A Study on Regional Governments Part III: Back to North America

I’ve been working on regional governments on and off for several years, and this time I feel like I’ve made some progress. There are a number of reasons for subdividing North America into new regional governments, as I’ve already discussed in Part I and Part II. But the main idea comes from architect and known crazy person Christopher Alexander‘s book A Pattern Language, a book about development and building patterns that goes from the very large to the very small scale. The very first pattern in the book is:

Metropolitan regions will not come to balance until each one is small and autonomous enough to be an independent sphere of culture…


Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries.

This time I tried to be more official and used a GIS to do my work rather than Google and Wikipedia. In the past I’ve used counties as my basic geographic and population unit, but that was problematic, seeing as Los Angeles County has over 10 million people already. It’s also problematic to go down to the level of cities, towns and places, because then you run into 8 million-strong New York City, and the second you lump in any of its suburbs it puts you over 10 million. This time I went in between and used county subdivisions, which will both divide Los Angeles County up as well as take advantage of the fact that New York City, while being one city, is also five different counties.

I also used information from both the US and Canada. Initially I wanted to do Mexico as well, since there are a number of major cities on the Mexican side of the border that draw people in from the US. However, I figure that the ties between the US and Canada are much stronger and that it would be easier to integrate their populations. Also, the fact that the US and Canada make census data and GIS files fairly easy to obtain while Mexico doesn’t might have something to do with it.

My methodology goes something like this. Let’s say you’ve got Country A with Cities 1, 2, and 3 and a population of 30 million.

Process1City 1 and City 2 are the largest cities in the country, so the country would be divided between these two cities.Process2Region 1’s new population is 18 million and Region 2’s is 12 million. Since Region 1 is the larger of the two and since it is still above 10 million in population, it needs to be divided again. The second largest city in Region 2 is City 3, so new boundaries need to be redrawn between that and the two existing cities.Process3The new Region 3 took 8 million people from Region 1 and 2 million from Region 2, giving all three regions a nice round population of 10 million. At this point we no longer need to subdivide them any further.

Of course, when you do this on real land and using real borders, it doesn’t come out quite as clean. It looks a bit more like this:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

TableThe largest metropolitan area in Anglo-America is New York City and the second is Los Angeles, so they became the first two regions. Since they were both over 10 million and New York City was the larger of the two, Chicago was the third region, then Dallas, then Philadelphia, etc.

What is apparent in this exercise is that, since the regions are based on population and not geography, the size of the region correlates to population density. The densest parts of Anglo-America, the northeast seaboard and southern California, have the smallest regions, while the sparsely populated Rocky Mountains and northern Canada have enormous regions. What I haven’t realized in past iterations of this project is that it complicates Alexander’s second pattern, the distribution of towns:

If the population of a region is weighted too far toward small villages, modern civilization can never emerge; but if the population is weighted too far toward big cities, the earth will go to ruin because the population isn’t where it needs to be, to take care of it.


Encourage a birth and death process for towns within the region, which gradually has these effects:
1. The population is evenly distributed in terms of different sizes- example, one town with 1,000,000 people, 10 towns with 100,000 people each, 100 towns with 10,000 people each, and 1000 towns with 1000 people each.
2. These towns are distributed in space in such a way that within each size category the towns are homogeneously distributed all across the region.

This process can be implemented by regional zoning policies, land grants, and incentives which encourage industries to locate according to the dictates of the distribution.

apl2diagramtowns of 1,000,000 – 250 miles apart
towns of 100,000 – 80 miles apart
towns of 10,000 – 25 miles apart
towns of 1,000 – 8 miles apart

The last part of that section, which describes the spacing of towns, leads to a specific size that a nation of a given population should be. I experimented with a few town distribution models and determined that based on a combination of Alexander’s population and town distribution recommendations, a region should not be less than approximately 30,000 square miles, without being more than approximately 130,000 square miles. Several of the regions I’ve created based on population alone are either too large or too small to meet these criteria.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

So to comply with Alexander’s recommendations, the small regions would have to have their population distributed more sparsely and their boundaries enlarged to accommodate that lower density, and the large regions would either have to become smaller and more dense, or have their populations concentrated in certain areas while others are left as uninhabited wastes, as is essentially the case in much of the mountain deserts of the western US and the arctic regions of Canada.

