The really big idea to emerge from the 2014 Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) was “lean urbanism.” The idea isn’t entirely new. Andres Duany, New Urbanism guru and the driving force behind “lean” urbanism, has been publicly discussing the idea for a year or more. But he used the annual confab to flesh out the idea in a series of forums and conversations with others. The idea received a positive response — far more people attended his sessions than Duany had expected — but he received at least one reminder, which I shall recount shortly, that bringing about the kind of reforms he envisions will be exceedingly difficult. The fundamental problem resides not in bureaucratic intransigence or political obstreperousness but in the extraordinary complexity of modern democratic society.
The concept of lean urbanism arises from Duany’s observation that municipal zoning codes and building codes are so complex and onerous that they make it exceedingly difficult for young people, artists, gays and other small-scale players with a high tolerance for risk to gentrify and re-develop decaying urban neighborhoods. They simply lack the scale to hire the architects, planners and lawyers needed to push their projects through City Hall. Without the risk-oblivious pioneers to pave the way and demonstrate the viability of a neighborhood, big-money developers stay away unless government mitigates the risk through partnerships and subsidies, which, of course, are highly risky and expensive for government.
Duany experienced what he calls an “aha” moment, however, when touring Detroit not long ago. He was astounded by hot spots of revitalization where young people had moved into neighborhoods and begun rebuilding under the radar. Detroit’s bankruptcy, he contended, had forced the city to pare back its code enforcement apparatus, with the result that the Millennial pioneers no longer faced the bureaucratic obstacles that had halted re-development before. Was there some way to replicate that experience by, in effect, pre-negotiating a stripped down set of codes and regulations for districts targeted for development?
Lean urbanism, as best I could decipher it from the CNU sessions I attended, moves along two tracks — one on the private-sector side, the other on the public-sector side. In a series of sessions, a succession of lean-urbanism advocates presented papers on different strategies and tactics for bringing down the private-sector cost of re-development projects. Duany sat in attendance as commenter and interloculator.
Thus, David Brain, a board member of the National Charrette Institute, made a presentation on how to reduce the cost of charrettes, which are visioning and design sessions conducted with extensive public input. Charrettes are manpower-intensive and run up significant bills for the developers who hold them. Perhaps the idea could be re-tooled, Brain suggested, by bringing in smaller teams that focused on incremental changes rather than grand visions and by settling for rougher sketches without the complete documentation. There would be trade-offs, to be sure, but the result would be a tool that can “do more with less in the way of financial resources.”
Another concept was to build on the idea of tactical urbanism, in which planners, non-profits and/or volunteers mock up changes to the cityscape by repainting traffic lines, bringing in trees and bushes in planters, installing movable street furniture and holding events to show people what is possible. The idea is to undertake small, inexpensive experiments. If they fail, they can be scrapped at little cost. If they succeed, municipalities can follow up by making permanent changes.
One CNU session highlighted an example of “lean sprawl repair” for the Oak Hollow Mall in High Point, N.C. That project visualized transforming an abandoned mall into a business incubator with space for live-work studios, artisan workshops and a culinary institute. Parking lots would provide space for cheap, pop-up business quarters in the form of shipping containers. Cheap. Fast. Low risk. Other presentations explored the potential for making greater use of live-work units, using lean urbanism to revitalize small towns, and adopting the vernacular architecture of the Philippines to increase energy efficiency of American buildings at low cost.
But achieving public-sector reform is a tougher nut to crack. In yet another session, Richmond, Va., attorney Daniel K. Slone tackled the prospects for reforming the building code. Rules in the building code exist for a reason, he said. They are designed to protect against hazards common to the construction of buildings and they have constituencies that will fight to preserve them. Responsible builders prefer having codes because they protect against competitors underbidding them by doing shoddy work and because hewing to accepted best practices protects them against lawsuits if something does go wrong. When Millennials in Detroit ignore the permitting process, they take on risks — or pass them on to others — that they may or may not be prepared to deal with.
Unlike many government standards, which are imposed from above, building codes come from a grassroots, bottom-up process in which government plays a negligible role in setting the standards. The process is open to anyone who wants to participate, and the results reflect a give-and-take between stakeholders. The 1990s saw important updates to the code as environmentalists pressed for alternative building designs for such things as green roofs, adobe houses and putting outdoor lighting in trees rather than on creosote phone poles. Another wave of reform resulted in the creation of a Rehab subcode that recognized that the renovation of existing buildings justifies different rules than does construction of new buildings, achieving some of the goals that the Lean Urbanists are agitating for.
It might be useful, suggested Slone, to examine the concept of sovereign immunity that protects public officials for the negligent actions of government. Sovereign immunity has eroded over the years as citizens, legislators and courts have sought to hold public officials more accountable. Understandably, government officials are reluctant to expose themselves to the risk of lawsuits by modifying the building code. Clarification or expansion of sovereign immunity may be one of the most overlooked aspects of achieving lean regulatory reform, Slone wrote in a draft white paper. However, reformers should expect the possibility of resistance from the plaintiff’s bar and consumer advocates.
Rolling back building codes also would create liability issues for architects. “In substituting for the building inspector, the architect is likely taking on a level of liability not covered by its insurer, and not necessarily available for coverage,” wrote Slone. “Insurance, if available, would likely be expensive, making this approach less economical than public inspectors.”
While Slone dumped a bucket of cold water on the idea of radically leaner building codes, he did suggest that the regulatory process could be improved upon. States that hadn’t adopted the Rehab subcode could incorporate it into their building codes. Building inspectors could view videos of foundations, wall sections and the like as a substitute for visiting the premises. Homeowners associations could inspect and approve small-scale improvements. Legislation could clarify or expand sovereign immunity for public officials. “To be effective,” Slone wrote, lean codes “must address factors such as tort immunity, limited areas of application, and clarification that protection of disadvantaged social groups will continue in order to be approved.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Lean urbanism is a brilliant idea and it could do much to revitalize American cities. Without question, it should be pursued. But the goals of lean urbanism — fewer regulatory obstacles and lower costs — must be balanced against the need to protect the public health and safety. Achieving a new balance won’t be easy. It means delving into mind-numbing details and hashing out compromises with stakeholders like fire departments, builders, environmentalists, social justice advocates and everyone else pushing an agenda. This is the price we pay for democratic decision-making in a highly complex society.