Alexander’s Distribution of Towns


In a recent post, I analyzed what it would look like to apply the first pattern of Christopher Alexander‘s A Pattern Language to North America. This pattern, titled Independent Regions, created 50 new, small nations or regions within what is today the United States and Canada. The next thing I wanted to try was applying Alexander’s second pattern, The Distribution of Towns, to one of those new regions. The pattern reads:

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.

Therefore:

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

However, as discussed in the previous post, not all regions that meet Alexander’s population criteria automatically meet his spacing criteria when you move from Pattern 1 to Pattern 2. Several regions are too large and sparse, while several more are too small and dense.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

So to analyze Pattern 2 without worrying about redistributing the population of the regions until they were the right size, I wanted to pick one of the “Goldilocks” regions that is already about the right size. I went with the Washington DC Region.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Now for the distribution part. Let’s say that we have a region, Region A, with capital city City 1 in its center.Diagram1-01Alexander recommends one very large city per region, so we’ll assume that City 1 has a population of about a million and that it’s the only city of it’s scale in the region. Our first step is to identify our cities of 100,000 people. While Alexander recommended making these cities 80 miles apart, I used 72 miles to simplify the math a little bit. So we want to make sure that these cities of 100,000 are 72 miles from City 1, as well as from each other.Diagram2-01Next we want to identify our towns of 10,000. Again, I fudged Alexander’s math a bit, and identified towns that are 24 miles (1/3 of 72) from any larger cities or from each other.Diagram3-01And finally, we want to identify towns of 1,000 people, eight miles from any larger town and from each other.Diagram4-01That’s what it looks like in an ideal world. However, in the real world, we’re not starting with a blank slate, and rather than founding new cities that are perfectly spaced from DC, I wanted to identify existing cities located in the right place. When you do that, it looks like this:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

What this technique doesn’t consider, however, is why cities are located where they are: largely, access to resources, and access to transportation. They aren’t distributed evenly across a landscape; they’re bunched up in the places that have access to mineral, agricultural or intellectual wealth, and places that have access to ports, railroads, and highways. Disregarding this truth about cities means that some cities that are not located the right distance away from one another can get hosed. Case in point, Richmond, a city of over 200,000 people at the center of a metro area with over 1.2 million, because it isn’t spaced correctly relative to DC, is relegated to the 10,000 people tier, meaning that a huge population would be resettled to areas like Tappahannock (current population 2,397) or Powhatan (current population 49) which are spaced correctly.

Also, by using Alexander’s spacing suggestions, one does not arrive at his suggestion for how many towns there should be. Based on this distribution, you end up with one town of 1,000,000, eight towns of 100,000, 45 towns of 10,000, and 319 towns of 1,000. That adds up to 2,569,000 people. But in the last pattern, we determined that the Washington DC Region would have a population of 8,917,843. So where are the other 6 million plus people living?

The answer to that actually comes from another pattern, number 5 in Alexander’s book, Lace of Country Streets:

The suburb is an obsolete and contradictory form of human settlement.

Therefore:

In the zone where city and country meet, place country roads at least a mile apart, so that they enclose squares of countryside and farmland at least one square mile in area. Build homesteads along these roads, one lot deep, on lots of at least half an acre, with the square mile of open countryside or farmland behind the houses.

Alexander doesn’t specify how wide this “zone where city and country meet” is, and if we’re got small cities every eight miles across an entire region, it would almost follow that these zones fill in the rest of the space between towns. If we take a square mile, and line it on all four sides with lots that are just over a half acre, we come up with 116 lots per square mile. If we multiply that by the average household size in the US of 2.58 persons per household, we get about 300 people per square mile in the countryside. If you multiply that by the 24,945 square miles covered by our region, you get 7,483,500 people. If you remove some to consider that a considerable portion of our region is the Chesapeake Bay and that some of those 24,945 square miles are already taken up by towns and, therefore, the Lace of Country Streets wouldn’t apply, it basically adds up to the rest of the people we were looking for.

So what we end up with is a pretty even population distribution across the entire region with a bit more concentrated in the many small towns and a lot more concentrated in the few big cities. but is this even distribution good for people or for the environment? I take issue with part of Alexander’s rationale for this pattern:

Two different necessities govern the distribution of population in a region. On the one hand, people are drawn to cities: they are drawn by the growth of civilization, jobs, education, economic growth, information. On the other hand, the region as a social and ecological whole will not be properly maintained unless the people of the region are fairly well spread out across it, living in many different kinds of settlements – farms, villages, towns, and cities – with each settlement taking care of the land around it. Industrial society has so far been following only the first of these necessities. People leave the farms and towns and villages and pack into the cities, leaving vast parts of the region depopulated and undermaintained.