While I see the value of Alexander’s argument for smaller governmental units, I find his arguments for the distribution of towns a bit more dubious, especially when it comes to areas that are too dense for his recommendations. I generally feel that the best way to preserve undeveloped land is not to distribute people evenly across it, but to concentrate them all in one area and leave more of the land untouched. That’s why New Yorkers are some of the greenest people on earth; they leave the countryside alone, and are packed dense enough that they don’t have to use cars and take advantage of the energy savings of dense housing, making their environmental impact considerably lower than someone in a lower density area.

That being said, at some point I would like to take one of the Goldilocks regions I’ve created like San Francisco or Pittsburgh and try to create a distribution of towns like what Alexander recommends, just to see what it would look like. But as far as drawing new regions goes, I’m pretty happy with this version, and I don’t see myself redoing this project again.

Where can I find a decent townhouse?

I live in an apartment. And that works for a lot of people – limited maintenance, the flexibility to move more easily, the lower carbon footprint, the often greater access to urban amenities and transit – all good things. But I don’t want to live in an apartment long term. I want to own my own place, and not have to worry so much about noisy neighbors. So am I looking for a single-family home in the suburbs? If you’ve ever read this blog at all, you know that’s not the case.

I want a townhouse. For me, it seems to be the best of both worlds. It provides for owner-occupied housing without the associations and fees of condos. It eliminates upstairs and downstairs neighbors altogether, and thicker walls better insulate from sounds next door. Yet it is still an urban form of housing which takes up less space than a suburban single-family home, and requires less maintenance (because, let’s be honest, I never want to mow a lawn again in my life if I can avoid it, that’s what the Parks Department is for).

In Census terms, a townhouse is an attached single-family home (in that it is owner occupied, but immediately adjacent to other units), and in much of the US, anything that meets that definition is called a townhouse. But I lived in Philadelphia for four years, and as a city full of single-family attached homes, the residents there make distinctions within that definition. Here are some of the types of single-family attached units.

The True Townhouse

Townhouses in Gdansk, Poland. From Wikipedia.

True townhouses are built individually, one by one, and are distinct from the other townhouses on the street. They have “sandwich walls,” meaning that the adjacent buildings don’t share a wall between them, but have separate walls built right next to each other, which provides for excellent sound insulation. As many of these are essentially custom built, they have historically been associated with the upper classes. The “Brownstones” of various cities on the East Coast are part of this group.

The Rowhouse

Rowhouses in Leeds, UK. From Wikipedia.

Rowhouses (terraced houses for the British types), on the other hand, are usually mass-produced and have similar, if not identical, appearances. They have “shared” or “party walls” between them and often share the same roof line, unless they are in a particularly hilly area. Because they were mass-produced, they are more often associated with the middle- and lower-classes, and with industrial cities where housing was needed for their swelling populations.

The Twin House

Twin houses in Philadelphia. From weknowphilly.com.

As far as I can tell, the name “twin house” is sort of a Philadelphia thing. In other places they might be called duplexes or semi-detached houses. A twin house is basically a set of just two rowhouses with a gap on either side. This allows for a little more space and privacy while still preserving the density of the houses listed above. The floorplans of the houses are usually mirror images of each other, and they may have similar exterior features, although in Philadelphia it is fairly common for neighboring twin homes to use distinct trim colors or small architectural accents. Twins (or semis, as they are more likely to be called there) are the most common dwelling type in England.

For me, all of these dwelling types are great. They are owner-occupied and have enough space for a family while still being low-maintenance and urban. However, if you look on Zillow or other real estate websites for townhouses, you’re also going to get a lot of junk, like:

Patio Homes

From Wikipedia.

Patio homes have shared walls, so you can hear the noise of your neighbors. They are set in extensive grounds that are often maintained by a home owners or condo association. They are often located in suburban or exurban communities. Therefore, they have all the disadvantages of rowhouses, condos, and single-family homes, all in one inconvenient bundle.

Two Suburban Houses Stuck Together

From builderresourcegroup.com.

Is there really any advantage to this housing type? At least with the patio home (which often has some overlap with this one), they’re usually in a pleasant, albeit remote, location, and you have someone else doing your maintenance, even though you have to relinquish some decision making power to the association. But where I’ve seen these has mostly been in bland, undesirable suburbs, and you have to do your own yardwork. Are they really so affordable that there is any benefit to them over just going all the way for a suburban house?

