementally updated (rather than denying any modifications because the older use no longer conforms to newer zoning or building codes), encourage buildings to be reused rather than demolished and rebuilt. …

Incremental architecture is the least common form of incrementalism, but it does happen. You often see this with large public buildings: the shopping mall adds on an expansion. The school constructs an extension so they can fit in more classrooms and a new gym. A house adds on a garage. …

Incrementalism does not mean doing things slowly: incremental development can be rapid and up to the task of reacting to pressing needs and dramatic societal changes. Incrementalism looks like experimenting, rapid prototyping, iteratively improving, and reducing the risks of bad decisions.

The graphics that Price includes are probably the best part; they convey these ideas so straightforwardly. I think once you get to a point where you start talking about the need for “comprehensive” solutions, it can generally be assumed that things have broken down. Incremental progress often obviates the need for comprehensive solutions, except in situations where orders of magnitude leaps have to be made.

Notre Dame’s new (old) neighborhood

Since Sunday was our rest day at Notre Dame, during an otherwise intensive Vita Institute, I left my room at Ryan Hall and hopped onto a nearby Limebike for a ride down to Eddy Commons for lunch.

I’ve been to Eddy Commons a number of times before; it’s a compact “downtown” in miniature adjacent to Notre Dame’s campus that was built something like a decade ago. But on this bike ride, I pushed past that compact downtown area and discovered an incredible, growing neighborhood behind it. I rode through it for about an hour taking the photos below, and generally admiring the aesthetics, the walkability, and just how pre-World War II and traditional the entire neighborhood is.

At one point I rode past a guy who had pulled over to retrieve his mail from the neighborhood’s mailboxes, and he explained that the whole neighborhood had been transformed starting about a decade ago into what it is now: a place with intentionally and appropriately narrow streets, a place made for walking or biking just as much as driving, a place where mail is delivered not to each house but to one set of mailboxes, a place where (as a result) neighbors have the chance to bump into one another and catch up, a place where every home has a porch of some size to encourage community feeling and create spaces for gathering and resting, a place where garages are accessible only by alleys running behind the homes rather than facing the primary streets, etc.

Later I looked this neighborhood up and discovered the vision and history behind it:

The Northeast Neighborhood (NEN) of South Bend is located immediately south of campus at the University’s “front door.” While the NEN historically offered both desirable housing and a variety of commercial businesses, the neighborhood deteriorated badly over a period of decades. Family homes were converted to student rental properties as families moved out and there were no buyers to take their place; the housing stock deteriorated and housing values declined, and commercial businesses closed down or moved away.

In 2000, the University of Notre Dame joined with four other area institutions – the City of South Bend, Memorial Hospital, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and (later) the South Bend Clinic – to form the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO). Working collaboratively with the Northeast Neighborhood Council (NENC) and area residents, the NNRO organized and funded a comprehensive redevelopment plan featuring five residential and two commercial zones, and created a set of comprehensive redevelopment guidelines. This plan laid the foundation for Eddy Street Commons, the Notre Dame Avenue Housing Program (NDAHP), and The Triangle Residential District.

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The Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO) is the sponsor of The Triangle Residential District in the area bounded by Eddy Street Commons on the north, Eddy Street on the west, and South Bend Avenue on the south and east.  The Triangle offers buildable lots for owner-occupied, single-family detached residences, with 70% of the lots available to market-rate buyers and 30% of the lots reserved for Affordable Housing buyers.  The homes must be designed and constructed according to guidelines established by the NNRO.  While these guidelines require that new homes honor traditional architectural principles, they still allow for a great deal of individuality.

Aren’t the benefits of a neighborhood like this clear? Why aren’t we building more of these, everywhere? These are the sorts of suburbs worth having, where there is space for everyone, but not so much distance that encountering your neighbors (or even family members) becomes basically the exception rather than the norm. These are the sorts of neighborhoods that continue to make places just outside of Philadelphia across the historic Main Line communities like Narberth and Ardmore and Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr still so desirable.

Dependent suburban lifestyles

Johnny Sanphillippo at Granola Shotgun shares the experience of walking through Thousand Oaks, a typical Southern California neighborhood:

I’m just a geek who likes seeing how people occupy the landscape. … I believe our institutions and society are all in a lot of trouble and I’m trying to figure out how to ride out a difficult set of challenges in the not-too-distant future. …

One of the things that the front lawn guy was fired up about was attempts by the state to force all towns to accept infill development and higher densities even when residents didn’t want it. The idea that every home might have a second unit constructed in the back yard or that multi-family buildings would proliferate within subdivisions of single family homes was anathema. I totally understood his concerns. Personally I have no desire to impose such things on anyone. However… many of the homes next door and along his street already had backyard cottages and were, by any measure, already physically “multi-family.”