But what does it mean to “take care of” and “maintain” the countryside? It seems to me that the countryside does pretty well without us up in its business. Alexander mentions the ecology of the city and how large cities are bad ecologically, but (a) some of Alexander’s patterns that I will discuss later address that and (b) by pulling people away from the countryside and concentrating them in cities, it allows for the countryside to function as what we need it most for (a carbon sink), and allows people to take advantage of shared walls and transit systems which greatly reduce our per-capita carbon footprint. If it were me, I’d distribute the population more like this:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Making all the big cities even bigger and, most importantly, denser, and leaving only small villages sprinkled throughout the countryside. As long as enough people live out there to grow the food and operate the mines for everyone else, there’s no reason to have everyone flung out across the landscape. The best thing we can do for the countryside really is to leave it alone. As far as getting people access to natural environments, we’ll talk about that soon, when I take a look at Alexander’s 3rd pattern, City Country Fingers.

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Density Without Mixed-use


P Street NW. From wikipedia.org.

Washington, DC is a world-class city. Beyond the monumental core, there are walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of brightly colored rowhouses and tree-lined streets. Transit is extensive and generally reliable, and, barring further interference from the city council, is expanding in service. Although there are some things, such as the largely blanket height limit, that can get some planner’s goats, it is mostly an urbanist’s dream.

And because it’s so nice (and also because the height limit effectively limits housing supply), even those making above average incomes have trouble finding affordable housing here. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment downtown at over $2,000, many people are forced out onto the urban fringe. And that’s why I don’t live in Washington DC.

RoadI live here.

Arlington, Virginia, to be specific. And while it has taken some adjusting after living in Center City, Philadelphia, there has been one major difference that I’ve noticed between here and anywhere else I’ve lived:

Density CompTraditional cities are great places to walk. You have a lot of services, and a lot of residences close by to be served by them. It’s usually a bit frustrating driving, but you have so many other transportation options that it’s not really a loss.

The types of suburbs that I’ve grown up in have either been around slow-growth cities, such as Pittsburgh, or cities that never really had a tradition of density or regionalism anyway, like Provo, Utah. These suburbs have low housing densities, consisting almost entirely of single-family homes. Work is found in industrial or office parks, and shopping happens at strip malls. With all the uses separated, driving between them is pretty much the only reasonable way to get around. But since everything is at a much lower density, the traffic is only particularly bad on the main arterials.

What’s new to me about Washington suburbs (and particularly the inner ring) is that the demand for housing is high enough to necessitate high-density housing, but it was built in the era of single-use zoning, so the work and recreation are all far away. Like in the low-density suburbs, driving is usually the only option for getting around, but because of the higher density and the greater number of people, a huge amount of land becomes devoted to vehicle infrastructure. Even where it is possible to walk, the huge parking lots and wide roads make it undesirable.

King St-01

Seminary Rd-01Although I personally consider these environments largely unappealing, I think the fact that they already have the density to support mixed uses does make many of them decent candidates for suburban retrofitting, something I hope to examine more in later posts.

And it’s not like all of the DC region’s modern developments are devoid of urbanism. I’ll refer you to my friend Dan Reed, Silver Spring super booster, to learn about the ongoing urbanism there. Although Vishaan Chakrabarti calls it out for its traffic congestion in his book A Country of Cities (which, as John Norquist has argued, isn’t necessarily bad; places with a lot of traffic have traffic because people want to be there), Bethesda has a decent walkable core and strong mass transit connections to the rest of the region. And although the transition from single-family homes to high density urbanism is stark, and it has been described by some as “city-lite” (or worse, DC without all the poor minorities), the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington is dense, mixed-use, and transit accessible.

Aerial view over Ballston, Arlington. From arlingtonva.us.

And further afield, there are some areas that had the right idea but are a little lighter on execution. Reston, although suffering from a similar zoning-induced stark transition to that of Arlington, could be thought of as a “transit-ready” community with the upcoming opening of Metro’s Silver Line (although the station is a bit of a hike from Reston Town Center). And the New Urbanist darling of Kentlands, out on the edge of the region in Gaithersburg, is a pleasant, walkable community, even if transit options are limited and all of the commercial activity is just on one side of it.

