Sunday, January 27, 2013

Small Lots and the Evolution of the City

Small lot development in Austin, Texas
Today, we tend to think of small lots as unusable scraps; nuisances which stand in the way of good development. Many redevelopment efforts focus on the assembly of these lots into workable development sites. The small, wasteful buildings can then be swept away to make room for efficient development.

Small lot development in Paris
This is not a view rooted in an understanding of how cities have historically developed, nor in a view that comes from a study of the world's most enjoyable places. Traditionally, city blocks were subdivided into multiple small lots, often just 25' to 50' wide (or about 2,500 to 5,000 square feet), which were each auctioned off and developed independently by their individual owners. Prior to restrictive zoning, these lots would incrementally change over time in response to changing market conditions. This process, which served us well for centuries, is perhaps best illustrated by the work of a fellow named Zack van Schouwen. He studied the daylights out of a single block in New York, and sketched each and every development change that it went through over the course of two centuries.

(Zack von Schouwen)

This is one of my favorite things on the web. The amount of work that went into this project is incredible. You can view the whole history of this block at Zack's website here. Go ahead and check it out. I'll wait.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mapping Density with Dots

One of the coolest maps I've seen in a long time is the Census Dotmap, by Brandon Martin-Anderson. There is absolutely no base map at all--no roads, no topography, no political boundaries... nothing. Instead, there is simply one dot for every single person counted by the 2010 US Census and 2011 Canadian Census. As you zoom into an area, the variations in density get clearer and clearer.

It is amazing how natural features such as mountain ranges and rivers are so visible, despite the spartan nature of the map. Major population patterns are clearly visible, such as the megalopolis of the northeast, the hub and spoke pattern of big cities and small towns in the Midwest, and the dramatic drops in population in the plains, Rockies, and deserts.

It is very interesting to note how many of the densest cities are actually sparsely populated at the very center (due to the dominance of office space). Those central cores, however, are often surrounded by an extremely dense belt of population. Nuances like this are often lost in color-coded density maps based on larger geographic increments.

If I had one wish for a future enhancement, it would be for past censuses to be added. It would be really educational to pick an area and see how the present patterns vary from those of 50 or 100 years ago. Central Detroit comes to mind, as do the outer areas of metropolitan areas. If you could go back far enough in time, it would be a really dramatic and informative way to see the westward expansion of the United States. Such a project would be an enormous and daunting undertaking, though.

Kudos to Mr. Martin-Anderson on his awesome creation. This useful resource can be found here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What is the Meaning of Suburban?

Words matter. When we speak to each other we need to understand what is meant. Language can often be ambiguous and inconsistent, but it seems to be particularly bad regarding cities. For example, which of the neighborhoods below is suburban?

Neighborhood A
Neighborhood B

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Delightful Density Presentation at the Vancouver Urban Forum

(Photo from
Last year I was lucky enough to be invited by former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan to give a short-and-sweet version of my Delightful Density presentation. I gave my talk at the Vancouver Urban Forum, which was a great event organized by his current endeavor, the Global Civic Policy Society. I had a lot of fun, and my speech was pretty well received. Sam and his team were fantastic hosts, and it was exciting to be on the roster with urban luminaries such as Gil PeƱalosa, Ed Glaeser, and Gordon Price.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the presentation: 

The Vancouver Sun had a nice write-up on the event the next day, here. Vancouver has been a world leader in using well-designed density to revitalize their city, and they are consistently ranked at or near the top of most livable city lists thanks in large part to the work of people like Sam.

The bottom line is that a growing number of people prefer dense walkable urbanism, and it can be great when it is designed well and located in the proper place. Over the next few months, I plan to transcribe my Delightful Density presentation in to a series of blog posts for posterity. An extended version of the presentation, which includes a better density game and more data for folks who have yet to drink the Kool Aid, can be found on my Videos page.