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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What is Architecture?

Architecture has aligned itself with fine art and the public considers this purpose a goal it can live without. Architecture, however, is shelter. The public understands the purpose is survival. Furthermore, the public is becoming aware that shelter must be contained within geographic limits to protect its source of life. The goal meets fatalism, pessimism and skepticism, however; because city design involves a correlation of effort, attitude adjustment and vocabulary of intensity that has only recently begun to coalesce into language. Architecture is familiar with correlation but retains a limited focus and vocabulary that is not equal to the debate required.

A symbiotic building is not enough when the goal is symbiotic cities. Architectural design will increase in public significance when talent recognizes this higher purpose. In other words, design must respond to special interest with public benefit that can be measured. I’ve called these measurements “intensity”. City design weaves the intensity of building mass and pavement into the open space, movement and life support systems of urban anatomy. The objective is survival with security and benefit, but a lack of city design has produced few healthy results and far more prevalent dissonance, economic instability and sprawl.

I’ve called the prediction of intensity options and the measurement of existing conditions “development capacity evaluation”. Future options and decisions defined with the vocabulary of intensity will determine our ability to adapt to an increasingly obvious symbiotic mandate. Awards for appearance will always proclaim the presence of fine art, but there must be more to design excellence. Design matters when talent has a purpose. The purpose of architecture transcends the individuality of fine art. Its public significance, however, will depend on its awareness of our shared symbiotic mandate. This is architecture and city design for those who wish to accept the challenge.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Intensity Will Become a Measurement for Survival

I’ve been searching for this title for some time with my previous essays. I wrote “Replacing Density” to explain that it and the floor area ratio were inadequate measurement languages for city planning and design leadership. I’ve written a number of others to explain the concept of intensity measurement, forecasting, evaluation and decision. I’ve also explained that activity and intensity combine to produce a measurable indication of context and economic stability -- and that these measurements can indicate negative conditions to be corrected. Throughout these essays, however, I have never clearly stated the obvious. Population needs shelter to survive. Intensity decisions will determine its ability to find shelter and economic stability within a limited Built Domain that does not threaten its source of life. This statement may place a political, social and economic issue in its proper physical context -- the context of architecture and city design within sustainable limits.

The language of intensity and the vocabulary of design specification values are my attempt to rationally address the issue within a Built Domain that must be limited by science. The whole is still the sum of its parts and we can't ignore shelter, since each structure will contribute to sprawl until leadership recognizes the problem. The ultimate solution is symbiotic, and we must get there. Buildings alone will not solve the problem, but buildings and the land they occupy are part of the problem. They serve to frame the issue of shelter for growing populations within a limited Built Domain.

Organic architecture is a wonderful phrase. It has often been interpreted to mean a building that appears to grow from the land. Unfortunately, they don’t; and their fields of sprawl spread like weeds in a garden. I have suggested replacing the term “organic” with the term “symbiotic” because growth without limits and mutual benefit is a threat to survival. A truly symbiotic goal may never be reached but we can do better.  I have tried to create a vocabulary and software tool to address the issue with an approach I’ve called city design. Vocabulary is simply a collection of words, however, until it is connected with measurement, forecasting and evaluation to create a language and dictionary of intensity decisions.



Intensity is a measurement of place within cities. The context of a single place is created with architecture. A collection of places is created with city design. City design determines land use (activity) allocation and development (shelter) capacity. The combination of activity and capacity produces intensity, which must not threaten the physical, social, psychological or economic health and safety of the population sheltered. City design for development capacity, activity and economic stability produces an average level of intensity within a Built Environment. This environment must only expand within the limits of a Built Domain defined by science, and this will influence our evaluation of intensity options.

The ability to measure, catalog, forecast and define intensity options for city design evaluation is explained in my book and software.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Problem with City Planning

The problem with city planning and design is a language that is not equal to the debate it encounters and the leadership expected. The gap between city planning and city performance is caused by a common failure to easily predict the relationship of land use activity and architectural intensity to municipal income and context improvement.

Activity and intensity emerge from land use allocation within a city to produce context and revenue per acre. Revenue is expected to offset total expense per acre. Shelter intensity is served by movement, open space and life support systems. I’ve called the entire effort city design out of respect for its potential, but it is currently represented by sprawl and the isolation of encircled cities. It cannot presently connect land use allocation and intensity to economic performance and context improvement with an adequate language of development capacity evaluation.

Sprawl represents the misallocation of land and blind attempts to adjust to economic deficits with annexation. We are coming to realize, however, that sprawl must be contained within a limited Built Domain to protect its source of life. The economic performance required to support this goal can only evolve from development capacity evaluation that is linked to financial productivity and context improvement.

