When talking about cities, I use to term granularity to talk about how the ownership of a city is divided up, particularly in the size of the lots that city blocks are divided into. Here are some examples;
We can also talk about the granularity of an economy – an economy can be fine-grained if it is made up of many small businesses, coarse-grained if it is made up of few large businesses, and anywhere in between. Having a fine-grained economy made up of many small businesses is generally preferable over a coarse-grained economy made up of fewer businesses because it implies a more resilient economy (if one of the businesses fail, less is the effect on the overall economy) and more distributed wealth (the profit and ownership of the businesses are divided among many, rather than in the hands of a few.)
Cities are the physical manifestation of the economy, and our built environment speaks volumes about our economy. It is easier to see this in smaller towns where the economic model is simplified – you can easily spot the difference between a small town dominated by a few large stores and a small town dominated by many smaller stores. There is often a correlation between our built environment that we physically see and interact with, and the underlying economics that built it.
When I talk about cities in this article, I am specifically talking about urban areas. Urban areas – our downtowns and our neighbourhoods dominated by townhomes and apartments – the areas where you navigate on foot, are fundamentally different in the way they are experienced to auto-oriented suburban areas. Although much of what I write about could be applied in suburban areas, I am specifically talking about urban areas. The reason it is different is because our sense of scale and place changes when we are walking (where there is only so far you can reasonable walk, and you are exposed to your environment) compared to when we are driving (where we can drive for miles with little effort, and we have little interest in how the realm outside of our car feels as we confined in the comforts of our own cars.)
I feel that this is an important topic, because very few people talk about granularity (often ignoring it completely as we are get excited over flashy megaproject), but I was really happy to see it mentioned last week on Strong Towns.
Older urban areas in the United States are typically very fine-grained;
While newer urban areas in the United States tend to typically be very coarse-grained;
Fine-grained urbanism is preferable because it implies;
- Diverse ownership. Each individual lot typically has a different owner.
- Lower cost of entry. If we ignore the underlying price of land (small lots in general should be cheaper because you are buying less land), it takes less money to build a shop or a home on a small narrow lot, than building an entire apartment complex.
- More destinations within walking distance. An important part of good urbanism is fitting as much as possible within walking distance, so naturally fitting more in gives you more choices to walk to.
- Greater resilence to bad buildings. Bad buildings can make less of an impact when they are limited in size.
I am going to cover each of these points in detail.
Diverse ownership and lower cost of entry go hand in hand. It takes a lot of money to build a huge building. Ignoring land costs, this building could easily cost $30 million;
$30 million is a significant amount. It is more than the typical middle-class person could afford. In contrast, any of these townhomes (also ignoring the land costs) could probably be built for less than $200,000. They are basic brick cubes with doors and windows;
It should really cost no more than a suburban house, minus the yard. Here is a slightly denser urban street, that should still be reasonably affordable to build;
Urban development should not be expensive by itself. I worry about the high cost of entry brought on by coarse-grained urbanism is leading to economic polarization – a situation where only those already with money can invest and create more wealth, while everyone else are mere consumers. On a personal level, I would love to one day purchase an empty lot in an urban area and build my dream townhome.
If we consider each building a destination, fine-grained urban areas are naturally more walkable because we have more destinations within walking distance, than coarse-grained urban areas in general. When your lots are only 20 feet wide, you are naturally going to have a destination (a building, an office, a shop, etc.) entrance every 20 feet along the street;
In contrast we have coarse-grained urbanism, where you have very few destinations taking up entire blocks;
If our destinations are only 20 feet wide rather than 200 feet wide, we can fit 10 times as many destinations along the same length of street. One of the goals of good city planning is being able to accomplish as much on foot as possible, lowering the need to get around in a car, bicycle, or transit and create traffic.
There is also faux-granularity, which is when a large building is divided into many separate destinations at street level to give the impression of fine-grained urbanism;
This can solve the walkability issue with coarse-grained urbanism – but this is up to the discretion of the property owner. True fine-grained urbanism, however, forces this because each grain along the street is a destination; a building with no entrance is useless.
I do not think that all large buildings are bad. Some things, such as convention centres, sports stadiums, movie cinemas, and department stores naturally take up a lot of room and require large buildings. Like many things, coarse-grained development is acceptable when done in moderation; it is when it becomes the default way of building that it becomes problematic. When we do need to do build coarse-grained buildings though, it is important that we utilize faux-granularity to keep the area from becoming dull and barren.
Fine-grained development also limits the impact of bad buildings. A property owner that builds a dull or hideous building, allows their building to become run down, or abandons it, negatively affects the streetscape. However, we can minimize the overall impact to the streetscape if the ugly or derelict building is just one of many along the block.
Faux-granularity is when we imitate the feel of a fine-grained place. There are places where fine-grained development is impractical, such as high-rise central business districts where the economics of the place make really tall buildings feasible, and really tall buildings require large bases..
..or when there are other engineering constraints that require a large amount of startup capital.
Some things naturally require a lot of space – sports stadiums, warehouses, movie cinemas, schools, museums, factories, supermarkets, high-rises that require a large base. Large buildings are not bad, when we use them in moderation. While it would be preferable to have a true fine-grained environment, we can do our best to imitate it.
We can imagine the worst-case scenario, which is a single building taking up an entire block, with a single entrance;
When we remove the destinations along the street, we kill it. We end up with a dead street – unslightly, unsafe, uninteresting. Even if you have nice architecture, the lack of the number of destinations to attract people really affects how interesting and alive the street feels.
