Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Grids Matter and We Should Recreate Them At All Cost (Strictly for the ROI)

I have written before about the difference between dendritic and reticulated grids.  However, that was highly theoretical and still lacking in real world justification.  Here I'm going to try and provide further justification for the grid in a more applicable manner.

First, we have to revisit the differences between reticulated networks and dendritic ones:

A dendritic system is defined by a branching structure that funnels movement in one direction.  Whereas a conventional grid provides a multiplicity of routes.  The key defining factor is choice.  Think about this from where you live and you're on your way to work or to pick up the kids or to get a gallon of milk.  How many routes can you take?  What if there is a wreck along the way?  How many different modes of travel are quick and convenient?

There is quite a bit of talk about the emergent nature of cities as complex systems, but few really understand the applicability to how we design our cities and the dynamics of the process.  What we have to understand is that emergence implies a second level of organization that is largely beyond our control.  Why? Because we can only 'design' the first level of organization, whether it is a building or a road.  Because designers are only one person or group working on one problem.  The second order of 'design' happens when everybody else decides how to use the system.  That can't be designed en masse, only nudged in certain directions depending upon how well we understand the dynamics of this emergence.

For example, the wave in a stadium is simply the act of standing up, waving your arms, and sitting down.  Whether everyone else decides to do it or not is entirely up to them.  Now amplify that a few million times in complexity for all the actions or inactions involved in every citizens daily life.  All of those actions then determine the form of the city, organized loosely around the first order of things that we can actually design.  You might say the first order is the infrastructure of the city and the second order is the real estate market.  The market can't really be 'designed' per se, but it can be shaped and given order.  Those that try to fully design the second order, whether it's Radiant City, Brasilia, Masdar, or any masterplanned community, rather than simply designing the platform for life to exist on its own, invariably fall short.

It can be nudged in one of two directions by the two systems I've illustrated above, dendritic or reticulated.  Here is the difference that I've described before:  dendritic systems spread everything out while grids concentrate.  The reason is because dendritic systems concentrate the bad and disperse the good.  On the other hand, complex highly interconnected grids concentrate the good (the sociopetal) and disperse the bad (sociofugal).  Why?

It all comes down to choice.  Grids, due to the multiplicity of routes available, empower choice.  You can go many different routes depending upon the needs of the individual trip and can calibrate each trip then to the dynamics at the time.  An accident in one area, re-route.

Amplifying this aspect, is that in dendritic systems the roads get bigger and bigger and bigger, funneling more traffic into certain corridors while emptying out all of the other.  It makes these 'trunk' roads even more undesirable.  Unfortunately, business needs the traffic of those roads.  
The grid, by being meritocratic, concentrates real estate value at the most desirable places.  Value is indicated by and proportional to traffic (of all modes).

Dendritic systems disperse and discourage both choice of route and mode of travel.  By dispersing people and concentrating traffic it becomes a fundamentally car-dependent system whether it is intended or not.

With the grid, because the capacity is shared throughout, it allows all the individual roads to be smaller and therefore be less car-oriented.  By being less car-oriented it allows even more choice, not just of route, but also of mode.  The citizen is even more empowered, thus making for a smarter, more adaptable system and city.  Density of movement and population is an indicator of desirability and thereby even more attractive, comprising the third multiplier effect.

Because the grid empowers choice, it becomes fundamentally meritocratic by place.  We are drawn to the more desirable places and repelled from the less desirable places, thereby 1) bringing a complex self-organizing order to the real estate market, density and value go where they want to and 2) provide an upward impetus to the real estate market.  Want your land to be more valuable?  You have to make it more desirable.  Whereas in the dendritic system the fundamental dynamic is about being less bad, less sociofugal. The design response is then all about ameliorating and buffering the bad things rather than multiplying, amplifying and accentuating the good.

An admittedly imperfect grid of downtown Dallas (blocks are too big as are the thoroughfare plan-coerced arterials), still concentrates and centralizes the desirable along Main Street.

Arterials that clip the grid and concentrate vehicular traffic instill a tension.  It draws businesses due to the traffic which then have to defend or buffer themselves from the undesirability of place.  The dispersing tendency this has on the real estate market then drops land value, which in turn drops the impetus to put any money or design quality into place, while further empowering cannibalization and decay, destabilizing places.

Same effect only larger with highways, the trunk which arterial feed.  At first the real estate market was attracted to the traffic counts only to realize their access and interconnectivity is poor.  What was first office high-rises and hotels eventually degrades to find its true level, often gas stations, drive thrus, roadside motels, etc.

In conclusion, due to the lack of choice inherent in the hierarchical road classification system and their standards, the real estate market is put into a perpetual race to the bottom.  Those that dare create something urban-esque, end up failing if they don't recreate and restructure a complex grid of highly interconnected movement that empowers choice of mode and route.  See: Victory for a development that provided urban supply with suburban demand (via its infrastructural interconnectivity).  Vertical cul-de-sacs set on horizontal cul-de-sacs.  And now you know why it's mostly empty.