Encircled cities face physical, social and economic decline from the same inability to link land use allocation and intensity to economic potential and context improvement. Redevelopment is their only option. Unfortunately, it is a far more difficult challenge and they have no better ability to achieve their goal.

The equation to be resolved is simple, but the data required to solve the equation with development capacity evaluation has not been collected.

The Built Environment Equation

Activity + intensity allocation = context + economic performance.

Intensity is an ambiguous term with a precise definition in architecture and city design. It is the gross building area constructed per buildable acre. This area represents, at the very least: quantities of population, cost, income, expense, revenue, return on investment and traffic generation per square foot. The visual impression of intensity is created by the amount of building mass and parking constructed in relation to the open space retained. The decisions that define project intensity combine to determine the urban form, context and shelter capacity of neighborhoods, districts, cities and regions. The activities within shelter capacity determine its economic yield per acre and the financial stability of cities.

Prior to the twentieth century, independent decisions led to the location and construction of shelter capacity. These decisions often produced unacceptable risk to the health, safety and welfare of populations. Master plans, zoning codes and building codes were introduced in response to protect the public health and safety, but welfare was poorly defined. The result has been sprawl that threatens our sustainable future as growing populations flee increasing decline from economic instability, but many have built suburbs with the same internal disease because they do not understand the relationship between activity and intensity that produces economic stability and urban context. Accounting confuses the issue because it does not connect revenue to land use allocation and intensity.. This defeats any comprehensive attempt to adjust the  allocation of activity and intensity to improve  a city’s financial performance. This in turn makes financial strategy a blind attempt to eliminate a deficit with budget cuts and service level reductions. A search for new money produces random waves of annexation and sprawl that consume increasing amounts of The Natural Domain to offset non-performing assets.


A city’s economic productivity is a function of its land use allocation, building intensity and shelter condition. Intensity  begins with the relationship of building mass and parking to open space.. Appearance is added and the combination produces context and revenue to serve the population involved. At the present time, the result is a city of isolated  planning and financial decisions. It often falls into decline because of its inability to correlate this information.

It is difficult to discern building use from appearance without a sign, but separate buildings serving similar activities are like a farmer’s crop. They produce yield that is a function of allocation. The result is revenue per acre that must combine with the revenue from other crops to meet or exceed  farm expense per acre. Unfortunately, a city’s ability to adjust its crop allocation to improve its revenue is far more difficult than a farmer’s ability to adjust his crops for greater income.

A city often pursues annexation in a search for additional income when agricultural land is available. Annexation, however, can add bad decisions to old decisions when a community doesn’t understand the relationship of revenue per land use acre to its expense per acre over time. This prevents informed land use allocation and intensity decisions that deserve the term city design.

City design options can be predicted for specific land areas by entering values in the design specification template of a forecast model. Results are predicted in its planning forecast panel. The process is called development capacity evaluation and is supported by software of the same name. Forecast model options within the software represent design category choices. Each category has a specification template listing its design elements. Values assigned to each element constitute a design specification. The specification produces gross building area forecasts in a planning forecast panel for every building height option entered. Changing a single value in a specification template produces a new set of intensity options, and every option has public revenue and private investment implications that depend on the activity contemplated.

The Relationship of City Design to Economic Stability

Revenue is the yield per acre from every land use and intensity category in a city. Without this information, a city has no idea how its crops are performing to support its public expense per acre. It only knows if the revenue recorded by abstract financial category is above or below previous collections, and if all financial categories combine to meets its annual expense. Income tax is an example of an abstract category in this context. It is not correlated with the land use categories, areas and intensities producing this revenue. A city is left with a vague impression of the income produced by each category, and the impression can be wildly inaccurate.

When revenue is declining or insufficient, the options include tax increases and service level reductions. There is rarely consideration of land use adjustment based on performance evaluation. This is not city planning or design. It is a reaction to information that is unrelated to the land devoted to each source of income. In other words, misallocation of land use activity and intensity will produce inadequate revenue to protect the welfare of a city over time.

Urban form is similar to the appearance of different field crops on a farm. For instance, the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, the canyons of mid-town Manhattan and the Hamptons of Long Island are crops on a regional farm. Each represents a level of intensity, activity, context and yield per acre that is a function of rudimentary city design decisions. They are called land use planning and zoning. Unfortunately, municipal revenue, expense, improvement and value are currently a function of these decisions. Sprawl is pervasive and decline is common.

Accounting information is rarely linked with city design to determine the economic performance of land use allocation and intensity. This has been partially due to an architectural inability to define and predict shelter intensity options for land use reallocation in a timely manner. This gap has combined with traditional professional isolation and bureaucratic separation to produce a  disconnect that prevents strategic city design decisions.

