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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Questions About City Planning & Architecture

I received the following questions from Tara Imani, AIA in 2011 and remember asking myself similar questions over the years. I hope my answers will provide some insight. 

In the first question, the architect understands the planning staff available and is asking about responsibility for direction and achievement. Planners may sympathize with the question. Many have become administrators of a process to avoid decisions based on opinion that may threaten their employment. This simply preserves the legal precedent for sprawl, and is an expedient solution when opinion is not reinforced by research to repel challenge. 

Who is providing planning leadership? 

“WHO is responsible for zoning ordinances, tracking population growth, designing cities, urban and regional planning…?”  

There are many responsible in every State. It’s a question of what they’re accomplishing. (I’m not aware of anyone pursuing city design with an inter-disciplinary team on the scale, and with the tools, I’ve previously mentioned.) Right now we have land use separation goals written with a vision that hasn’t substantially changed since the beginning of the 20th century. It is based on our assumption, since the beginning of time, that land is an inexhaustible commodity for sale, conversion and improvement. My generation was the first to witness the limits of this assumption from the Moon. The old myth was destroyed but old habits remain in the history of law and the justification for combat. This has extended a pattern of sprawl that represents a threat, since it is consuming the face of the planet. It can only be met by a new level of awareness that is able to express competing arguments and implications with credibility. 

This leads to a fundamental question. How can we argue for land preservation when populations are growing and we provide shelter with sprawl? This question has led to the software vocabulary and language of Development Capacity Evaluation. It can predict hundreds of development capacity alternatives for a given land area in a fraction of the time it would take to draw one. This will improve city design debate because these predictions can be made within environmental limits. We have the professions responsible, but they need a new goal and new tools to predict strategic options with credibility. These are needed to support new 21st century tactics reinforced by a gigantic leap in the legal concept of property. This is a goal with leadership potential beyond a single profession, but it must be defined by a language that others can follow to produce the results expected. In my opinion, this means that the languages of planning, zoning, architecture, engineering, law, science and many others associated with our built environment need a common voice to lead shelter toward an essential relationship with our natural environment we have called “sustainable”. 

How can a sole practitioner make a difference? 

“My other concern is more general- how to make the quantum leap from a focus on projects to a focus on city and regional planning.  Now that you've answered these questions, I can better understand how this might overwhelm the ‘sole practitioner.’ “ 

A doctor uses the tools and knowledge developed by his profession. An architect must also rely on his profession. A sole practitioner cannot bridge the gap when it exists. This is not about a quantum leap from a project focus, since this is the essential role of any practitioner. It is about improving support for the effort. This involves professional goals, strategy, tools and knowledge that establish his or her credibility and social relevance within the community. It begins with a goal. My contention has been that the goal is city design within sustainable environmental limits that protect the quality of all life on Earth. Project practitioners will then design and build within the urban form and space outlined to protect a city’s physical, social and economic welfare. 

Social relevance and credibility will not be achieved by proclaiming that “design matters”. “Medicine matters” because health matters. It has become a credible statement after centuries of superstition. “Architecture matters” because shelter matters, but it’s a threat to the health of the planet. There is no escaping the fact that it is one of the five essential elements of survival, however. Many design and build shelter but the leadership question remains. How do we provide enough to serve growing populations with lifestyle options that respect sustainable environmental limits? The answer is critical because we must protect the life of the planet and its many inhabitants in order to protect our own? Most are only interested in design and construction for profit. Social relevance and credibility will be gained by professions that work to answer this question in the public interest.  

Architecture will have much to offer when it decides to build research and knowledge from the projects already stored in the archives of its many practitioners, since this is the raw material for context research, development capacity evaluation and leadership direction within the built environment. An national clearinghouse for context research is only a step away from practitioners with archive data that can improve the vocabulary of debate for all concerned with the language of Development Capacity Evaluation. 

How can we advance from tactical skill to strategic success? 

“…maybe it is asking too much to consider the architect's mindset orientation- fixed or growth, design-oriented or construction-oriented. Add to that, project-oriented or regional-development-oriented, and, well...architects have A LOT to think about these days!” 

My interpretation of this question may not be accurate, but the term “mind-set” attracted my attention. To me, a mind-set is an obstacle that resists new policies, goals, strategies and tactics. It’s a static, defensive strategy like the trench warfare of WWI. After years of stalemate and mounting casualties this strategy eventually adjusted with the invention of tanks.  

