Reprinted: Introduction to “Populating Urbanism”

(The following is an updated version of the introduction to “Populating Urbanism,” published as an essay in Living Urbanism, Issue 1, April 2008; the full text can be found here )

With various degrees of success, architecture creates a framework for community, for environmental responsibility, and for health. However, reaching these goals ultimately requires people—warm bodies—and empowering normal people to live out their daily lives in a reasonable way. A minimum population, or critical mass, is needed to support the businesses and civic uses within a neighborhood or town. Conversely, sufficient businesses and activities are necessary to allow a reasonable proportion of individuals to live without daily reliance on the automobile.

This paper suggests a method for determining an appropriate population numbers and densities for neighborhood/place development. It uses the viability of transportation modes to suggest minimum population and density, and uses amenity/services levels to suggest maximum density. The purpose is to suggest a methodology, but not to determine final numbers; all calculations and numerical assumptions are used primarily for illustrative purposes.

Setting the stage

Two ideas from a fellow CNU member inform this work. The first is that the main body of New Urbanist development has a “bloated T3,” that there is too much in New Urbanist projects of the sub-urban (T3) zone, however well configured it may be. The second is the concept of “Living Urbanism” presented at the fourth Next Generation of New Urbanists congress in 2006 (Preston). To the first point, I am interested in understanding to what degree our T3 is “bloated.” Regarding the second point, defining a “Living Urbanism” is essential to identifying functional standards describing the population needed to enable a high level of functionality and vitality.

The car is an active player in this analysis and some of my colleagues may find this methodology too beholden to drivers. However, I suggest this will push us in the right direction whereas a refusal to acknowledge the car in a methodical way risks leaving us righteous and stagnant. We must understand how to push the New Urbanist model to its breaking point, not that we would desire to abide there but so that we do not let ourselves be pushed over it. Compromises had to be made and will continue to be made in order to bring New Urbanism to a mass audience. However, the nature of those compromises should change and be re-evaluated as we progress. Where we can no longer afford to compromise is in creating beautiful, well-configured places that simply do not have the critical mass to come “alive.”


Continued here.


4 thoughts on “Reprinted: Introduction to “Populating Urbanism”

  1. A Hierarchy of Places « my [urban] generation

  2. You mentioned “bloated T-3.” How much is too much? I’m working to define something I call “pedestrian propulsion,” which is how much (or whether) urbanism propels you along the way by virtue of entertaining you so well. The opposite of pedestrian propulsion is “pedestrian impedance,” and this is the property of T-3 streets, (in varying degrees) no matter how beautiful, because the houses are scattered far enough apart that it’s boring. IMO, one can’t tolerate much more than a block of T-3 without driving, so this is what the depth of T-3 should be… one block or so, generally arranged around the edges. I’m working on a tool that actually measures this.

  3. First I should mention that Russell Preston originated the “bloated T3” idea. See his article in the first issue of Living Urbanism. Though he doesn’t use that term explicitly in the article the concept is embedded.

    The long answer is in the other half of the original article that I haven’t gotten around to editing for reprint yet.

    The short answer is that I’m determining it based on the number of cars that the core can handle and still be “livable”. I’m not making the assumption that everybody is going to walk. I’m as frustrated as anybody when neighborhoods like Celebration have single family pods that keep going and going. I feel like we’ve tried to say everything must be walkable or within 5 minutes but that doesn’t reflect what’s getting built and it doesn’t account for the fact that no matter what you do some people will drive (under the current economy). So how many is too many? If you want to extend it to times of crisis, what’s walkable will get much more liberal if we really face a dramatic fuel crisis (e.g. a mile instead of 1/4 mile).

    The “impedance” index sounds very useful and totally compatible with this concept. I do think it’s important to realize that no matter how wonderful the urban environment, someone will drive. I had to talk my landlady out of driving 2 blocks in Baldwin park (there was an impedance issue; half that walk was beside the Publix parking lot). It’s just a question of whether, given the conditions, that group of people is 5% or 95%. Reid Ewing has a great graph in “Best Development Practices” titled “Walking Distances for Different Purposes.”

    • Exactly… throw out the top and bottom 10 percentile extremists on either end, and let’s get most people doing the right thing. Incidentally, if anyone’s in Charlotte tomorrow, I’m presenting the tool for the first time at the Smarter Codes, Smarter Growth conference that precedes NPSG.

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