This house is currently for sale. It’s advertised as having, “a large detached casita with a living area, bedroom, bathroom and separate wet steam room!” The photos show the interior of the casita with a sink, tiled kitchen counters, cabinets, and a standard size refrigerator, but no stove. A stove would make this an illegal and culturally repugnant accessory dwelling unit. But a casita… That’s a luxury guest suite for treasured family and friends.

The 4,900 square foot (455 square meter) main house has five generously proportioned bedrooms each with its own private bath and all are large enough to hold all manner of furniture and activities in addition to a bed. Every bedroom also has an exterior door to the garden. There are two additional baths in the house. The massive kitchen has two breakfast bars. There’s a giant bonus room, home office, wine cellar, laundry… The attached two car garage is supplemented by a detached four car garage and enough driveway space for who knows how many more vehicles. The Google aerial view shows two full size recreational vehicles parked along the side driveway. This “single family home” is actually a small apartment complex in most regards. But as long as only one prosperous family inhabits it… no problem. …

Thousand Oaks has all the symbolism of farm life, minus the productive agriculture and supportive community. And driving everywhere, every day, for everything is mandatory. The residents may not know it, but they’re all just as dependent on the “Nanny State,” multinational corporations, global financial institutions, and just-in-time delivery systems as people living in high rise towers. It’s a great place to live if you like this sort of thing and can afford it. But it’s just as vulnerable to external shocks of all kinds as the urban environment they fear.

He hits on some of the real problems with suburban living, which is that in practice (meaning, on the level of daily, lived experience) you’re (a) less likely to encounter other human beings than in the city (b) less likely to feel the fulfillment that comes from healthy human relationships (c) less able to access neighborhood cultural/educational activities and resources, and (d) more “cooped up” than most city dwellers. To have to drive anywhere to have any of these experiences is a thin sort of independence in theory, and often, in fact, frustrating dependence in practice.

Skylines at human scale

Fast on the heels of my “windows that open” praise, Roger Scruton provides context on “how to build a skyline at human scale” and touches upon my complaints about contemporary windows that seal human beings off from nature:

Buildings touch the ground, and the business of resting on the ground, rather than crushing, mutilating, or annihilating it, is one fundamental part of the architectural task. But buildings also touch the sky, and in doing so they create one of the most significant boundaries in our world—the skyline, which is the boundary between the city and the heavens.

Traditional builders were very respectful towards this boundary. Their buildings were designed to meet the sky with cheerful gestures, wearing decorative crowns, reaching upwards with the prayerful fingers of the minarets or the questioning needles of the spires. Blunt stubs of flattened masonry might sometimes be necessary for military purposes. But they were never approved for use in the city, where every building needed a hat that would put its social nature on display.

This attitude to the skyline is one of the most important reasons for the charm of the old cities of Europe and the Middle East. Even today you can capture glimpses of this charm, for instance in the skyline of Ghent, so proud of its markets and merchandise, so intent on celebrating the guilds, congregations, schools, and colleges that throw their stone hats in the air. …

The horizontal roof was one of the innovations of which the modernists were most proud. Le Corbusier saw the flat roof of the Villa Savoye as a proof of the new aesthetic, and the fact that it leaked, and that the whole house beneath it was soon to become uninhabitable and an object of litigation, was a matter of indifference to him. …

The skyline of the old city was not created by spires, domes and minarets only. It was created most of all by the rows of pitched roofs on which these decorative additions cast their endearing shadows.

The pitched roof, like the window, was one of those great discoveries that any child could have made, but which, like the window, required a vast amount of research before architects could dispense with it. This research has enabled architects to design sealed buildings whose windows cannot be opened, which require constant heating and cooling, and which generally fall apart at the joints and leak from the roof—all positive attributes that necessitate demolition and rebuilding every 20 or 30 years.

Pitched roofs and windows, by contrast, produce buildings that last forever, and which can be constructed without the advice of an architect, as at Ghent: They are a disaster for the profession and it is no wonder that every effort is being made to forget how to construct them.

The pitched roof has a gable, which lends itself to decoration. It has corners where statues can stand or finials sprout. It carries tiles that make rippling shadows and very often has a terracotta crest along the apex, which stitches the two slopes together. It can be punctured by attic windows, to delightful effect, and creates interesting interiors that remind their occupants of the sky above. All in all it is an aesthetic triumph, all the greater for never having been thought of in that way.

