Monday, September 22, 2014

Forays into an "Incremental Urbanism": Mashing Lean Urbanism + Strong Towns Resilience + Frequent Transit Grids

"Lean Urbanism" in Charlotte. My team's Park(ing) Day parklet, a shipping container "homestead unit" + microfarm.

It has been quite an active past week and half!  This event-filled September has granted me experiences that pique my interests with new possibilities. For the first time, I think, I sense that I have a story arc and trajectory that can tie together my hopes for my career in city planning. How exactly I can contribute to that arc is still unformed, but I know I'm at the cusp of new beginnings in my practice. What's more, I am finding a "home" of sorts, finally, in the streams of planning and design schools of thought out there. At times, I've felt adrift, without a fraternal abode I could call my own. At various times I've leaned late-modern Dutch and ecological and at others more infrastructure based and "new urbanist light". My intellectual grounding is still in what I call the "Kevin Lynch school", for lack of a better name. What I got from Lynch was an appreciation of the need for signposts and settings to check our conventional hubris, to recalibrate and think about how we think about the city, and to craft more nuanced design processes that enable designers to utilize feedback and, even, reversal.

I find this ethic at work in three young currents emerging in planning thought. These are Andres Duany's solidifying thoughts on "Lean Urbanism", the Strong Towns "math" of Chuck Marohn and Joe Minicozzi, and Jarrett Walker's goal setting approach to transit network planning.  Each leading front, obviously, focuses on the professional lens of these experts, so the first is not accidentally honed primarily on architectural processes, the second on the interphase of civil engineering and productive growth, and the last, obviously, on transit effectiveness.  While these are each most effective, I think, keeping their primary focus on the interests of their leading thinkers, they each complement each other quite nicely with the nascent tools they are developing and the goals and ledgers they are progressively clarifying. An urban designer should appropriate the language they are working out, if simply to test it.  What each incorporate into their lessons and techniques for planning practice is an appreciation for making effective strides incrementally, removing, or at least circumventing, the hubris and the waste of processes based on failed paradigms and the irresponsible chasing of growth with big projects. Andres is right: the need for PPPs has pole-vaulted to the apex of planning expertise today because we have regulated and expertified away fiscal clarity, bottom up pipelines for nimble-footed, resilient, incremental growth.

I'm alert to how all three movements will inform and complement urban design practice and take it to a new place. Despite their independent trajectories, these three vanguards are to a great degree pragmatic and rational, discursive in their clarification of the problems they face, and revelatory in their way to think about the goals (Jarrett Walker's post "abundant access: a map of a community's transit choices, and a possible goal for transit" is one of those rare language-shifting works of cut-to-the-chase rhetoric for distilled understanding that one only comes across a few times in one's professional life).  But they are not unconventional and revolutionary movements in their respective scopes. Indeed, Andres, Chuck, Joe and Jarrett are instead highly conscious about how to rejigger conventional processes in a thoughtful, successive and thoroughly professional way.

My excitement is that I'm beginning to see how the three movements can each independently contribute to a practice honed to synergize with their insights... call that convergence of the triad maybe "Incremental Urbanism".  I'm going to call the convergence L-M-N-O-P Planning: "be Lean when you can", "do the Math", "try the Network", "be Open" (to change my thinking), and "be a Planner, silly" - focus on planning for successive stages and don't do the opposite thing and create plans and ordinances that actually outlaw change. Incremental change is what cities often do and should be allowed to do, hence, why we actually need planners. (Zoning for "no change" is what creates sprawl, stupid.) Admittedly, the last two "O" and "P" points are my personal commentary.

Just be alert.  In their ways, these three will each succeed, and that path will look very differently for each.  But, quietly, beginning with precedent setting, they will begin fraying the edges of conventional and Ponzi-like approaches to city growth.  Those of us bouncing deep in the bowels of the heavy armored artillery will begin to notice the pockmarks with the daylight of the three movements shining through.  To the extent I'm allowed, I'm eager to bring in their methods into my activities, if not into my paid work in this early moment, then into my civic attentions.

By the way, if you are scratching your head and wondering how Jarrett's work of late appreciates an "incremental" approach to urbanism, I invite you to carefully read Chapter 15 "On the Boulevard" of his book. Jarrett's strategy actually addresses the "stroad" retrofit for incremental urbanism. We're quite fortunate to be witnessing the paradigm shifts that appear to be emerging in planning today. What an incredible time to be doing urban design.

We love Nicollet Av. in Minneapolis!
THIS new light-footed trajectory in my thought has been percolating to the surface of my reflections since last weekend, when I felt the refreshing embrace of brother/sisterhood with planing activists and transportation people (who actually think like me!) at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis.  Yes, I actually attended a conference-like convergence on my own dime for the first time. It was an easy sell, not only because I'm a Strong Towns "Advocate" but, well, because this registration cost was in the low, low three figure range.  It was thus cheap because Jim Kumon, the organizer, has, shall we say, a "lean" approach to event planning. Which means that at the cost of the holiday I planned to have with my brother anyway, I could actually attend without having to beg someone for money. How refreshing. How bottom up. I actually did spend some money, of course, but I got to spend it pumping it into all the delightful restaurants and local businesses I could on Nicollet Avenue and its diverse environs.  As luck would have it, that Sunday at the conclusion to the Gathering, Open Streets Minneapolis closed off Nicollet Ave. to traffic, and my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the midst of what is surely one of the great neighborhood streets in the nation.

Jane and Jezebel provided modeling services.
On the heels of the Gathering, this weekend saw my first foray into "lean urbanism" in Charlotte during Park(ing) Day 2014. Along with Klint Mullis of Center City Partners, two of my Neighboring Concepts coworkers, Sandra Grzemski and Maria Floren, and the Lawrence Group's power duo ladies Aleksandra Borisenko and Keihly Moore (who both organized the entire event), we erected a homesteading greenhouse/"living room" and container microfarm.  It was more symbol and tactical than "lean", true, but at least we put the meme out for homesteading with a shipping container provided by Boxman Studios (last year's fastest growing business in Charlotte) and a microfarm kit, chicken coop and all, courtesy local outfitter/supplier Microfarm Organic Gardens. As Andres Duany likes to say, every parking surface is a ready-made footing for light-imprint settlement, and I hope we made that argument at least visually. You want to homestead on your local vacant mall parking lot?  No worries, we can get 'er DONE right here in Charlotte (Eastland Mall, we're looking at you).

During both weekends, I got to make new friends and meet very exciting people from whom I hope to learn more from.  At the National Gathering, I got my introduction to Sara Joy Proppe, Edward Erfurt and Hans Noeldner, and had crazy good discussions, the kind I rarely have, with many others. This weekend was also my chance to work with the Lawrence Group girls to erect four new Little Free Libraries in Charlotte, contributed by the participants of the Park(ing) Day parklets plus a few others (every parklet came with at least one LFL - so a more permanent tribute to our creativity lives on). This included the one in Keihly Moore's and my neighborhood, Wesley Heights.  We still have five more to put up.  I look forward to working more with Keihly (pronounced "Kee-ly") and Aleksandra.  They blog at Complete Blocks and contribute to

Keihly (right), along with Wesley Heights Neighborhood Association President Shannon Hughes, inaugurates our Wesley Heights Neighborhood Little Free Library. This sharp design was the work of UNC-Charlotte students.