The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Strong Towns: "More Jane Jacobs, Less Robert Moses"

Jane Jacobs, showing petitions against the Lower Manhattan Expressway at a press conference in 1961.  Source:
I’m not the only one doing “best-of” stuff at the end of the year.  I came across Chuck Marohn’s latest at Strong Towns, where he reposts a piece from earlier this year called “The Foolproof City”.  

It’s a great read and is indeed one of the best that Chuck wrote over the course of the year.  I remember thinking so when I read it earlier and regretted that I didn’t highlight it before.  I won’t do the injustice of block-quoting huge pieces of his work, but I will call attention to a few things of note.  First, he points out that the professionalization of the engineering and planning professions has led to a sense that the “experts” know what’s best, and has gotten away from the traditional patterns that have worked for generations:

For millennia, around the world, in different cultures, different continents and different climates, we built places scaled to people. It has only been the last 60+ years that we in North America gradually stopped walking and started driving. For thousands of years prior, we walked everywhere, and so our places were built around people who walked. While there were many variations on the theme, the spacing, scale and proportions of these places were very similar to one another.

They key insight here is that the knowledge for how to build this way — those fundamental underpinnings of spacing, scale and proportion — does not descend from a theory or a brilliant individual but from a collection of natural experiments that occurred over and over again for thousands of years. In other words, people suffered and even died trying different things, figuring out how to build places that would endure. The places that endured long enough to be copied were the ultimate strong towns. They were resilient politically, socially, culturally and financially.

 Then, in showing how the traditional approach creates greater value for communities, he demonstrates how a pizza joint in downtown High Point, NC is more valuable, on a value-per-acre basis, than a Kmart or Wal-Mart:

Jimmy’s pizza represents the base unit of development in the traditional development pattern. It is the cheap little box that was the first increment of investment for cities everywhere. It is so simple to build that you literally couldn’t mess it up. And look at how productive it is.

You take 14-acres and build a Big K, you’ll have a site worth $5.4 million. You take 14-acres and build in the most basic increment of the traditional development pattern, an approach embodied in Jimmy’s pizza, and that same area is worth $48.3 million.

It is so simple you can’t screw it up.

And Chuck shows how one of the strengths of the traditional approach is its adaptability:

 Of course, I could pile on here. How do you expand and improve a Big K? You don’t, but there are thousands of ways to improve Jimmy’s pizza (few that require professional “expertise” or even more than a moderate level of competence). If your Big K fails, we can blame whoever we want, but we still have an economic disaster. If Jimmy’s pizza fails, well….that building can be transformed into about anything. Give it some time and a surrounding neighborhood full of people on foot and that invisible hand will figure it out (if our antiquated zoning codes don’t prevent it).

We already know what works, in model and form.  We’ve simply left it behind in an attempt to create something better, and found that what we thought was better is less than the sum of its parts.  At some point, we’ll get back to what we know.

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