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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.

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