The Washington, DC region, as evidenced by its high housing prices, is under-developed and, even where it is already dense, it is under-urbanized. But there are opportunities and, in some very small and limited ways, even the political will to fix things, hopefully for the better. I look forward to investigating urbanism in my new home and sharing it here, with you.

Why No One Rides the Train in Phoenix


Phoenix’s new TOD districts. From theatlanticcities.com.

I saw this article from Eric Jaffe a few days ago and it sent me on a bit of a journey that I hope you will find interesting. In the article, Jaffe discusses how Phoenix, a city which would not exist if not for massive water projects, cheap housing, and abundant air conditioning, is addressing the fact that nobody wants to ride its fancy light rail train. While light rail projects in Salt Lake City and Denver have been overwhelmingly successful, Phoenix’s venture into improved transit has languished. So the city has organized a series of five districts along the corridor and gotten federal funding to promote transit-oriented development and find out why no one is riding.

There are a couple of reasons. Unfortunately, Phoenix’s light rail line opened in 2008. Yes, that 2008. And boomburgs like Phoenix took the hit even harder than the rest of us (which is partially why Philly was able to take back the number five spot from Phoenix in the largest cities in the US after the 2010 census). But there are deeper-rooted issues that have kept TOD from blossoming like a desert rose, and those are principally density and urban design.

Map
Light rail, although more affordable than a subway or elevated train system, is still quite expensive, and needs a certain concentration of people to be viable. According to John Renne, that magic number is nine dwelling units per acre. As you can see in the above map, very little of Phoenix meets this threshold. While Phoenix does have over 1.4 million people, those folks are sprawled out over more than 500 square miles. I wonder if Phoenix planners were hoping that the light rail system would encourage density to develop along the corridor, but really they should have planned the density in before installing the rail.

The other main issue is that Phoenix is in the middle of the desert, and is quite an unpleasant place to be outside in. And unfortunately, the development patterns of the city have only exacerbated the issue, creating a heat island effect over a huge area. This happened because Phoenix is an entire city designed like a post-war American suburb, which was designed largely for the moderate climates of higher latitudes and not the blistering heat of Maricopa County.

But it’s not like cities have never been built in deserts before. The arid climates of Mexico, Northern Africa, and the Middle East have hosted hundreds of large cities, many larger than Phoenix and some that have been around for thousands of years. But these cities weren’t designed the was Phoenix was, and their adaptations allowed them to beat the desert heat.

The name of the game in desert urban design is shade and wind. After combing through over a hundred cities and comparing them to Phoenix based on climate, World City status, population, location characteristics, and presence of rail transit, I came on two examples which are particularly apt examples: Dubai, UAE and Monterrey, Mexico. Both cities share a climate zone with Phoenix (which stradles the boundary between Hot Desert and Semi-Arid climate classifications), are both World Cities of higher rank than Phoenix, have similar populations (with Dubai at 2.1 million and Monterrey at 1.1 million), both have extensive rail transit systems, and Monterrey shares Phoenix’s interior location (whereas Dubai is on the coast). Let’s take a look at these cities and see what Phoenix can learn.

Web
Dubai is an Medieval Arabian seaport. Whereas many Arab/Muslim cities are built around a dense medina, where the widest streets are often only spacious enough to accommodate two passing camels, Dubai, which up until recently had more money than you could shake all the sticks at, adapted its center, building larger buildings and a system of streets that serve cars while still allowing for pedestrian paths within blocks. The tall buildings and narrow passageways create shade which is intensified in some areas by souks, or covered pathways, which often are a gathering place of commercial activity. Many of the buildings are also light neutrals in color, which helps to reflect heat, rather than absorb it like dark materials, such as asphalt.

Monterrey is a Mexican city of Spanish imperial origin, and as such its urban design was based on the Law of the Indies, which allowed for rapid expansion in a roughly gridiron pattern. While not as tortuous as the Arabian medina, the streets of Monterrey are relatively narrow, and the buildings make extensive use of awnings, window covers, and other shade devices, while the public realm is full of trees and shade structures.

