Setting the Stage to Launch Lean Urbanism


The following is an abstract of a potential longer written piece which is meant to explore how Lean Urbanism can be achieved, starting with setting the right foundations. Through this paper I intend to reflect on the “making small possible” tenets of Lean Urbanism to reenlist the “missing middle” through less expensive construction costs, affordable rents, while also offering superior profits for developers, and tax revenues to municipalities.

More importantly, by enabling return of the “missing middle,” the current trend of enfeebling innovation will be arrested. Innovation, arising solely out of the middle income, will return commercialized innovation, in other words, jobs.

architectural example supporting lean urbanism

Mounting regulations from governing agencies, from lending institutions, from angry abutter
stipulations, from recalcitrant property owners, from fire and safety precautions, etc., make the
cost of everything, but especially building construction, skyrocket. Naturally, rising costs escalate revenue (rents) too. Today, rents, and costs of living generally, have escalated to the point where only the wealthy and the poor, the poor who qualify for subsidies, can afford them. Middle-income citizens, without wealth or qualification, have become outcasts, the Indian “Dalit” of American society. The pervasive phenomenon has come to be labeled the “missing middle.” Much ink has been spilled searching to re-balance the national pandemic, including debating means for changing, or avoiding, regulations, and for heroic measures to enable youth and immigrants to become small development/building enterprises, “making small possible.” While smart codes and “making small possible“ efforts receive enthusiastic support and outstanding attendance at Small Developer Roundtables, not many small development projects, or development entities, yet emerge. The reason for little emergence is due to lack of fertile stages from which small development can launch. Existing conditions are too problematic for inexperienced and under-capitalized neophytes to find sound footing. Therefore, effort must first be made to create environments that enable and foster small-scale development by small-scale developer/builders. The paper will show why master plans and regulations must allow no minimum lot size, no setbacks, no on-site parking, and no maximum size for building, number of dwelling units, and height.

Existing intransigent condition

Existing intransigent condition

The paper will explain why environments that support “making
small possible” will attract small developer/builders, allow
simpler construction at lower costs, fostering lower rents, and
making values soar.

The paper will lay out incremental methods that release early
prototypical projects that realize whole neighborhoods to effectively
demonstrate the abundance within the grasp of the once largest segment of American population, and shine a spotlight to open flood gates to other small developer/builders, to other municipalities, and to other finance entities, to invite back the “missing middle,” to the benefit, the industry, the growth and the prosperity of the
entire nation.

Exemplifying the paper’s theme, below are images to demonstrate setting a stage by repurposing a 100 acre languishing site to maintain existing infrastructure for affordability, to make small blocks, to re-plat large lots into small affordable lots, and to locate centers to anchor and stimulate walkable small neighborhoods that support “making small possible,” and support the paper’s thesis for setting a fertile stage for small, affordable and value adding development.

Proposed Condition to launch lean urbanism

Proposed Condition to launch lean urbanism

Let's Create A Place to Un-vanish the Neighbor

I found myself reading baby-boomer Marc Dunkelman's The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community and it led me to several conclusions, one of them being reaffirmation that architects and urban planners have much more power in there hands/pencils/computer mice than one may deem at first glance. 

A friend brought up in discussion that America in the 1950s went through a process of creative destruction, including but not limited to suburban sprawl and even rock and roll, which by the 1970s became a "commercial jingle."

I would not call it creative destruction. But rather, something more passive. I think what Dunkelman is saying, at least as far as I’ve read, is that certain conveniences, perhaps boiled down to the power of oil, and all its offshoots, have habituated a new environment in which supposedly cheap and easy transportation has distanced us from one another. That distancing connected by such an easy mode of travel has produced a good thing for sales and marketing as the catchment basin explodes further and further out. To reiterate his point, like the Wahsington dysfunction, it not the cause but the result of the environment. But most all other things have suffered: from interpersonal relationships, to fundamental trust of others, including the Millennial Inquisition* going on right now, to the inability to lead fearlessly (government), to the hopeless inability to manage our own affairs (desperate reliance on data and regulations that make no sense), to the explosion of economic prosperity, both up and down, pushing everything to never before seen percentages of rich and poor, and to the wholesale removal of the "missing middle” class.

