Lean Urbanism: Cheaper, Faster, Smaller

Andres Duany. Photo credit: The Guardian.

Andres Duany. Photo credit: The Guardian.

by James A. Bacon

Andres Duany, the leading theorist of the New Urbanism movement, has toured Detroit seven or eight times. The first trips consisted of what he calls “ruin porn” — post-apocalyptic landscapes of tumble-down houses, weeded lots and decrepit public buildings. But the most recent trip was very different. His guide conducted him through an archipelago of places where people were moving back in, fixing things up and creating jobs. It was a huge “aha” moment for him, he told attendees of the 22nd conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism this morning.

How could revival be happening in a city that had filed for bankruptcy and was scaling back on the delivery of essential municipal services such as public safety, infrastructure and schools? His incredible realization: Bankruptcy benefited the city by cutting spending on the regulatory apparatus that had strangled the city in the first place.

“When Detroit went bankrupt, they couldn’t maintain the regulators,” Duany explained. People simply stopped bothering to get permits; they side-stepped the suffocating rules and red tape that made it devastatingly expensive to invest in the city. The young Millennials who are leading the city’s revival simply had no patience with the regulations. They proceeded as if the regulations didn’t exist, and no one stopped them.

That epiphany sparked a major turn in Duany’s career. Renowned for his critique of suburban sprawl, his evangelism of creating cities for people, not cars, his design of New Urbanist communities such as Seaside in Florida and the Kentlands in Maryland and his role creating form-based codes as an alternative to traditional land used-based codes, Duany now is propounding what he calls “lean urbanism.” His goal: to strip away all but the most essential regulations to encourage more urban re-development.

Duany was 30 years old when he designed Seaside, the beach-front town that did so much to define the early New Urbanism movement. One reason the project was so successful is that there were no regulations to impede it. But the nation has layered regulation after regulation onto the development process over the past 30 years, he explained. The last building he designed was so festooned with regulations, he said, he had to hire a consultant who specialized in handicap-accessibility code. That one set of requirements contains as many rules and specifications as the entire development code when he got started!

Developers who started in the game 30 to 40 years ago have had decades to master the new regulations as they accumulated. “Those of us who grew up with it are expert navigators,” he said. “We’re experts at work-arounds and patches.” The tragedy is that young people confronting the mass of regulation for the first time don’t have a clue. After seeing what they’re getting into, many quit and go into another profession, he said only half-facetiously.

The rise of the regulatory regime tilted development decisively in favor of the cookie-cutter, urban-sprawl pattern of development. To understand why, it is necessary to understand how urban re-development works. The first phase is when the “risk oblivious” sector of the population — typically young people, gays, artists and the like — move into a decayed neighborhood because it’s inexpensive. This first wave makes the neighborhood safe, introduces amenities that it lacked and creates an aura of coolness. Once pioneers demonstrate the market potential for an area, large-scale developers with less appetite for risk move in with the big money.

Hiring the lawyers and consultants to move a proposal through City Hall is expensive and time-consuming. There are economies of scale inherent in the process that confer a huge advantage to developers who can spread the regulatory cost over a large number of lots. “You can’t make a living doing two or three houses per year. You need twenty to thirty.” By enacting reams of regulations, Duany said, “government has exterminated that first phase of development.” That doesn’t hurt the suburbs where green-field land is available for large-scale projects. But it is a killer in cities where the land has been developed already and where re-development occurs lot by lot.

The way to level the playing field is to create “pink zones” in cities that are similar to suburban PUDs (Planned Urban Developments). “You negotiate down the red tape so that the person who comes in has a very short protocol” of requirements. Says Duany: “We have to do it with less. We have to do it faster. We have to do it smaller.”