We have to build denser cities and towns in America if we want to avoid exacerbating the emotional disconnection and physical sprawl of suburbanization, but the true challenge is density on a human scale. In other words, architecture at physical dimensions that prioritize and ennoble human beings as opposed to oppressive, titanic designs meant primarily to dwarf or dazzle a person walking in or walking by.

We’re better people when we’re there

Gracy Olmstead writes:

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. … And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

A great deal of the 20th century was an attempt to shape a new sort of civilization with our new technologies. Going from steam to electrification to automobiles to flight to atomic energy brought incredible transformations, but our ability to live differently on a human level (that is, on the level of our homes and neighborhoods and communities) hasn’t turned out to be as malleable as many of our economic and technological conventions.

There’s a reason that people in New York intuitively sought to protect the West Village (and pay incredible premiums to live there), and why the attempts at “urban renewal” that replaced West Village-esque neighborhoods with drab apartment blocks have been largely rejected. It’s not just the aesthetics of places like the West Village that make them beautiful, but it’s the whole way of life that those neighborhoods make possible that makes life worth living there.

Greenwich Village may once have been host to New York’s avant garde, but its longevity and conservation are testaments to the best sort of conservative spirit in every heart that says something like, “Yes, this place feels right.”

Livable places

Hazel Borys writes:

Tonight I was thinking back through all of the places I’ve lived, correlating the physical form of the places to the size of my circle of friends. While completely an anecdote of a sample size of one, I noticed that when I lived in more walkable locations, I certainly had a much more engaged urban tribe. Just out of university, I moved into a flat on High Street. Most every morning, I’d go for a run with a friend, then meet up at the coffee shop with three or four friends before work. Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market with a larger circle were a weekly standard. Some of those friends are still close today, despite the long distances between us. I had more social capital paid in before 8 a.m. than I did all day that time I lived in the suburbs, where I only lasted two and a quarter years.

Another chapter of life was in a small town, a five minute walk to the town square. We frequently had dinner on the front porch, where friends would meander by and stop awhile. Gardening in my front yard, a complete stranger stopped on the sidewalk to chat, and she soon became one of my closest friends in town.

I had plenty of time to think through this today as we completed a favourite holiday ritual of baking cookies for 31 of our closest neighbours. This is something we never did while living in a suburban environment, even though we had a small child, who is more likely to connect us to others. While I’m sure that that there are just as many lovable people in the auto-oriented suburbs as there are in walkable, complete communities, livable places connect people, and make social bonds more likely. …

I realize there are significant stage-of-life factors that figure in to how connected we are to others. Most people tend to have significantly stronger social bonds just out of college than later in life. And having a young child strengthens those bonds as our kids open doors to community.

… as Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City, social isolation has much to do with the form of our built environment. Those connections that are essential for well-being are particularly difficult to come by in the auto-centric dispersed city, and are more likely in walkable, connected neighbourhoods. Charles points to happiness economist John Helliwell at UBC, who found that in Canadian cities, trust in neighbors was the key for life satisfaction, not income or wealth. He also cites Elizabeth Dunn, who found even superficial contact with strangers generates a “social-tie density” that supports wellness and productivity.

It’s good to live in a place where you can walk to all of the places you really need to get to, or at minimum hop in a subway/train or reasonably-priced Uber/etc.

Being receptive

Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture is a book of essays on our culture’s love of labor for labor’s sake:

The concept of intellectual work may be traced back and explored in terms of various historical sources. It implies, in the first place, a very definite view of the mode and manner of man’s intellectual knowledge. What happens when we look at a rose? What do we do as we become aware of color and form? Our soul is passive and receptive. We are, to be sure, awake and active, but our attention is not strained; we simply “look”—in so far, that is, as we “contemplate” it and are not already “observing” it (for “observing” implies that we are beginning to count, to measure and to weigh up).

Observation is a tense activity; which is what Ernst Jünger meant when he called seeing an “act of aggression”. To contemplate, on the other hand, to “look” in this sense, means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision, and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling for any effort or strain on our part to possess them. There can hardly be any doubt that that, or something like it, is the way we become sensorially aware of a thing.

In approaching Ernst Jünger’s seeing as “act of aggression,” we can understand why the child and childhood is so wonderful, because it’s the time when burdens recede, or before they impose, to allow the mind to work without laboring. To be human, to wonder. This is true both for the child and for the adults who love her.