Everything mentioned in the question is a tactic. They become part of a strategy when the goal is clear. Design is a tactical effort to produce a strategy. Credibility has been lacking because the social relevance of its motive and goal are not clear, or accepted. The public recognizes the building code as a link between architecture and the public health, safety and welfare; but it has often been the subject of architectural criticism and disdain. This may have caused confusion since the public agrees with the goal of building regulation and would see objection as a threat to its interest. They simply ignore the strategic confusion produced by multiple organizations and tactical disagreements that prevent consolidation. This is another topic for another day, but is ripe with opportunity to make an architect more relevant to the community.  

In the case of architecture, I think tactics have received the overwhelming amount of attention without a clear sense of direction. This has produced an increasingly narrow focus that many have mentioned. It may represent an attempt to respond to the marketplace with old products and services while innovation from others reduces market share. 

The architectural mindset is on private practice, but a bigger market share will depend on a better demonstration of public benefit. There may be an opportunity when architecture recognizes its potential contribution to city design.  

In my opinion, the public interest has always been a secondary consideration in architecture. The client comes first for obvious reasons. Only a national organization can address the public interest while improving private practice and credibility. A practitioner must always meet expense, but the public value of advice he or she offers can be improved by answering one leadership question: What information, education and tools are required to convince the public that design matters? The public will be convinced when form, function and appearance are part of the knowledge needed to design cities that can shelter growing populations within sustainable environmental limits and structures. The ultimate goal is to preserve quality for all life on the planet, and it must be shared by many, but will always be represented by the cities and architecture created to reach each objective on the road to our strategic goal.  

In architecture, I’ve mentioned that the data for city design research resides in the archives of existing architectural practices, as well as on the street. Knowledge can be gained by dedicated measurement and evaluation of the design specification values represented. These values are the vocabulary of Development Capacity Evaluation. Healthy values defined through context analysis can become the language of city design for those who seek the knowledge to lead.  

Architecture is a part of the city design goal to shelter growing populations within sustainable environmental limits. The intent is to protect the planet’s ability to sustain quality for all life on Earth. The goal represents a public benefit of the highest order, but requires a new “mindset” and educational format to meet the challenge. Expanding this role to include a national focus on shared data and collective research for public benefit can increase market share for all who follow the path discovered. It is a concept that can lead architecture out of the trenches behind Development Capacity Evaluation, but only with the help of many other planners, engineers, scientists and related professionals who share the front line against impossible odds.  

Architecture has been accustomed to thinking of itself as an independent profession. The insularity of every profession appears to be a subconscious extension of our instinct to protect the survival of similar groups. The next level of awareness, however, will involve the survival of similar interests among all groups.  

One of these common interests is shelter without sprawl. Shelter matters, but a strategy to avoid sprawl begins with an effort to create the knowledge required. (Remember, structural engineering was not born. It began with the measurement and evaluation of relative strength among materials.) In the case of city design, it can begin with context measurement, evaluation and forecasting of tactical options using the vocabulary and tools of Development Capacity Evaluation. The language that evolves can define a strategy of urban form to contain sprawl, shelter populations, promote economic stability and provide social benefit. Architecture can then be deployed to achieve each objective on the road to a sustainable future within environmental limits.  

The benefit to public interest should be obvious. The benefit to architecture will evolve as it becomes a tactical extension of city design strategy for a sustainable future. This is the “mindset” for a new age of awareness whose symbol is a small blue planet and a thin film of atmosphere at risk from a concept we call “growth”. Without limits it will consume the land and pollute the environment within a universe of forces responding to a power that does not compromise with ignorance. 

NOTE: City design matters because we matter within the form and space we call cities, and because the planet beyond cannot be ignored. Architecture matters because its decisions represent the tactical execution of city design strategy. The goal is to achieve physical, social, economic and environmental success within sustainable limits that shelter growing populations and protect all life on Earth.  

Why is city planning separated from architecture? 

“As someone who considered majoring in City and Regional Planning, I have always seen the design of cities as intertwined and the basis for all architectural development. I was equally amazed to learn just recently - in a meeting with David Nicks, AIA of Transforming Architecture - that the only city in the U.S. to be designed by an architect is Lake Jackson, TX. I find that simply astonishing.” 