Attached Garages with Houses Hiding Behind Them

From redfin.com.

I feel like I’ve seen more of this housing type in the west, and particularly on military bases. It sort of assumes that streets are for cars and no one is ever going to walk to this place, so why even pretend that a front door is something someone would need to see from the street. All the problems of density without the advantages of urbanity.

Add to that the fact that some real estate agents seem to think that “townhouse” just means “small house” and you have a lot to weed through when looking for a townhouse. I should know, because I weeded through all of it.

I went on Zillow and searched for my dream house (townhouse, three bedrooms, two baths, under $300,000, with a Walk Score over 70) in every state. Here’s what that looks like:

Townhouses-01There are various reasons why a state would have a low score. Some just aren’t very walkable (Texas, Maine). Some aren’t very affordable (California, Massachusetts). Others just don’t have a lot of townhouses. But what I found really interesting was that there is a corridor, running roughly from Trenton, through Philadelphia and Wilmington and to Baltimore, where there were just tons of affordable, walkable townhouses.

These cities are walkable because they are old, traditional cities that were built at the scale of the pedestrian; and they are affordable partially because they have a large supply of housing, and because the demand isn’t as high as some neighboring markets like in Washington and New York. My question was, why is the supply so high here, and not even in nearby places like Pittsburgh?

That question largely comes down to history. The Trenton-Baltimore corridor was one of the earliest parts of the country to industrialize. Like the cities in the north of England, their housing was built quickly to serve an enormous influx of new residents coming from the countryside or other countries for jobs, which is why both of these areas have a lot of rowhouses. Pittsburgh, although it is known as a major industrial center, developed just a little bit later, after the rowhouse had gone out of style as it was associated with tenements and poor working conditions. While Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses, Pittsburgh is a city of small, narrow, vertically-oriented single family homes. It’s like you took Philadelphia, put a couple of feet between each rowhouse, threw in some crazy topography, and that’s how you make Pittsburgh. Even though they are technically not townhouses, the homes of Pittsburgh are similarly urban, efficient, and low-maintenance.

Pittsburgh. From post-gazette.com.

So, could I live in a single-family home? I guess, as long as it functions like a townhouse. As long as it’s in a neighborhood where I can walk to services, where I’m not bound by a condo association, and where I don’t have to mow a lawn because there’s a decent park nearby, it works for me.

How Cities have been Shaped by Defense

So in your spare time you’re looking at an aerial view of London on your favorite online mapping service (as one does), when you notice a street called London Wall.

London 2

And as you’re looking at your map, you notice other wall-y things, like Old Bailey and Houndsditch.London 3And then you notice that perpendicular to these wall-y things are lots of gate-y things: Ludgate Hill, Newgate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate.

London 4And at about this point you start to see a shape and realize,London 5You can learn a lot about a city’s history by looking at a map of it. If you know what to look for, you can see how high places, walls, and other fortifications had a major effect in shaping our cities.

Early settlements all around the world were formed on the tops of hills. Hills are naturally defensible, because they allow you to see a greater distance and force your enemy to expend energy getting up the hill. Even in the large, flat expanses of the Levant, cities would create the advantages found on the more natural hill forts of Europe by building giant piles of dirt, or tells.

Tell Barri in Syria. From wikipedia.org.

It wasn’t a stretch to get from “let’s build our city on this hill” to “this hill would be really great with a wall around it.” And thus, the citadel was born.

Citadel of Arbil in Iraq. From wikipedia.org.

The citadel, of course, had different regional names, including the acropolis and the oppidum. Initially they were built of whatever was available, be it stone, wood, mud brick, or rammed earth. But in most places, stone or masonry eventually prevailed.

Groß Raden Archaeological Open Air Museum in Germany. From wikipedia.org.

In many cities, the fortified citadel grew to house only the city’s political and/or religious elite, while the normal residents were outside of the walls and subject to attack. But eventually the rulers decided that it was worthwhile to defend their soldiers, scholars and artisans, and cities began erecting full perimeter walls.

The weapons these walls were built to defend from were mostly just guys with swords, arrows, and in some cases fairly light siege equipment. As such, they didn’t need to be particularly thick, but they did need to be high. These walls often followed contours and were somewhat organic. They had fairly regularly spaced towers from which to shoot arrows or throw rocks, and were usually the joints at which straight walls would change direction.