Initiated by 10 frustrating years deep in Washington politics, Dunkleman escaped to try to figure out why leading this country has become so entirely locked in ineffectiveness. He paraphrases NYTimes Thomas Friedman, pointing out that in the time it took the Chinese to build an entire convention center, the Washington subway system was unable to repair a broken escalator. Darn regulations!

On the completely unsubstantiated pride in America’s global leadership Dunkleman states:

 “The United States once led the world with an unmatched percentage of young adults with college degrees, but has since fallen to twelfth; studies now rank us seventy-ninth in terms of elementary school enrollment; and in a key study of fifteen-year-olds around the world, Americans have rated below average in mathematics literacy and merely average in science and reading. Maybe worse still, only 15 percent of college graduates receive degrees in the natural sciences or engineering, which are purported to be the fields that drive economic growth.”

Dunkelman blames it all on environment, not on individuals. We are ALL part of the intransigence in Washington, not the helpless subjects of Washington intransigence. We have ALL created our own problem. And the changing environment created us.

Dunkelman identifies two periods of fundamental change in American history. One is the late 18th century when local environment, not political will, made former English subjects reject the “lord of the manor” form of routine life prevalent in Britain, and inaugurate a "new social architecture centered more on ties that bound together the residents of individual towns and villages. Rather than have a local nobleman keep watch over a district, as in England, the cohort of Americans nearby took joint responsibility for their collective well-being.” e.g., democracy, completely created by vicissitudes of their entirely different environment, not from politics.  

We are all products of the environments in which we grow up. Those environments, which used to support intense social relationships where everyone knew everyone, churned out people seeking esteem. Environments today, which actually started being formed in the 1950s, dissolve intense social relationships where no one knows anybody, churn out people seeking love. He describes the former as inwardly-focused, whereas the latter, ALL of us today, are outwardly-focused. This may seem a good thing, but it means we are constantly seeking affirmation from others, not from ourselves.

Average Americans spend 110% of what they earn, and retirement benefits, such as Social Security don’t come even close to what gets invested in them through incremental bites out of lives of paychecks. 

Disentangled from social relationships, today everything is data driven, data that’s just accepted without challenge, e.g., regulations. None of it makes any sense, unlike the broader, less abstract data driven, more empirically driven logic that governed the days for which we pine.

I think Lean Urbanism is ahead of the rest in recognizing the problem and seeking realistic doable solutions, solutions that surprisingly carry lower risk, ease of implementation, and higher prosperity, not to mention tighter social relationships, the absence of which caused by the new environment got us to where we are in the first place. 

As what appears to be the singular vanguard, Lean Urbanism** just needs to abandon its focus on the result of circumstances (regulations and barons… and, dare I say, climate change), and focus more on the underlying cause, the environment where we live and bring up our replacements, the only hope for the future. The re-creation of nests for useful rearing, passive rearing, rearing of future functional human beings. 

Based on how quickly things dissolved after Spindletop worked its magic, repair probably will take only 1.5 generations. The good news is that hunger for reclaiming social capital is already palpable in the resurgence of people, young and old, seeking the warm open arms of dense, functional and appealing urbanity.

It seems that fighting regulations is a fool’s errand. Regulations are the result of, not the cause of our current dystopia. Instead, one needs to create better nests, create beckoning environments that create adolescents into more self-reliant people that create routine behaviors that create non-reliance on data and regulations, better nests that create behaviors more centered on empirical resources. That create leadership based more on esteem than on love.

*Millennial Inquistion: the constant categorization of Millennials as dependent, unreliable, and constantly seeking approval, and the resulting rejection by older generations. 

**Lean Urbanism: concept to be discussed further in next blog post. 


Whalley Triumphant!

In case you might be thinking the Champs-Elysées is a bit far fetched, OK, did you know Whalley Avenue, one of three New Haven avenues with the audacity to honor 17th c. regicides, is exactly the same width, curb to curb, as the Esplanade in New Orleans (the Esplanade differs only in that buildings set back more from the curb than those on Whalley). You’d never guess the two streets were the same by looking. Poetry and dramatic arts get written on the Esplanade, tires get changed on Whalley. 

Significantly, the Esplanade, and all the other avenues in New Orleans for that matter, were very intentional, the French invention of Adrien de Pauger in the 18th century. As with Route 34, intentional is the key word missing from Whalley.