I haven’t thought about it in years, but planning involves public decisions and project regulation. Architecture involves private decisions and project design. This public-private relationship has a rocky history that began with building and zoning regulation. Architects are not in control of their design decisions. They can only make recommendations to owners who may not share their motivation and opinion. This relationship produced a threat to the public health, safety and welfare that had to be remedied with the historic regulations mentioned. The public-private relationship is now hindered by inadequate planning language and concepts that prevent the formation, evaluation and adoption of common design goals in the public interest. In its absence, planning regulation becomes one more architectural hurdle. When you consider that decisions are out of the hands of architects and planners in both sectors, goals are even more difficult to decipher and the public sector substitutes politics for leadership while sprawl continues. 

Why aren’t city planners architects? 

“I reminded Mr. Nicks that Pierre L'Enfant designed Washington, D.C. and he said, "Well, yeah, but he was not an architect!"  Well, what was Monsieur L'Enfant then?  A mere planner?  To me, a city planner MUST be an architect.  Am I missing something here?” 

Pierre Charles L’Enfant was a military engineer who was with Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge. He became Captain of Engineers and had a thriving civil engineering firm in New York City after the war. He was responsible for the redesign of City Hall in New York City for the first Congress in Federal Hall, which I assume is how he came to be known as an architect. His plan for Washington, D.C. is actually a large subdivision plan that established a movement system and lot sizes. These have historically been prepared by civil engineers, but are only a piece of the puzzle that is city design. 

Your contention that a city planner must be an architect is a loyal position. It may stem from the fact that buildings are served by engineering systems; but shelter is only one of four divisions of the built environment. The only common pre-requisite for planners is cooperation, since the topic is vast. The skills required are diverse, and they can be in short supply. Buildings are projects. Cities are a process. They must have adequate leadership over generations. This is not the time frame of an architect in the private sector, or of an architect in the public sector, unless he or she is working as a planner. In this case, architectural skills can be of value to the total planning effort when they focus on the physical, social, economic and environmental decisions needed to pursue city design in the public interest. 

Is anyone working on the problems stated in your article? 

“After reading your article, I feel I've entered a parallel universe - one without the existence of a single urban planner, no city and regional planners, and no university programs teaching urban design.  

In other words, SURELY, SOMEONE else must be concerned and working on the problems you've stated in your article. Aren't they?” 

There are plenty of planners, designers and university programs, but we only see trees when walking in a forest. Sprawl is confusion turning in circles and searching for leadership. Resolution will depend on new concepts and tools. It’s hard to argue that our education, decisions and practice are leading us in the right direction. Residents guide their city’s evolution and opinion is the common currency. In this forest the most convincing argument wins, and the claim that design opinion should prevail has never had the credibility required for automatic acceptance. Any claim that planning education and practice have the answers must explain why sprawl continues.  

The first edition of my book and software were published 10 years ago. I’m not aware of anyone pursuing the issues mentioned with the software provided. I have suggested that our goal is to preserve the planet’s ecological ability to sustain all life on Earth. This means designing cities within geographic limits that shelter growing populations. I am not aware of any coordinated pursuit of this goal, but I will be the first to admit that I’m not an academic familiar with the work of others. 

Who should address the issue of sprawl? 

“So, who's responsibility IS IT?  The green people of the USGBC?  The good people of the AIA who decide to take on suburban sprawl?  Or who?  If you could design (or hire) the perfect "A" team to address this problem, who (profession-wise) would be on it?  A scientist, geologist, city planner, architect, civil engineer, neighborhood association leaders, Mr. Ed Mazria of the Architect 2030 challenge, urban planners, advocates against "suburban sprawl"… “ 

The shape of our cities has evolved from real estate law. In fact, planning and zoning began when the law realized it had to protect the public health, safety and welfare from conflicting land use activities, excessive density and inferior construction. Land use separation has only been a partial success, however, because it has inadequately addressed the three dimensions of city design. Two-dimensional land use activities are sheltered by three-dimensional urban form. The intensity of urban form defines development capacity, or gross building area per buildable acre. Land use plans have been unable to forecast the gross building area that will emerge. This means they have been unable to accurately forecast anything that is a function of gross building area, such as population, intensity and revenue. This in turn has left their land use plans floating without a financial lifejacket while drifting toward sprawl and blight. You may be surprised that no one has done more, but sprawl represents our best effort to date because the law has not had adequate tools to precisely address the future of three-dimensional urban form. 