The walls and towers of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. From wikipedia.org.

More importantly for urban design, the city wall provided a natural growth boundary. Especially during the uncertain times of the European Dark Ages and the invasions of the Germans, Huns, Slavs, Vikings, Arabs and Mongols (that’s everyone who invaded anything between the end of the Roman Empire and the introduction of the cannon, right? You get my point), there was a huge incentive to be inside the city walls rather than unprotected in the fields or the lawless countryside. The European feudal system only added fuel to the urban fire; peasants and slaves alike would flee to cities to escape their masters. In Germany, the law was that a serf was a free citizen of a city after a year and a day, thus the phrase Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag (“city air makes you free after a year and a day”), better known for its shorthand, Stadtluft macht frei (“city air makes you free”).

The end of this phase of wall building came with the cannon. Unlike previous siege engines like the catapult and trebuchet, which threw objects over city walls to cause damage within, the cannon, with just a few direct hits, could pierce a wall, allowing for foot soldiers to enter the city. The vertical wall laid out perpendicular to the enemy allowed the cannon ball to focus all of its energy on one point, causing maximum destruction. The solution was to not try to necessarily stop the ball, but to diminish its destructive power by deflecting it. And thus the star-shaped wall was born.

These walls were not vertical and not perpendicular, but formed a jagged, pointed wall that sloped back toward the city. The angled and sloped walls, which were also much thicker, made it more likely that a cannon ball would simply bounce off and roll away harmlessly. The star points on the walls also allowed soldiers a forward position from which to attack the enemy, with the civilian population located further back from the action.

Naarden, the Netherlands. From wikipedia.org.

Star-shaped walls were massive feats of engineering, and only the wealthiest cities could fully enclose themselves within them. Some cities would create small forward military towns which would be heavily fortified, such as Palmanova outside of Venice. But in many cities would simply build a star-walled fort at a strategic location, such as the confluence of two rivers (Fort Pitt at Pittsburgh) or on the harbor (Fort McHenry at Baltimore).

Fort McHenry guarding Baltimore Harbor. From army.mil.

There aren’t many cities whose star-shapped walls or forts remain. That is because they take up a huge amount of land, and as many cities, particularly in the west, began to feel less threatened by foreign armies, they wanted to use that land for other purposes. Many of these areas were redeveloped for public use. For instance, the former site of Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh is now Point State Park, where only traces of the former fort (as well as its French predecessor, Fort Duquesne) remain.

The outlines of Fort Duquesne (smaller, left) and Fort Pitt (larger, right) at Point State Park, Pittsburgh. From Google Earth.

The outlines of Fort Duquesne (smaller, left) and Fort Pitt (larger, right) at Point State Park, Pittsburgh. From Google Earth.

One famous example of a star-walled ring being replaced is the Ringstraße in Vienna. In the 1800s, Vienna had a star wall around its old quarter, but new districts had sprung up on the outside of the wall, and completely encircled it. Vienna was essentially the hole in a fortified doughnut. In the 1860s, the city chose to tear down its old fortifications, replacing them with a ring road, public parks, and major public buildings.

Ringstraße, before and after the redevelopment of the fortifications. From photobucket.com.

It was about this time that explosive artillery shells were introduced, which star-shaped fortifications did not perform well against. These weapons also lead to the end of urban fortifications. The radius of damage from explosive shells was just too large for cities to feel comfortable going against, and the defense of cities fell to rings or lines of polygonal forts set back about eight miles from the city. Yet even without the enclosing walls, there was still an incentive to be in the city, where you were protected by the ring of forts, rather than in suburbs of the open countryside. That incentive came later, with the introduction of aerial bombardment and, later, nuclear weapons.

The nuclear era was the first time that the incentive for defense actually pushed people out of cities. When you have a single weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands in an instant and level an entire city, urban areas start to look less like refuges and more like targets. While there were many factors that led to suburbanization in America, the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack cannot be overlooked. One of the many reasons the interstate highway system was built was so that cities could be evacuated in case of an emergency, and one could imagine that those who fled for the suburbs were simply planning ahead.