In point of fact, Whalley Avenue, along with partners-in-crime Goffe and Dixwell, started out lending intention to the city, bringing order and dynamism to first ring residential neighborhoods as they fanned out from Elm Street and downtown. But those valiant intentions are entirely obscured today.

If one were to put on an intentional de Pauger brain, the original potential of Whalley Avenue might very well be reborn, achieving exactly the same heightened desirability as the Esplanade offers its surrounds. 

Once again, private development can take on leadership (and pick up the tab) for street transformations if, if codes are re-written to demand intentional street forming configurations (it’s the streets dummy, not the buildings). The sheer breadth of such codes raises the desirability of all properties in the subject area, making even small properties worthy investments. Simply stated, suddenly the gate to development drops to where even small scale lower capitalized investors can turn a profit. The predictability of guided processes means that all participants, regardless of access to wealth, become positive contributors, piece by piece healing, joining and organizing the disjointed forlorn parts we see now into desirable wholes. 

Here’s the Esplanade superimposed on Whalley, at the same scale.

Esplanade superimposed on Whalley. 

Cities are finding that first steps to intentionally have to include changed thinking. The long accepted standard of making streets safe for cars where people are interlopers, has to change to a new standard of making streets safe and comfortable for people where cars are the interlopers. Desirability inevitably follows when the value of people gets promoted to the head of the class.

Instead of people nervously trying to survive in a car world, as they do on auto-centric Whalley today...

Whalley Avenue street view.

Whalley Avenue street view.

desirability magically materializes when the car-first standard flips to make cars drive cautiously in a people world, as on people-centric Esplanade today...

THe esplanade in new orleans. source:

THe esplanade in new orleans. source:

Prosperity follows.

Route 34 Triumphant!



Did you know Route 34 is exactly, exactly the same width, building face to building face, as the Champs-Élysées in Paris? The Champs-Élysées, arguably the grandest avenue on the entire planet, was created out of nothing in the 19th century to bring more celebrity to the City of Paris, to connect the city with the just being formed grandest park in Europe, the Bois de Boulogne, and to organize/raise the value of everything in between. Significantly, the boulevard was very very intentional. Intentional is the key word missing from all urban enterprise in the US today.



satellite view of Route 34 with the esplanade re-imagined in its place.

satellite view of Route 34 with the esplanade re-imagined in its place.


If one were to put on a Haussmann brain, the unrealized potential of disreputable Route 34 could do exactly the same thing, becoming the greatest avenue in the US, raising the importance of West River Park, healing, joining and organizing the separated forlorn parts of “staggering” (I prefer over both struggling and striving) New Haven, and it would look like this (with a couple of Arc de Triomph thrown in; see image above).

Job Oriented Development

Recently, I have been trying to inaugurate a slightly different (from TOD : Transit Oriented Development) concept with my graduate students at the University of Hartford couple years now, which is Jobs Oriented Development (JOD). Unlike TOD, which is a people exporter, JOD is a people importer. People seeking jobs also seek to live near where they work. People stay in their communities. They just need sturdy facilities, sturdy enough to house manufacturing job opportunities from which to grow new neighborhoods. 
Right now, my students are investigating complete form-based neighborhoods surrounding the Colt Manufacturing buildings, and other abandoned industrial facilities along the Connecticut River just south of the Capitol in Hartford. Other job opportunities of this site can be found on now-fallow agricultural lands, capitalizing on the frequently flooding Connecticut River's rich organic soil deposits.
Significant to CNU-NE is the fact that New England has a rare untapped (and now long abandoned) resource, which are all the water powered (i.e. free non-fossil fuel energy) mills that used to (right up through WWII) run the entire country from the 6 New England states, mostly Connecticut, which had 4,700 of the damn things, like this:



Not too shabby sturdy manufacturing facility (no CMU in evidence).

JOD could be the theme of a new CNU - CNU/NE - FCNU Council, perhaps in New Hampshire. The Fellows (FCNU) could be involved bringing gravitas, out of the box thinking and motivation. And CNU has NEVER looked at the jobs side of walkable neighborhood creation. This could be a whole new chapter in the CNU saga, possibly moving into a future Congress.