In other words, if we consider land use categories and intensities to be crops, accounting correlation  reveals crop yield per acre and its contribution to total average revenue per acre. Contrasting this with present and projected average expense per acre can tell a city where it stands. City design with development capacity evaluation can then adjust land use area and intensity goals to improve a city’s quality of life based on economic fundamentals.


The moral to this story is that we depend on the land for survival. Excessive conversion to sprawl is prompted by the absence of development capacity evaluation and economic correlation. This prevents life within a limited Built Domain and reveals a lack of commitment to The Natural Domain. This cannot be sustained on a planet that demands correlation to survive. We have called its biological equivalent adaptation. Encircled cities are being forced to adapt and we may be able to learn from their example.

Let me challenge your imagination by drawing an analogy to the 17,000 year old paintings in the caves at Lascaux. Assume the paintings were produced by talent with an intent to create vocabulary. Speech evolved to address the increasing awareness of complexity. 17,000 years later we are painting pictures of our built environment with satellite photography and searching for a vocabulary to describe the sprawl we see. We are learning again that it is one thing to recognize your environment and quite another to avoid its consequences.

I am suggesting the vocabulary of intensity as an addition to the languages we have created to coexist with a Natural Domain that does not compromise with ignorance. It applies to the Shelter Division of our Built Environment and will influence its Movement, Open Space and Life Support divisions. In my imagination it is consistent with the lesson from Lascaux. Additional vocabulary is needed in the continuing search for adaptation from correlation that preserves a sustainable, symbiotic future.


The vocabulary and language of intensity can be found in the following book and software:
Hosack, Walter M., Land Development Calculations, ed. 2, and attached forecasting software, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.0 published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2009. Also available at and other booksellers

Friday, February 10, 2012

Zoning Problems & Potential

Eric Rawlings, AIA has been kind enough to respond to my essay entitled “A Common Imperative” on the AIAKnowledgeNet at the Committee on Environment. His response focused on zoning and stimulated me to simply express what has been a long journey through confusing detail.  

Eric, I speak from a lifetime of frustration when I agree with you about zoning. I also speak from a lifetime of experience when I tell you it’s the only legal foundation for more consistent improvement in the context, capacity and intensity of our built environment. 

I have implied the need for zoning improvement by contrasting The Built Domain to The Natural Domain. In my opinion, The Built Environment cannot expand beyond the limits of a Built Domain (that is yet to be defined) if we are going to protect its source of life – The Natural Domain. Individual design efforts will not be equal to the goal until they are led by adequate design regulation. Current zoning is not the answer, but it is an opportunity. 

The building code is a perfect analogy. Public health and safety could not be protected without regulation because design has little power beyond persuasion, and persuasion is poorly taught. Many designers still stand on the sidelines complaining about abuse of their prerogatives. The public does not agree and designers need to improve the game by simplifying the process. I’ll have more to say about this later. 

The same is true for zoning but the stakes are even higher -- because the risk is not internal. Outstanding architecture depends on a foundation of excellent context, capacity and intensity like a soloist depends on a symphony.  

I have attempted to contribute a language of intensity that can be used to write the music1. The future will need composers -- and a conductor called zoning. We can write music on a score that others can perform with the vocabulary of intensity. It’s time for some to leave the audience and begin the research required to lead an incredible number of instruments.

See "The Disorganized Zoning Ordinance" for more detail

1 Hosack, Walter M., Land Development Calculations, ed. 2, and attached forecasting software, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.0 published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2009.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Common Imperative

***PLEASE SEE MY LATEST BOOK, The Science of City Design: Architectural Algorithms for City Planning and Design Leadership. The book offers a universal language to correlate the work of many isolated disciplines concerned with one issue: The provision of shelter for the activities of growing populations within a limited Built Domain that protects their quality and source of life - The Natural Domain. It is available from in both e-book and paperback.***

Imagine medicine without public sanitation and you will see doctors walking past refuse on the streets and sidewalks. Imagine architecture without city design and you will see sprawl blanketing the planet. Public health and sanitation represent a common imperative that now permits medicine to claim public benefit -- but architecture remains an individual service to special interests.

After centuries of plague and disease, public health emerged as a common concern in the twentieth century. Public safety was already the province of government, but public welfare remained a relatively ambiguous term slandered by accusations of socialism and communism.