That being said, there have been several proposals and even a few attempts at creating urban defenses in the nuclear age. There were many proposals for domed cities a la Buckminster Fuller, although his domes were largely meant as a means to prevent air pollution and provide city-wide climate control. The Underground City of Beijing, built during a spat with the Soviets in the 70s, was a network of underground tunnels, featuring shops, warehouses, and even mushroom farms (since mushrooms can grow without light), and supposedly could have held all of Beijing’s population of 6 million at the time. Switzerland, which is just chock full of air raid shelters, intended a double use for the Sonnenberg Tunnel outside of Lucerne, which would have been able to house 20,000 people in the event of a nuclear attack.

Buckminster Fuller’s Midtown Manhattan Dome. From treehugger.com.

I think part of the reason that my generation is returning to the city, although it may not be a conscious factor, is that the Cold War is over, and there really isn’t a world power out there with the air force and nuclear capabilities to attack us the way the Soviets could have. While it may have been a perfectly reasonable fear of nuclear annihilation that encouraged our parents or grandparents to leave cities, we don’t have that same fear. The greatest outside threat to our safety is no longer a State with official armed forces, but the small, loosely organized groups and individuals that today are the perpetrators of terrorism. But with few exceptions, terrorists cannot attack a large area at once, and although cities do employ counterterrorism measures, the targets of terrorism aren’t cities, they are usually individual properties or persons. That is why today we are seeing a resurgence of defensive construction, not on the city scale, but on the scale of the individual building.

Bollards, bollards everywhere at HHS in Washington, DC. From wamu.org.

Bollards, bollards everywhere at HHS in Washington, DC. From wamu.org.

While defense no longer encourages us to move to cities as it once did, it allows us to, more than it may have our parents or grandparents. The technology of war, as well as its general presence, may continue to be a factor in how we design our cities in the future, but the city of today is a safe place, and getting safer. As Stephen Pinker points out in The Better Angels of our Nature, violence in the world is on the decline, both on the scales of the individual and the nation state. With less to fear, we may be more able to enjoy the benefits that the city has to offer us.

Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California

Recently I was browsing Imgur and came across a set of images depicting the current drought conditions in California.

Lake Oroville, July 2011. From Imgur.com

Lake Oroville in 2014. From Imgur.com

When I looked through the comments, I saw a few gems:

“See this?…See this? This is why I think lawns should be illegal in drought areas. You want a lawn? Move to East…”

“Hey let’s build golf courses in the desert!”

“A**holes need to realize that lush green lawns work in the SE, not SW. Sauce: I’m a f***ing city planner.”

Which reminded me of something that bothers me about California: that 38 million people live in an area that can probably sustainably support something more like one million, and lawns are just one example of cultural artifacts that have made it to California that were based on an entirely different climate. Let me explain:Isnt-01Well, yes, but so what? Well, some cultural features, including the lawn and the detached home, are cultural aspects that arose in England, partially because of its climate, and got appropriated to California in such a way that the environment had to be altered to support it.

The lawn became popular among the English nobility in the late Middle Ages. It arose there because England’s wet weather and moderate temperatures made it ideal for keeping grass green without the need to water, and because before the invention of the mower in 1830 one needed an army of peasants to trim the lawn with scythes. The lawn quickly dispersed to Ireland, France, and the Low Countries, other places with a suitable climate.

When the lawn hopped the pond with the earliest English colonizers of the Americas, it fared decently in the Northeast, which despite having a humid continental climate rather than England’s oceanic, still had sufficient rain and temperatures, although the winters were usually cold enough for the grass to go dormant. Some New England towns had lawns that were commonly owned and maintained, leading to the New England Common. But at this point the lawn could barely even survive in the American South, where higher temperatures made it too warm to keep the grass from turning brown.

The lawnmower was what made the lawn accessible to the land-owning middle class. They became more common with the implementation of the 40-hour work week, and lawn care was promoted as a form of relaxation during the Depression. It was only through irrigation that the lawn was able to leave the Northeast, and even then, only due to massive inputs of fertilizer that it was able to take root in the arid soils of the American Southwest.

Let’s take a closer look at climate. Here is a map of the oceanic climate, where the lawn originated:

From Wikipedia.org

These climates are most present in northern Europe, southern Chile and Argentina, southeast Australia, and New Zealand. It is truly barely present in North America, only making an appearance on the wet coasts of the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver. Notably, it is not present in California. Let’s look at California’s climate map:

From weathersandiego.blogspot.com

The most densely inhabited parts of California are mostly within the semi-arid (BSh, BSk), desert (BWh, BWk), and Mediterranean (Csa, Csb) climate zones. Where in the world can we find those?

From Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia.org

The Mediterranean climate, unsurprisingly, covers much of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Iran. Desert climates, largely uninhabited, cover much of northern Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and Australia. Semi-arid climates generally ring the desert areas. So maybe a Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern home might be a better model for California. How would that compare to the English-based model of today?Houses-01

Traditional Mediterranean and Arab cultures both used courtyard houses. Exterior walls in these cultures were often plain or even drab, with much more of the focus being on the interior courtyard. By having a smaller landscaped area and using native plants rather than ones introduced from a wetter climate, a household could cut its water use dramatically. The courtyard house also takes advantage of microclimates, shared walls, shading, and the solar chimney effect to naturally ventilate the house and use less energy than the detached home.

An Arab-influenced courtyard in Spain. From 200words-a-day.com

There are many issues facing California: over-development in both the housing and agriculture industries; over-reliance on cars for transportation; and despite their issues, an ever-increasing demand from new residents for housing and services. But one way they can begin to address issues related to water use and sustainability is to adopt a climatically appropriate housing model. Los Angeles isn’t London, so why should it build houses and lawns as if it was?

Floating Village Planned for London

From fastcoexist.com

As a follow-up to my last post, I recently found this story about London’s plans to develop an underutilized part of the Docklands as a floating village, along with other new development. London’s housing prices are some of the highest in the world, and with that much demand and that little space, you need to come up with some creative solutions. I’m interested to see how this development goes and look forward to watching it grow.

Canals, Houseboats, and Urban Design on the Water

My wife is a professional writer and blogger, and on her recommendation I would like to welcome any new readers. My last post really blew up and was featured on Gizmodo, several Curbed sites (although Seattle‘s was very nice, Philadelphia‘s was probably my favorite), and many others. If you’re here because of that article, hello and welcome! I blog mostly about urban design, sometimes about articles I’ve read or cities I’ve visited, but mostly about weird, loosely-constructed ideas that I take well past their logical conclusion. I hope you enjoy as I continue this trend. Now, on with the show!

Canals were built in the world’s earliest civilizations as a way to control flood waters and irrigate land. Later canals were built for overland transportation. Major cities of the mercantile age, such as Venice and Amsterdam, have entire networks of canals. Later, during the industrial age, transportation canal networks sprung up in the industrial cities of England such as Birmingham and Manchester, and in early industrial towns in the United States, such as Lowell, Massachusetts. But when it became cheaper to move goods overland via train than via canal, the latter stopped being built, and many of the existing canals in cities like New York and Boston were filled in and paved over (this is the story of just about any place called “Canal Street”). And while canals were still built for international shipping, irrigation, and, later, for rich people in Florida to be able to park their yacht in their backyard, the urban canal network was no more.

Urban Canals-01Personally, I find canals very appealing. They allow people to get closer to the water, create opportunities for alternative transportation and recreation, and also make for great urban design opportunities. This is probably why I tried to shoehorn them into urban design projects I worked on in Boston and Rio de Janeiro. The thing is, the urban canal networks were a product of their time. They were needed in order to drain land for development and to provide networks for merchants and industrialists to move their goods. But recently, I’ve been thinking: while the goods-moving ability of canals is overshadowed by modern freight delivery methods, they still work for draining water, and in the future, we’re going to have a lot more water to drain.

Sea LevelCutting canal networks would allow for some inundation while protecting prioritized areas. It would also allow more options for carbon-free travel. Imagine kayaking to work, or instead of carpooling, taking a canoe. It could provide another way to right-size overly wide streets. Imagine taking a four-lane road down to two for cars with two for boats in the middle. And maybe being closer to the water would let people create a greater connection with the water and what they have to do to care for it. For example, I love Philadelphia, but it is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, mostly because the citizens just don’t take care of it. A new canal system in Philly would initially require constant cleaning just to keep it unencumbered. But hopefully over time people would want to keep them clean and would want to make better use of them, and maybe we could become like Stockholm, where people have a strong connection to their water and where they keep it clean enough to swim in.

Broad St FinalHowever, a few canals versus an incoming ocean will only do so much. That’s why, in the Dutch village of Maasbommel, a group called Dura Vermeer built 50 floating houses. The houses sit on a hollow concrete foundation that floats. This allows it to rise above flood waters. The houses are attached to two mooring posts, which allow them to move vertically while staying in the same spot horizontally. Flexible conduits allow the houses to receive utilities regardless of the water level.