Imagine an interactive three-dimensional computer graphic that displays the urban form and space of a city. The graphic correlates this form to the activities sheltered and the average revenue produced per acre. Next, imagine that you could adjust this form and space one project at a time by changing the variables in a development capacity equation. The form would adjust and you could read the change in average revenue per acre implied -- while comparing it to the city’s average expense per acre. Then imagine that you could design a city’s entire urban form with these variables to produce the development capacity, open space and revenue potential needed to support the shared services required over time. Imagine that you could also evaluate another option, or a development proposal, with the same model. This is not that far-fetched when you are able to predict the development capacity of any land area with mathematical values assigned to the design specification template of a forecast model representing a building design category. These calculations can be converted to three-dimensional volumes on a screen that indicates building mass and its relationship to space. When this is applied to an entire city, the graphic represents a schematic outline of urban form we call a city, and can be adjusted by changing any set of design specification values associated with an individual project area of any size.  

The picture just painted represents the city design of urban form with the credibility to convince others of the direction needed. Finally, imagine that this graphic model has pre-defined geographic limits; and that all urban form adjustments must take place within these limits to protect and preserve the environment beyond. In other words, these ecological boundaries express the goal of life within limits. City design of urban form outlines the strategy needed. Architecture, engineering and science make the tactical decisions required to build the shelter component of our sustainable goal. At this point, architecture will define urban form with the detail required to build results that reflect the knowledge gained. 

A lot of people talk about sprawl, but the relationship of property rights to growth limits has been an obstacle. Jefferson’s declaration of property rights was written when the population was limited and the continent appeared infinite. Since architecture and planning were some of his many skills however, I believe he would participate in a clarification that responds to growth he could not imagine and had no reason to fear. 

Jefferson was concerned about whose rights should prevail – the divine right of King George III or the rights of the people. Even he did not realize that the rights of the planet prevail. At that time he was busy with an inventory and classification of the resources he imagined. Less than 200 years have passed since his death and we are still busy with the inventory. We have counted enough, however, to realize that extinction has occurred. We may not be able to prove the cause, but must listen to instinct that only wisdom can hear. 

Sprawl represents a search for revenue to support city services. It is not simply a response to population growth. A developer responds to growth with shelter in the pursuit of profit. Cities react to these proposals and respond to the prospect of new revenue. They assume that their land use plan is a satisfactory economic model because they have no other option. Unfortunately, cities simply do not understand the balance of land use activity and urban form required to supply adequate revenue over an extended period of time. This has led most to approve development applications that represent new money, but long term expense that will exceed their average revenue over time.  

In answer to your question, cities should address sprawl, or inadequate land use allocation for those with no room to expand, by addressing the development capacity and economic yield issue I called the city design of urban form. The law simply cannot proceed without this informed direction. (I’ll avoid listing team members and functions.) This requires thinking of the city in three dimensions, since economic yield is a function of the activities and gross building area constructed per acre of land available. This can be overdone however, and open space must enter the equation to offset intensity and offer lifestyle options. Development Capacity Evaluation software has been created to forecast gross building area potential based on the model selected and the variables entered in its design specification template. When an option is calculated, it is a short step to forecast the population, income, revenue, construction cost and return on investment implied.  

I have not described a traditional professional service. It depends on a city with real estate data recorded on a geographic information system; revenue information it is willing to share; expense information it is willing to assemble; a staff willing to enter additional correlation data for mapping; and a government willing to share this information with the public. Development Capacity Evaluation and city design can proceed when this foundation is in place. Anything less will lack the credibility needed to justify urban form options and city design recommendations that can be pursued over time. This is an effort that will benefit from the contributions of many, including architects, who not only design but investigate the physical, social, psychological and economic implications of their work with context research. 

NOTE: “City design” as used in this context does not mean city planning or urban design. City planning is still primarily concerned with two-dimensional land use relationships, and its design standards are lost in detail that produce arbitrary results without a coherent goal or strategy. Urban design addresses three-dimensional environments in limited project areas with correspondingly limited goals and strategy.  

Is my neighborhood at risk? 

“I happen to live in a suburban neighborhood- and it is NOT dying!!” 

I am not familiar with your city and neighborhood but suggest you read, “The City is a Farm” on my blog before reaching any conclusions. Residents are simply not familiar with municipal income sources and expense requirements over time; and rarely have annual state of the city messages that help with their assessment for whatever reason. Revenue and expense correlation with development capacity and urban form, however, is an absolutely essential foundation for city design that has the credibility to lead the tactics of economic development, architecture and engineering. The correlation of development capacity with other affected urban functions is only limited by the imagination, and represents the future potential of Development Capacity Evaluation.

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