We want to become aware of a thing without feeling the need to possess it. This idea cuts to the core of the Christian notion of temptation, and Alan Watts’s addresses this “appreciation v. possession” dynamic in The Wisdom of Insecurity, that unhappiness draws its power from our futile attempts to possess that which is fleeting.

Being receptive seems to be about appreciating the things that are unfolding in front of you, and appreciating those things as they are—without running ahead intellectually to ask what use you can put them, or how to turn them to your advantage or purposes.

Complete neighborhoods

Andrew Price writes on “complete neighborhoods,” where peoples’ needs are close at hand:

I’m interested in creating livable, walkable, human-scale cities, and one of the most important elements to creating a livable city is the development pattern of your local neighborhood. We talk about car dependency being bad and limiting our freedom, but what does ‘transportation freedom’ look like? Waiting for a bus every time you leave home? Not so much. I believe that the most free mode of transportation is one that doesn’t require any vehicle to get around — thus, our largest gains with building livable, human-scale cities come from building foot-oriented neighborhoods. …

The best way to easily and affordable get people around is to reduce the distance they have to travel. If you move things close enough and make it comfortable to get around, people will walk.

Cities are divided into neighborhoods, and if you’ve ever spent time living in a walkable city without a car, you know that your quality of life is largely dependent on the amenities within your neighborhood — the walkshed of your home.

A good neighborhood will have enough variety of restaurants to keep you satisfied, along with schools, parks, grocery stores, walk-in clinics, entertainment, etc. If you were fortunate enough to work from or close to home, it’s the sort of neighborhood you could go months without leaving and not feel like you’re missing out on anything.

What I’m describing here is what I like to call a Complete Neighborhood. A Complete Neighborhood is one where, outside of commuting to work or having a “night out,” you can get everything you need within walking distance.

Pick a random neighborhood in Manhattan and it’ll likely be a Complete Neighborhood. (I know New York is an atypical American experience, but it’s the closest I can get to making this point without talking about foreign cities.) The further out into the outer boroughs and suburbs you go (unfortunately, you don’t have to go far) the less “complete” the neighborhood becomes, regardless of how long it takes to get into Manhattan via transit. …

Separating uses to a scale that requires a vehicle — whether it is a car, a bicycle, or transit — to get around for basic necessities is an artificial problem created by modern planning. Until we change our development pattern to build Complete Neighborhoods, any transportation infrastructure (whether widening roads to accommodate more cars or tunneling a subway line) is just wasteful spending.

Once we build foot-oriented neighborhoods, transit and cycling become productive investments.

Just as conservation requires context, it makes sense to me that a good life involves a “complete neighborhood” in this way.

Real towns and suburban myths

Rachel Quednau at Strong Towns writes:

Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that’s the way people want to live. The only reason we have the suburban style of development with its large homes, three car garages, big box stores and wide, fast-moving streets, is because people prefer that sort of living, right?

Busted: The suburbs exist because that’s the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation. …

Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs. If we just stopped building so many one-story buildings and winding suburban roads, we’d be fine.

Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent. …

Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle. However we feel about culs de sac and strip malls, we can at least agree that the people who live in suburban areas are paying for that way of life, so what’s the big deal?

Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. …

Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.

Busted: No. There’s too much suburban development for this to ever happen.

There’s much more in what Rachel writes that I haven’t excerpted, and is worth checking out especially if the “Busted” answers don’t make sense. I’ve written before on this: A public square is built for people, Conservatives oppose ugliness, The perfect town, Suburbs are mostly disposable, and What suburbs do.

A common sense staircase

Josh K. Elliott writes:

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards.

Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …

Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours.

Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, says the stairs have already been a big help to people who routinely take that route through the park. “I’ve seen so many people fall over that rocky path that was there to begin with,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement over what was there.” …

Coun. Justin Di Ciano, who represents Astl’s area, said the spot seems safer with stairs than without them, so he’s asked his staff to leave them for now while plans are made for a city-approved upgrade that won’t cost too much.

“I think we all need to have a bit of common sense here,” he said.

Every aspect of this story is great, maybe most of all because it is subsidiarity in practice—accomplishing good things on the lowest possible level and without needless intervention or interference from higher levels of authority.

Councilman Di Ciano’s plea for having “a bit of common sense” seems strange to me, since Adi Astl’s decision to solve a pressing problem in an immediate, neighborly, and cheap way seems like the most common sense thing imagineable.