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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

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