Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ask the CarLess Guy?

Received this thoughtful question today, and one I've thought about for a long, long time but haven't really written much about specifically or in detail, but the issues are all familiar:

I am a reader of your blog, http://www.carfreeinbigd.com, and enjoy it greatly. However, I was wondering if you have ever given any thought to, or written about, how modern Apartment complexes play into livability versus how they were constructed in the past.

It seems to me most modern apartment designs are done on a multi acre scale instead of the old style (early to mid 20th century) of a random building or two along a street, relying on that street for parking needs. Modern complexes, with the exception of the Tx Doughnut, seem to be an isolated retracted space shielding themselves from the surrounding neighborhood. Newer complexes like in Uptown seem to be bridging the gap between the classic one off building and the apt community.

In uptown at least this increased walkability and density happened in a positive manner. Larger complexes, aka the village, are more suburban in feel and function. Most folks despite the density in the complexes still use a car to travel to the City Center, from their apt, however, based on the density you would think it's more walkable.

Classic apartments, in Lakewood, or East Dallas, Oak Cliff, ect, provide a nice mixture of income level folks without becoming a "scary Section 8" complex since a building or two by its very nature is so small. It minimizes the potential "scariness "of buying a single family home next to an apt complex. Additionally, they provide a nice mixture of density, without becoming overwhelming the character of the neighborhood. In the long running allowing it to slowly become densier and more walkable.
Anyways, I have rambled with long enough. Thanks for your though provoking post.

Without writing 10,000 words in detail of every little nuance and reasoning for the observed by-product of economic inertia, I try to respond:

Glad to hear from you and you are 100% correct in your assessment of the different development form and format. The deeper question then to ask is why did this shift occur and how did it happen. Then the next step is to determine if some measure of return to that real estate delivery system is 1) feasible and 2) desirable. The reason for the shift has a number of origins: new building standards/codes, Euclidean zoning, as well as financial mechanisms behind what gets approval for loans and what doesn't - which is typically the tail that wags the dog - in that it is a byproduct of the above, but then dictates it thereafter, hence the inertia of the entire real estate delivery system and why we mistakenly think of suburbia as a market demand.

All of these were in some ways a form of market determinism, but the solutions were ham-handed. They went too far and undermined, well, complexity and interconnectedness (interconnectedness produces complexity) if all evidence and Space Syntax are to be believed, which I do. It was like treating cold symptoms with nerve gas. Not sure the details of this metaphor parallel reality, but the hyperbole is intended.

As my next column in D magazine (February issue) will cover, physicists are showing that as cities double in size, they produce efficiencies in outputs. More specifically, this means about 115% increase in output for every doubling in population size. Outputs are data elements. Things we can measure and they can be both good and bad. For example, cities are the greatest invention of wealth generation man has ever created. This is the very reason for their creation along with the increased efficiencies of inputs within cities. Inputs are things like infrastructure, roads, energy, etc etc. Cities use 15% less of these things for every 2x of population.

Wouldn't every business man like this equation? Less upfront cost, more returns (economically, socially, and environmentally profitable).

But along with the benefits of cities, they also produce negative outputs, such as crime, disease and waste/pollution. Industrialization made cities awful, dirty, crime-ridden, smelly, polluted, disease-infested places with plenty o' poverty as well. We failed to innovate in terms of addressing these negative outputs from economic production and in turn, cities became the stigmatized places we still live with today. These actions begot an equal an opposite reaction (and probably overreaction given the state we're at today). We erased the city to erase the negative outputs of city life and also lost all of its benefits. Cheap (and now subsidized) gas/oil prices have only exacerbated/accelerated the process and further entrenched how difficult it will be to shift market sentiment.

Those that studied cities and found the efficiency numbers above, found that Sun Belt cities such as Dallas underperform on both the front and back-end. We are wasteful with our inputs (in that we use a lot of energy and infrastructure per capita) and we get less positive outputs, but because negative outputs are determined by population size, we still have all of the negative issues/outputs, aka crime, disease, pollution. To summarize, Sun Belt cities get all the bad and none of the good of cities. The bad is determined by population size, the good is determined by urban form.

Getting back to the specifics of building form, the reasons for the bigger projects rather than smaller are entirely economic: bigger banks and bigger developers and bigger architecture firms, etc require bigger returns and to get those bigger returns they need big projects that can maximize efficiencies in building practices. At the end of the day however, this only works for short-term financial gain, which is how the financial system is rigged, rather than long-term, continual and sustainable value. ie if a building is built cheaply so that it falls apart and is unlovable in that we let it fall apart, it will just be cast aside in the future. This is the throw-away economy of the 20th century as applied to cities.
Side note: one of these days I want to address the short-term vs long-term economic engines by way of stakeholder vs. shareholder economies.
Waste is a cost (the air we breathe, cost of creating/having landfills, etc etc). Fundamentally, we constructed a broken system. In the natural world, there is no waste. It is all closed loop systems, cradle to cradle, where waste equals profit. We've created the opposite as if it were possible. These outputs, waste, get externalized, ie written off. Somebody else's problem. We're starting to just now bump into those debts the 20th century accrued. Cities become profitable when we don't throw them away every generation and start again. Every building, every stone is reused, repurposed.

Furthermore, since a building might be cheap and ugly, everything around it withdraws or "defends itself" against adjacent ugliness for lack of a better word. This includes streets and the transportation system. It is all connected. Build a great street, say the champs elysees, value and density gather around it, embrace it, and it is financially rewarding to interface directly with it. Therein lies the depth of all of these issues and the bureaucratic entities that defend the status quo (from both a public AND private side). The bigger the entity, the more resistent to change, aka necessary adaptation. From a global perspective, this is why I think there are two types of evolution (whether in design or in natural world): Drastic and painful due to unwillingness, or gradual, incremental, and constant.

I also agree with you that the old way was preferable in that it creates more authentic, true, walkable urbanism - or better yet, functional, efficient urbanism as a platform for human livelihood. It is inherently complex, since it is interconnected (also in the 4th dimension in that it is tied to history, or some tradition, ie years of decisions/thought put forth years and years before - modernism also suffocated all of this thought - a selfish mistake by modernists). Interconnectedness is the primary reason for many chicken/egg dilemmas of urbanism. Also, I think what we call authentic is that it was incremental and demand driven. Much of what we see built today is supply driven, ie the housing bubble/burst. There weren't real demographic shifts calling for an extra 25 million new households, but the financial system (and its mouthpieces) said there was money to be made, so build we did...bigger and bigger, more and more.

I also think that if we can apply modern materials and methods to this process while making it economically viable to do so is probably approaching necessary at this point. So what we have to do is drill deep into the real cavities, the systemic issues and mechanisms producing the cities that we see and feel, and that aren't working for us, change them, so there really is no choice, but to build great cities, buildings, and places. I prefer a system that doesn't outlaw the bad, but rather financially punishes the bad and rewards the good. To do so, we have to be honest with ourselves as to what those cavities are and honestly address them rather than adding some veneers and calling them world class.