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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shelter, Space & Intensity

I believe that shelter is an essential element of survival; that shelter intensity is the relationship of building mass and pavement to open space within a defined area; that building population intensity per square foot of gross building area is a separate issue; that shelter activity and intensity affect the public health, safety, and welfare; that shelter intensity combines with land use allocation, building activity and building population to affect our physical, social, psychological and economic quality of life; that we will not understand the implications of intensity options until we measure and evaluate existing conditions; that we cannot require open space to moderate intensity until we can accurately forecast the implications; that streets, sidewalks and parking lots allow light, air, and ventilation to enter urban form but magnify its intensity; that escape from excessive intensity has produced sprawl; that sprawl threatens the health, safety, and welfare of entire populations by consuming their source of life; that sprawl must be contained within sustainable geographic limits; that containment of sprawl within the limits of a built domain will increase intensity until population growth moderates; that intensity is imposed by three divisions of the built environment: Shelter, Movement, and Life Support while opposed by the fourth: Open Space.

There are four categories of open space. The first is a Natural Domain that must be protected from the Built Domain to preserve our source of life. The second is agriculture within the Built Domain. The third is public open space within a built environment. The fourth is project open space that offsets shelter intensity within a project area of the built environment. (A built environment must not expand beyond the limits of a Built Domain.) The allocation of space and intensity within a built environment will require the city design of urban form to balance the conflicting demands involved. This design will attempt to contribute answers to a fundamental question. Can we design symbiotic shelter solutions for growing populations within a limited Built Domain and how can it be done?

The relationship of architecture to city design is similar to the relationship between medicine and public health. One is a profession; the other an institution. Unfortunately, we have learned through centuries of plague and conflict that an individual is threatened when he or she cannot be protected by the scope of his or her institutions. We are now learning that both individuals and populations can be threatened when the health of a planet cannot be protected by the scope of our institutions.


Leadership must have a goal and there is one above all others: to survive in an uncertain world. Professions and institutions have evolved to contribute, but architectural contributions have focused on individual projects. Unfortunately, inadequate land use plans, zoning law and legal precedent have led to both excessive project intensity and sprawl. Sprawl consumes our source of life one project at a time and excessive intensity imposes stress throughout an adjacent area. The point is that a population is at risk when its planet cannot be protected from the sprawl of its shelter without excessive intensity.


The goal is to build symbiotic shelter systems within sustainable geographic limits. The objective is to protect our source of life from sprawl and our quality of life from excessive intensity. I’ve called the goal S4GL for the sake of brevity. Progress will begin with the measurement and evaluation of existing context, capacity, intensity, and appearance using the vocabulary of intensity and the tools of development capacity evaluation. At this point architecture will expand its knowledge and forecasting ability to address the issue of survival once again.

We haven’t been master builders since the Renaissance.  We gather intelligence, correlate information, and create leadership plans. Field commanders achieve the goal by completing each tactical objective. Our decisions are not our own, however. They are directed by investors, construction managers and government officials because our emphasis has been on fine art. This has compromised our leadership potential because design is not fine art. It seeks to define a problem and solution that begins with a question. The appearance of the solution may be considered fine art.

We cannot moderate sprawl and intensity when design is governed by the decisions of others with conflicting motivation. We need a goal that explains our purpose because “design matters”, but its goal must explain why.

I have suggested a goal for architecture that emphasizes public benefit. This does not exclude any of its previous objectives. It simply places them within an institutional context of concern for the public impact of its practice recommendations and decisions.

Opinion fills a knowledge vacuum. Government and law moderate debate over opinion and bail the boat while other institutions repair the damage with knowledge and persuasion. This is where medicine and public health have been. It is where architecture must go, and why it must learn to speak in a language of intensity equal to the universal goal of adaptation – to survive in an uncertain world.  


For more information regarding the language of intensity and the tools of development capacity evaluation, please see my book entitled, Land Development Calculations, e2, The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2009 and its attached forecasting software entitled, Development Capacity Evaluation, v2.

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