While both of these cities feature some large roads with high-speed traffic, these streets are the norm in Phoenix, even along the light rail line. Most of the roads it parallels have four or six lanes of traffic, and widen at corners with dedicated turning lanes. In many cases, buildings along the roads are set back behind a parking lot. There are even numerous vacant lots along the rail line. These conditions need to change.Web

First, narrow everything up as much as possible. Remove the buffers around the trains and let cars come right up next to the curbs. These buffers are “necessary” when you have high-speed traffic, but that’s the last thing you want on a pedestrian/transit corridor. Additionally, remove the dedicated turn lanes at intersections. They are there to make life easier for cars, and increase the distance and time necessary for pedestrians to cross the street. Screw the cars. Put the pedestrians first. Next, narrow the travel lanes to ten feet, and never have more than four. Again, this road is for pedestrians and transit users, not cars. Include a row of on-street parking, which buffers pedestrians from traffic and further encourages drivers to slow down. Include buffered bike lanes on the outside of the parking lane, so cyclists don’t have to compete with cars and can avoid being doored. Provide shade on the sidewalk with either low-maintenance shade structures or trees (I personally love the local Palo Verde trees). Bring the buildings right up to the sidewalk, and put the parking behind. In these areas, you want people to be able to see your storefront window, not your ample free parking.

Now that we’ve scrunched everything together, it’s time to go up. Buildings should be, at the very least, two stories, to allow for vertical mixed uses. When it comes to creating a sense of enclosure on a street, the bare minimum ratio of height to street width is 1:6. 1:2 is better. 1:1 is probably best. Beyond that you start getting into the enclosure territory that only a New Yorker can love.

Building height can also be manipulated to create microclimates and cool an area down. For instance, if you have taller buildings on the south side of a street, the shadow they cast to the north will keep the street cooler. Since Phoenix is at the fairly low latitude of 33.5 degrees north, the sun is only ten degrees south of directly overhead in the summer. So to create shadows, especially across a wide street, you need some really tall buildings. Of course, if you narrow the street, you can get by with smaller ones. Tall buildings on one side of a street can also catch winds and force them to ground level. Since the prevailing winds in Phoenix blow pretty much due east, putting tall buildings on the east side of north-south running streets would be the best way to catch and divert wind.

Finally, architectural details can do a lot to make being in Phoenix more pleasant. Make extensive use of awnings and other shade structures, as even small Casa Grande has done in their downtown. Although you want a lot of visible glass on the ground floor for stores, consider screens and shades for upper floors. Make sure windows can open to allow for natural ventilation. The principle colors of a building should be low albedo, to avoid heat gain, but that doesn’t mean bright colors can’t be used for accents.

Phoenix’s light rail has a lot of things going against it right now, but if the city can learn something from its desert ancestors and take advantage of density and urban design, then they can create a wonderful transit-oriented corridor that will breathe new life into the city.

Can cities be too dense? Can condos be too tall? Are they built to last? : TreeHugger


Condos under development in Toronto. From treehugger.com.

In this post, Lloyd Alter, one of my favorites, weighs the pros and cons of density, as demonstrated by the residential housing boom in downtown Toronto. Although Alter does point out some of the benefits of density, he seems to be in the “too-dense” camp. I’d like to address some of his concerns.

Can cities be too dense?

Alter mentions the various advocates of density and critics of zoning ordinances that say allowing the market to determine the appropriate density would allow for more affordable housing and economic development. He then cites two sources that mention how added density increases demand on services, as subways and sidewalks become crowded.

This would definitely be the case, if a municipality were to provide the same level of services despite increased density. But a municipality should be getting higher tax income due to more property taxes, and at higher densities, economies of scale become a factor, where it becomes cheaper to provide municipal services. They can afford to make transit more frequent, have more cars, or extend lines. If sidewalks are crowded, it creates an opportunity to form a pedestrian only district. The situation where this sort of density exists in North America is very rare, and districts would of necessity be very small, but they should be on the table. These are perfect issues to be addressed through impact fees. If a developer is still going to make millions by building a tall condo tower, they are more willing to give a few thousand in fees to improve transit or green space. In short, I think the only way cities can become too dense is if the public services and amenities we expect in the city fail to keep pace.

Can condos be too tall?

While admitting to some of the efficiencies that large buildings provide, Alter argues that towers should not be “so high that it gets depersonalized and anonymous because there are just too many people packed in slab towers.” I think that this moves out of the realm of urban design and into architecture, where an architect can create a building that minimizes the impacts of a tower on its street or block. I think that it is also important to incorporate cafes or at least proper lobbies into towers. My building does not have a lobby and there isn’t a cafe within a few blocks, and as such I don’t know many of my neighbors very well, but I have friends who live in buildings where people do homework, meet people, and even eat in the lobbies of their building, and it goes a long way toward creating a community.

Are they built to last?