From ft.com

If you look at these things, they’re basically part on land, part on water. But there are other floating structures with mooring posts that don’t need to be on land at all:

Houseboats Ah, yes, houseboats, home to hippies and people who insist on calling it a galley when they know darn well it’s just a kitchen. But houseboats are often much more adaptive than their land-based cousins. They can rise and fall with the tides or with flood waters. Not all, but many are actually maneuverable, so you can move to a whole new location in the same house. They are often smaller and use less energy than houses on land, and when arranged along both sides of a pier they create these great, intimate little alleys on the water. Although many still exhibit the sort of self-built hippie style for which they are known, newer ones are being built that reflect contemporary architecture.

Lake UnionThe problem with houseboats today is that they are usually built around a single pier connected to the land and not to other piers. This means that to walk from one pier to the next, even if it is right behind yours, you have to walk up onto the land and then over to the next pier. In that way, they actually function like cul-de-sacs, and not like a traditional urban grid.

Cul-de-sacsBut there’s no reason that you couldn’t have connecting piers, creating a pedestrian-friendly network on the water. Take the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union. Their several buildings and platforms are connected by piers which fully enclose buildings and water alike, with boats all along even enclosed parts of the piers.

CWB-01“That’s great, Munson,” you might be thinking, “but I was really excited about that kayaking to work thing earlier, and how would I do that if my houseboat were in one of those enclosed areas?” Well, you could design connecting piers that were raised above the water level, allowing traffic to pass underneath. But I think that a more effective way would be to have drawbridges.

From heatherwick.com

This one in London is quite nice, but they could of course be simpler. A small enough bridge with a counterweight attached could simply be lifted by pedestrians rather than having machinery do the work. The bridges would be down under normal circumstances to allow pedestrian movement, and whenever a new houseboat comes in or there is a delivery boat or something, the draw bridge could briefly go up. These systems of flexible utilities, houseboats, and connecting piers could create entire floating neighborhoods. But this sort of new infrastructure development would cost a lot of money, driving up the price of this sort of a development. It might only make sense in areas with extremely high real estate costs. So where would it be worth the money?

NYCSF-01There are places in this world where land prices are so high that it becomes a major barrier to development. But who says you have to build houses on land?

And these neighborhoods don’t have to just have houses. Other land uses already exist on the water. Istanbul has restaurant boats on the Bosphorus, and the United States Navy regularly sets up offices on barges if landside space is tight. And speaking of the Navy, aircraft carriers are the perfect example of working on the sea, since they are essentially giant floating repair shops for planes.

There would be issues to address with this type of development. There’s a reason there aren’t large houseboat communities on the East Coast like there are on the West, and that is hurricanes. I’m not sure how you would protect this type of development from them, although I’d be open to suggestions. Tsunamis are another concern. Since tsunami waves grow taller once they hit shallow water, moving these neighborhoods further out to sea could address that, but at that point you would be driving up the cost of extending utilities. It would take a lot to make these places fully autonomous from land-based utilities, although if you want to get creative with solar panels and composting toilets, the sky is the limit. And, at least in the United States, you would have to get it approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, who has jurisdiction over navigable waterways. But, as opposed to the floating cities ideas that some people (mostly architects) propose, these strategies could be implemented slowly, one at a time, over a long time frame. So get out there, dig a canal, build yourself a houseboat, and laugh heartily at the rising seas.

Where I Should Live, According to Math

I don’t live in Washington, DC. I live near Washington, DC. I would like to live in it, but it’s an expensive city, and my income, while above the national average, is well below the regional average, and finding a two bedroom in our price range is difficult.

This got me thinking about affordable housing more broadly. For instance, where could I find a good, walkable neighborhood, anywhere in the country, that is within my price range? That got me started on my current project.

Using census data, I decided to map the variables of affordability and walkability. Affordability wasn’t hard; I mapped all the census tracts in the country that had a median income within $10,000 of mine, both above and below.Affordability

This shows me where I can afford to live, but a lot of the areas are rural places that I would never want to live in. My next task was to map walkability.