Medicine and law protect individual health and safety. Public health, legal services and law enforcement protect the common welfare. Medicine and law claim public benefit because of their close association with the effort, but this leaves welfare seeking political definition. The replacement phrase, “quality of life”, has been a step in the right direction; and I would like to suggest that quality is affected by the intensity we build within cities. If you agree, you may also agree that intensity must be consciously designed to protect the physical, social, psychological and economic components of a quality environment.

This is where architecture enters the picture. Medicine is to public health as architecture is to city design -- and city planning is not city design. Planning is to city design as a floor plan is to a building. In fact, planning has promoted sprawl because its legal concepts of land use separation, zoning regulation and private property rights are two-dimensional in nature. They spread like oil on water. Zoning takes a stab at building height regulation, but evaluates proposals on an individual basis. It has little concept of the context, capacity and intensity needed to protect a city's quality of life, and a master plan is simply a land use floor plan. This gap in our grasp of The Built Environment represents the common imperative for city design.

City design of context, capacity and intensity is a function of design specifications and development capacity equations. They produce a set of gross building area predictions that represent the development capacity of land under the conditions specified. It has been impossible to comprehensively predict capacity and context options in any reasonable period of time -- much less change one specification value in a template to predict a new set of results. This has kept the focus on individual projects and prevented us from addressing the common imperative for city design.

If you can predict development capacity, you can also predict construction cost, population capacity, revenue potential, return on investment and traffic generation. In fact, you can predict anything that is related to the gross square feet of building area forecast per buildable acre. This amount represents a level of intensity, and it is now possible to make these predictions. This in turn makes it possible to shelter growing populations within sustainable geographic limits that protect their source and quality of life.

Separating desirable from undesirable intensity predictions can protect our quality of life. It won’t begin, however, until a common imperative is recognized; and this is where the public benefit of architecture will be proven. Outstanding individual examples can then be identified within the level of excellence achieved.


The Built Environment must not expand beyond the geographic limits of a Built Domain defined to protect its source of life – The Natural Domain. Human activity within The Built Environment requires shelter. The Shelter Division is served by its Movement, Open Space and Life Support Divisions. The city design of these four divisions will determine the quality of life achieved. The language of intensity has been created to stimulate the evaluation of shelter context and capacity without excessive reliance on time-consuming and incomplete sketches.1 

If you step back from the detail for a moment, you can see that gross building area shelters activity; and can be remodeled to serve any use. The amount of building area constructed per buildable acre is intensity. Intensity measurement is an indication of context and capacity when it includes the building height and open space percentage provided. City design involves the evaluation of intensity options and open space provisions that can protect our physical, social, psychological and economic quality of life.

City design is a common imperative like health and safety. All three intend to protect the common welfare, but city design is far more complicated because it involves the coordination of many currently isolated specialties. Architects are very familiar with the challenge of coordination, but the scope of city design is not suited to their business model any more than public health is suited to the business model for private medical practice. Without city design, however; architecture will have a difficult time convincing the public of common benefit.

I don't believe the practice goals of architecture are currently associated with a common benefit in the public mind. In fact, owner influence is perceived as a force to be regulated with building and zoning codes. City design remains a dream. This is the world of imagination and anticipation. If you stop to think, however, we had to imagine that rats and fleas could carry plague before proof could produce an imperative for public health. We must now imagine that sprawl is another plague extended by ignorance. In this case our problem is not microscopic, however. It is too large to see without satellite photography -- and we are the microscopic problem.

We can’t wait for proof that sprawl and pollution will suffocate the planet. I’ve tried to make my point with an analogy to medicine that is limited in comparison. On an individual level, neither medicine nor architecture wants to do its patient harm; but this is a practice goal focused on individual effort. The public goal for both is to protect the survival of populations. Medicine has responded with public health organizations. The common imperative for architecture is city design based on intensity evaluation. The goal is shelter for populations within sustainable limits, but this is not all. These limits must contain city design that does not threaten urban quality of life with excessive intensity. Public health will be irrelevant if we do not succeed. 

Progress from individual effort to collective awareness begins at birth, and the history of man is filled with examples of incomplete adjustment followed by competition, conflict and chaos. Professions are no different. Medicine is the most successful example of aadjustment because the common imperative for public health was recognized and accepted. The law has evolved because the common imperative for justice eventually overcame personal and privileged opinion. Shelter is equally essential to the public interest, but architecture remains a collection of city-states competing for individual territory. Its role is limited because common benefit is fought by special interests that divide to conquer in the name of competition. The excellence of architecture will be perceived as a public benefit when it recognizes the common imperative involved. Outstanding individuals can then be identified in the proper context.


1The language of intensity can be found in the following book and software: Hosack, Walter M., Land Development Calculations, ed. 2, and attached forecasting software, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.0 published by The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2009.