There is a huge difference between the southern side of Hoboken that is fine-grained;
And the newer stuff along the northern side of Hoboken that is coarse-grained;
We can easily imitate a fine-grained urban environment with faux-granularity;
Sometimes we need to build large buildings. Some buildings, like convention centres, are naturally large scale and there is little we can do to avoid that. However, we should resist blank walls, which can lead to dead streets;
Dead streets are dangerous. They are the sorts of gray zones that Jane Jacobs talks about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Like the parks surrounding towers in the park, dark alleys and underpasses, dead streets lack any sort of attraction to draw people. Not only are they unsightly, but the lack of people going about their businesses (eyes on the street) often encourages crime.
Here is an example of a large building that uses faux-granularity to add a reasonable number of destinations that keep the street alive;
Why can’t the convention centre easily do the same?
This is pretty much inexcusable;
When it is so easy to decorate the ground level of a parking structure with faux-granularity, and earn a little bit of extra rent for the building owner;
Ideally we would have true granularity (individual buildings that are individually owned), short of that, we should aim for faux-granularity. Dead streets and blank walls are inexcusable.
Faux-grained urbanism gives the feel of fine-grained urbanism, and for all practical purposes, functions the same as fine-grained urbanism as far as being interesting, attracting foot traffic, and being highly walkable. However, it does have some shortcomings that we should be aware of;
- It still consolidates a lot of the land into the hands of a single owner.
- It is still a high cost of entry environment that requires a lot of money to enter.
- It is up to the discretion of the property owner if they decide to be faux-grained or if they build a blank wall.
- There is no resilience against a bad building. If the building is abandoned or has to be closed down, the entire block closes down. If the building is cheap and ugly, the entire block is cheap and ugly.
We could certainly regulate faux-granularity, but I am against piling on yet another regulation to burden developers with. This would add yet another permit or approval process to go through, which adds to the overhead of development (extra permits and approval processes to go through), and with every regulation, it is often possible to come up with a counter-example of something good but not permitted. This is an example of treating the symptoms of the disease (making coarse-grained urbanism work) than addressing the cause (which we could fix by building finer-grained buildings.) In any case, perhaps we can regulate faux-granularity, but only allow those rules to apply to large-scale buildings without burdening small-scale development.
There is a tendency for newer urban areas to be coarse-grained. Why?
I had a friend once tell me that size of the development generally describes the size of the capital; $1 billion in capital does not want to do 500 $2 million projects. This just raises more questions – where are those with $2 million to spend? What about $200,000? Do a few at the top really own all of the wealth of the community? Perhaps we overburden developers that it is only feasible to go through the development process in your town when you do a large project?
Should the lack of fine-grained urbanism be a sign of corruption – that property development in your community is only a game that the already wealthy can play?
I think a large part of the problem also lies how we go about selling undeveloped land. Back in Let’s Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit), I talked about how Conway, AR was selling its old airport;
The asking price of the 151 acre site was $9 million. They were selling it whole to the player with the best proposal that could afford it. It is actually pretty cheap for that amount of land, but rather than dividing it into 10 parcels of land for $900,000 each, 100 parcels for $90,000 each, or possibly 1,000 parcels for $9,000 each, they sell it off whole. I am not picking on this one site specifically – I have noticed this is a trend around the country. Today, when a city finds itself in the hands of a parcel of land they want to sell, they will open it for people to bid on it. They will sell it to the highest bidder or the bidder with the best plan.
A century ago, when a city found itself with land to sell off for development, they would plat the land and sell off the individual lots;
It is easy to imagine that if they found themselves with 151 acres of land to sell and develop, the commissioners would have surveyed the area and drawn out a plat, subdividing the parcel of land into streets, blocks, and lots, and if possible, connecting the streets with any surrounding street grid. Most of the lots would have been purchased and developed individually – and only those that really needed more space would have purchased multiple consecutive lots.
There is also a cultural problem amongst New Urbanists. When you see an image of a New Urbanist plan, often it is some master planned top-down faux-grained vision;
Rather than something truly fine-grained;
Why are not more planners dreaming and sketching blocks like this instead?
BUILDING FINE-GRAINED URBANISM
The most obvious solution for building fine-grained urbanism seems to be simply to plat out the land into smaller lots.
When a city finds itself in the possession of undeveloped land, it should take its best effort to divide it up and sell it in the smallest lot sizes as possible.
An alternative would be for a private developer to subdivide the land and sell of individual lots. This is similar to how suburban development works.
We could use a similar approach, both to build entirely new urban neighbourhoods, similar to how the railroad companies of the 19th century would found new railroad towns by subdividing and selling off land in the middle of nowhere, and also at a much smaller scale to subdivide already existing blocks. For example, a developer could buy a large lot, build multiple buildings, then sell off each building individually for more than what they could from building and selling a single building.
I saw this happening on a small scale when I was back in Australia. My aunt and uncle demolished their suburban home and subdivided their lot into 3. They plan on building 3 townhomes, selling 2 and living in the third.
These are not the only ways we can build fine-grained urbanism. I would love to hear everybody elses thoughts on how we can accomplish this.
A fine-grained environment is a sign of a healthy environment, from an economic and an urbanist perspective. Large buildings are not bad, and the best cities I have visited have a diverse mixture. We should do our best to make our urban environment fine-grained – with development using as little land as possible. However, on the occasion when we do need to build large, we should do our best to make the result faux-grained.
The principle behind walkability and urbanism – and why I talk about granularity, non-places, narrow streets, etc. is because walkability and urbanism is about fitting as much as you can within walking distance. Treat land is if it is the most precious resource your city has. Never waste land or street space. Build real parks over greenspace. Create a place that is enjoyable, interesting, that encourages entrepreneurship, where you can mostly depend on your own two feet for daily errands. That is how you create a successful city.
NOTE: Guest posts don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Hoboken, Inc. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Their purpose is to provide our readers with different viewpoints.