Walkability was harder to map. Even though Walkscore covers everywhere in America, it only offers it’s data in downloadable form for Washington, DC. So I downloaded the data, calculated the average Walkscore for census tracts in DC, downloaded virtually the entire American Community Survey, and compared the data therein to the average Walkscore to look for correlation. I found nineteen variables that had some significant correlation with Walkscore.VariablesI took each of these variables and gave them a score of one or zero, one if Walkscore would be above 70 at the value, or a zero if it would be below. Then I multiplied that score by each variables’ R-Square value, and added all the variables together to get a weighted Walkability score. I eliminated the bottom 50% of these values, and added the remainder to the map.Walkability

I was pretty happy with the result. With the exception of a few large tracts in western states, walkable places are where you would expect them to be; densely concentrated around major metropolitan areas

I intersected the two layers to get tracts that were both affordable and walkable.Intersected

This led to an interesting pattern: a few small, walkable town centers on the edge of metropolitan areas, but mostly urban neighborhoods outside of the downtown or in inner-ring suburbs.

However, it was still too many places to look at as a group, so I assigned a score to each tract based on how walkable and how affordable they are. I added these two together to get a combined score for what neighborhood would be best for us, based on these two criteria. In case you wanted the full equation for this score, it is

Combined score = (a – |a – b|) / a + ((if(c ≥ 373.6958, 1, 0) * 0.3153) + (if(d ≥ 21.2983, 1, 0) * 0.2725) + (if(e ≤ 38.8903, 1, 0) * 0.2803) + (if(f ≥ 68.0899, 1, 0) * 0.2971) + (if(g ≥ 67.4557, 1, 0) * 0.3350) + (if(h ≥ 59.9592, 1, 0) * 0.4048) + (if(i ≤31.4668, 1, 0) * 0.2529) + (if(j ≥ 65.5846, 1, 0) * 0.2734) + (if(k ≥ 65.3918, 1, 0) * 0.2839) + (if(l ≥ 58.6467, 1, 0) * 0.3533) + (if(m ≤35.7247, 1, 0) * 0.2576) + (if(n ≥226.8280, 1, 0) * 0.2763) + (if(o ≥78.1848,1, 0) * 0.2779) + (if(p ≥3.8273, 1, 0) * 0.2943) + (if(q ≥ 602.4307, 1, 0) * 0.2795) + (if(r ≤ 4.1293, 1, 0) * 0.2698) + (if(s ≥ 732.9079, 1, 0) * 0.2573) + (if(t ≥ 21.1155, 1, 0) *0.3974) + (if(u ≥82.4877, 1, 0) * 0.2810)) / 5.6596


a = Your Personal Income

Data for Each Tract from the American Community Survey:

b = Median Income

c = Nonrelatives in Household

d = % with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

e = % Born in State of Residence

f = % 16 and Older in Labor Force

g = % 16 and Older in Civilian Labor Force

h = % 16 and Older Employed in Civilian Labor Force

i = % 16 and Older Not in Labor Force

j = % Females 16 and Older in Labor Force

k = % Females 16 and Older in Civilian Labor Force

l = % Females 16 and Older Employed in Civilian Labor Force

m = % 16 and Older Driving to Work Alone

n = Workers 16 and Older Walking to Work

o = Workers 16 and Older Commuting to Work by Other Means

p = % 16 and Older Commuting to Work by Other Means

q = Houses Built 1939 or Earlier

r = % 10-14 Years Old

s = Population 25-34 Years Old

t = % 25-34 Years Old

u = % 18 Years and Older

So, what got the highest score?

Capital Hill-01Capitol Hill, Seattle led the pack. To be honest, I was expecting something like a smaller, affordable Midwest town or something, but it the highest scoring areas were usually just outside of major downtowns. Other top areas included Cambridge and Somerville outside of Boston, and the South End in Boston; Columbia Heights, Washington, DC; The Mission District, Lower Haight, and Russian Hill, San Francisco; Midtown, Atlanta; Greenwood, Dyker Heights, Kensington, and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia, where we used to live; Lake View, Chicago; and Five Points, Denver.

Holly and I won’t be moving out of the region any time soon, but it’s good to have some idea of where to look if we decide to. And good to know that Columbia Heights is probably the neighborhood in DC for us, when the time comes. The formula isn’t perfect; it’s hard to control for things like how much of people’s income goes toward housing, and there is still a lot of wiggle room in these walkability measures. But it is a reasonable guideline that has provided interesting results.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten a few special requests for specific data on various areas, so I decided to make a little gallery of them below.


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