Again, Alter’s argument against towers is more architectural than urban design related. He cites a source that discusses how towers are leaky and hard to retrofit, which means they will be rented, and as property values decline, these will become “where your grandchildren are going to come to buy crack.” This coincides closely with the views of James Howard Kunstler on the topic. Alter also mentions that these buildings are terribly inefficient energy wise, since they often have small operable windows, if at all, and their glass facades generate a greenhouse effect. These are all strong points, and I would add that towers also run the risk of outliving the fashionableness of their architecture. But again, I feel like these issues are related to architectural designs. Buildings can be built that have operable windows, use greywater systems or allow for proper cross ventilation. It’s not that condos are bad; it’s that we allow bad condos to be built. If there is anything cities can do, it is demand a higher standard of design from their developers.

Wharton Real Estate Review: Two Decades of Design and Development


Vancouver: a model for future urban development. From realestate.wharton.upenn.edu.

Witold Rybczynski, one of the leading theorists today in architecture and urban design, recently wrote this post for Penn’s Warton School, discussing the trends he has seen in development in the past twenty years. He argues that New Urbanism has gone a long way to bringing about the idea of denser suburbs and has eventually penetrated the city, although as the design competition for the new World Trace Center in New York showed, some cities are more committed to the idea of novelty in design than a return to neo-traditional techniques.

However, the ensuing chaos that has kept and will continue to keep the project from completion for years to come illustrates another point: the fact that developers nowadays have more say in the shape of a project than planners. This is both good and bad; developers are more in-tune with people’s demands via the market, but they are not concerned with creating connections to neighboring areas or with public goods such as transit. This was something I found particularly frustrating in Utah, where as a city we had very little we could do about the extremely low quality of development in our city. At least in urban developments such as the Atlantic Yards and Stapleton, developers know they can’t get away with designing crap, like they can in Utah.

Rybczynski also points to new trends in retailing. Malls, with the exception of some of the highest end ones, are largely gone, replaced by two opposite extremes: the low-end, no-nonsense, parking-friendly power center, which can be seen on any highway strip; and the mixed-use, walkable lifestyle center, such as Salt Lake City’s new City Creek Center, and Reston, Virginia. Though some developers have embraced mixed use development, they have to be aware of the issues involved: a higher standard of design; being careful about what uses you mix; and having development partners who both understand the value of mixed use and have the deep pockets to finance it.

Despite these challenges, Rybczynski argues that our greatest challenge will be increasing housing density, brought on by new energy markets and regulations as well as increased demand for urban living. Cities will have to build new, affordable, and family-oriented units, unlike the expensive units marketed at young singles and retirees that we see today. Though there are many urban models for how to accomplish this density increase, the trouble will come with how we densify the suburbs. He points to failed malls and other large suburban parcels as redevelopment opportunities, but worries about when we have to actually talk about changing zoning and redeveloping existing residential areas in suburbs. I’m a little less worried about this, because I think that communities that succeed in changing their density will simply be more economically desirable, and more intractable cities will either see themselves shrink into nothing or simply adopt changes later on. Again, I worry that my former workplace of Spanish Fork City is less prepared for this future than neighboring Springville, Utah, which has worked to create an attractive and walkable main street and increase densities in neighboring communities. Hopefully these and other communities will be prepared to address these issues when they arise.

McCandless Crossing, or The Town Center is a Lie!


From mccandlesscrossing.com.

McCandless Crossing is a development in McCandless, Pennsylvania, which has been under construction for years and which will be implementing its fourth and final phase soon. Their website bills it as “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.” This is a totally noble pursuit, but the design that the developers are proposing will not accomplish this goal. I want to discuss some ways that they could actually do it.Location-01First of all, is McCandless Crossing in the right location? My first thought was to undergo a McHargian analysis of land suitability for development.McHargThis shows that the location is just the wrong one for a dense, mixed-use development like a town center. The site is best suited for low-density housing development, as it is one of the few remaining stands of dense forest in the township.

My next thought was, wouldn’t it make sense for a town center to actually be near the center of town? I looked at intersections of major roads, and the intersection of McKnight Road and Ingomar Road is very close to the geographic center of the township, but it is a multi-level interchange. The closest street-level intersection is Perry Highway and Ingomar Road, which I think would not be a bad spot. There is a small commercial development there right now with way too much parking that could be better utilized through denser development. But my next though was, is it better to be near the geographic center or the population center? With that in mind, I undertook a density analysis.McCandless-02McCandless is overwhelmingly low density. That being said, the highest concentrations of people are along Perry Highway and Cumberland Road, adjacent to the North Allegheny Schools campus, Northland Library and the Community College of Allegheny County; and along Babcock Boulevard between Duncan Avenue and Cumberland Road, adjacent to La Roche University and UPMC Passavant Hospital. CombinedSo basically, there are at least three locations better than the chosen one for a town center for McCandless Township, with the best probably being either Perry Highway and Cumberland or Bigelow and Duncan. But let’s say that that isn’t an option and, for whatever reason, you want to develop your town center on the existing McCandless Crossing site. What would be the best way to approach it?