Recently, I discovered another JOD compatriot in arms, on the West Coast in Seattle, with whom I’ve been conversing for a while. Rod Stevens is a Stanford/Dartmouth-Tuck graduate, who has been following what started as “beer and bread” artisan maker-spaces (Artisan Asylum in Somerville, and a million other places nation wide) as they turned into high tech software design maker-space (Greentown Labs in Somerville, and a number of places nationwide, usually near higher-ed tech, such as MIT, IIT, Cal Tech, etc.), and Rod sees a new trend underway called Advanced Manufacturing, which is basically building on the former two trends to bring higher paying jobs and more productive industries. But they’re happy to share space, just like the previous maker-spaces.
Advanced Manufacturing does not need to be near higher-ed tech, and New Hampshire seems to be showing the most hunger for this new kind of industry, as identified by Rod. Rod is reaching out to his Tuck contacts to locate people and places that might make the best location for a Council, perhaps next spring (Rod says, "30 years ago, there were Tuck people dominating a prominent manufacturing firm in Nashua that owned Wheelabrator Frye and others. They gave a talk to my finance class on how to raid the pension fund for financing buy-outs!”). These kind of ideas, higher pay, and the still strong desire to live near where you work could make Advanced Manufacturing the most dynamic challenge to land-hungry-car-dominated seemingly irreversibly-failing cities all across the country.
I wasn’t able to go, but Manchester hosted an Advanced Manufacturing Conference this past Saturday. But here’s a link to a recent article on what’s going on in New Hampshire, leading the charge:
‘Time is now’ for action on manufacturing - New Hampshire Business Review - October 16 2015

Our Great Loss By Parking Lots

Quite simply, parking equals tax loss. 

On a recent charrette in Bethel, CT, a small town of 18,000, residents we performed a tax analysis of property tax paid by property owners in the town’s retail center, a charming New England street with many shops packed tightly together in typical 2-story buildings. 

We analyzed one of the tightly-packed 2-story buildings with no parking (the building basically covers its entire .16 acre lot), which pays what we calculated to be $133,000/acre, while an adjacent grocer with off street parking on 4 acres in the same tightly-packed location pays what we calculated to be $37,000/acre. 

In other words, in a location which could easily accommodate a continuation of building types it already has, building types that generate significantly higher tax yield/acre, the town’s taxpayers are forced to make up the difference in their own taxes to the amount of approximately $384,000 per year just to the advantage of the one grocer for the privilege of the grocer’s customers to have free and convenient parking in an otherwise high tax-yield/acre location. 

A CVS at the other end of the shopping street with off street parking pays what we calculated to be $20,000/acre, meaning the town’s taxpayers make up the difference (pay higher taxes) even more to the advantage of that single property owner for the parking convenience of its customers in an otherwise high tax-yield location.

In this small town, as with any town or city, where residential property owners pay a fraction of what downtown property owners pay, one can easily see how maximizing reasonable productivity of the economic engine of downtown tax-yield is to the direct advantage of all. Squandering tax-yield is to the direct disadvantage of all.

Meanwhile, in downtown New Haven, CT, where a tightly-packed building sitting on .13 acres (our own building) pays what we calculate to be $290,400/acre, the accounting detailed above more than doubles, meaning parking and empty lots in New Haven, as well as anything not tightly-packed, are EXTREMELY expensive for other taxpayers who have to make up the difference for each one of the low to no tax-yield properties in the city’s highest tax-yield areas. 




People may be angry about losing their downtown parking, especially their free parking, but with ±2/3 of otherwise high tax-yield/acre land in downtown New Haven taken off the tax rolls in the interest of low or no tax-yield parking in the most fertile tax-yield areas, along with the fact that city services, city government, and construction/maintenance of infrastructure are the SAME whether properties have buildings or not, explains why taxes are so extraordinarily high for remaining properties with buildings downtown, AND in the residential neighborhoods.

In other words, in most every case in the US, property tax does NOT rise in response to rising values. Property tax rises in response to lowering values.

Quite simply, parking acreage equals tax loss, made up for by extraordinary tax increases for everyone else. It’s actually extraordinary that all these decades no one has ever considered the possibility their significantly increased taxes (adding up to billions) on account of parking for for-profit private concerns could amount to a taking, something not blamed on bad luck in the economy, but something directly resulting from imposed policies of a municipality without any public vetting. Even eminent domain requires a vetting process, a process never initiated by the institution of parking standards, let lone ALL the other DOT standards, which INVARIABLY lower property values.