The first question for me seems to be whether or not you locate it astride McKnight Road or on just one side of the road. Doing it on both sides of McKnight was my first thought, as it would allow for more room for development and more access from either side of McKnight. The issue with that would be getting pedestrians across McKnight. It is a major highway that is not safe for people on foot, and people are used to blowing through there at high speed. There is no way to make a road both high speed and pedestrian friendly. The closest you could come is to turn McKnight Road into a boulevard.

McKnight-01

McKnight Boulevard-01Although I do think that this would be in the best long-term interest of the township as it is forced to densify, for now, it would cause too much trouble. That leaves us with focusing development on one side of McKnight.

From revistasusp.sibi.usp.br.

Calthorpe’s TOD concept, and it’s somewhat analogous Traditional Neighborhood Development, include the idea of creating a walkable Main Street that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. This allows for a measure of compromise between walkable urbanism and drivable suburbanism. A good example is Orenco Station outside of Portland, Oregon.OrencoOrenco Station has a mixed use Main Street along a public space axis that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. Parking for some of the anchor retailers faces the arterial so that there is easy vehicular access while it is still screened from the walkable neighborhood part of the development. I think it is very important to have the Main Street intersect with the arterial so that there is at least a hint of the walkable town center just off the road. This is the problem with Belmar; if you didn’t know there was a cool neighborhood behind it, all you would see is the suburban strip.Real Town Center Part DoneMy plan for McCandless Crossing would be to reorient all the anchors so that they gather around just a few large parking lots facing McKnight Road. The Main Street runs parallel and is lined with small shops on the ground floor and other uses (hotel, office, and residential) above. The small retail lines and softens the anchors to make them seem more walkable. The theater is important, because it can have lobbies on both sides so that people can both walk to it and drive to it. There is a little bit more residential than other upper floor compatible uses, so apartments are laid out around a public green.Real Town Center Full DoneAnother issue is that the plan as it is designed is a retail power center and not a true mixed use town center, the major distinction being that the retail is meant to be supported by regional drivers and not local walkers, and as such there is nowhere near enough residential to support it. I wanted to expand the proposed uses to create a real town center, including range of residential types that fades into the largely single-family context, so the residential steps down from apartments to townhouses to small homes.

McCandless needs a town center, and McCandless Crossing could well be it; they just need to totally change nearly everything about their site plan. It can still serve drivers and be a regional retail destination, but it doesn’t need to be suburban schlock that won’t age well or contribute to the future and betterment of the people of the township. With some slight modifications, McCandless Crossing can become a real town center and help McCandless become a real town, that actually is “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.”

Alternative Social Housing: Prefab, Add-On Homes to Densify Suburbs : TreeHugger


Alternative housing proposal. From treehugger.com.

This post from Paula Alvarado at Treehugger details how Argentine architects Adamo Faiden propose to house people coming out of slums while densifying the suburbs. It is a fairly simple system: instead of building on virgin land, let’s build prefabricated units on top of existing suburban homes.

How it would work/I love diagrams. From treehugger.com.

The second unit could be a sort of accessory unit for adult children or aging parents of the homeowner, or they could simply sell the rights to build on their roof, as is a fairly common practice in today’s slums. This not only saves undeveloped land, but also creates mixed-income communities.

Part of why this works well in Argentina is that the standard housing model is semi-detached with flat roofs. But here is the US, our standard housing is completely detached, with slanted roofs. So how do we apply it? Well, since we have more room on the sides of our houses, we could add a detached or even attached accessory building units, as some developers in New Jersey are starting to do. But while our housing stock does not have flat roofs to build on, there are a lot of other buildings that do:

Strip mall. From simpletreats.wordpress.com.

Gas station. From distortedgamer.blogspot.com.

NASH, the high school I graduated from. From northallegheny.org.

Warehouse. From zurichagencyservices.com.

While our housing is largely made up of pitched roofs, our retail, institutional, and industrial uses are often not. Developing on top of these buildings would help create mixed-use neighborhoods, where people may not have to drive to their everyday services, and may be more inclined to walk.

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