Thursday, May 7, 2015

Neo-traditional urbanism: focusing on process or outcome?

I've already touched on this subject in my post in reaction to Prince Charles' principles for urban development, but I thought it was important to return to the subject in depth.

The movement to rediscover walkable urbanism is often called "neo-traditional" urbanism, which may first seem a contradiction: new and traditional at the same time? What it is in fact is a return to the roots of urbanism, in opposition to "modern" urbanism, which was a rejection of what came before and came from the desire to reinvent everything on new foundations (which is what "modern" means). Urbanists have seen that cities built centuries ago still perform admirably and are highly desired, whereas modern developments from the mid-20th century onward often have terrible outcome: high energy use, car dependency, obesity, social isolation, unsustainable finances, etc...

As a result, many urbanists clearly take a stand in favor of a return to traditional cities, hence the term "neo-traditional". New Urbanism is one type of this and the one most well-defined as a coherent movement. They look at traditional cities...
Clermont-Ferrand, France

Lyon, France

Older commercial street of Syracuse, New York
... and they say "These cities worked well... we should build cities like them today!". They look at the surviving examples, and then try to copy them in new locations. Often, they will draw inspiration from what is around them, so in North America, we tend to look at old streetcar suburbs or main streets, in the UK, to Ye Old Townes, etc... So if the old areas around had back alleys, they will build back alleys. If the old areas had attached houses, they will build attached houses, otherwise, they'll build detached houses. Tall buildings had shops on the first floor? They'll mandate the first floor to be commercial. They had curving streets, we'll have curving streets.
Northeastern American streetcar suburb, detached houses built deep, grass and trees between sidewalk and the street...
New Urbanist development in Markham, Ontario: detached houses built deep, grass and trees between sidewalks and the street
Dorchester, a traditional area in the UK
Poundbury, Prince Charles' designed neo-traditional city
Copying what worked in the past, is it a good approach?

A system analysis: input, process, output

In the end, city-building is not magic, it is a certain system, and all systems have inputs, a process and outputs that depend on the previous two.
Basic system schematic of how a city comes to be (according to me, if you disagree, throw tomatoes)
Now, why did the traditional city come to be? Well, let me adapt the previous:
How traditional cities came to be
First of all, technology was at a relatively low level, which limited height most of all and material choice. People were poor, so there was a greater tolerance for small living quarters and a lack of amenities. Agriculture was not very productive and transporting perishable merchandise was expensive and arduous, so fertile lands around cities were needed to feed the city, limiting how the city could sprawl. Population was increasing, but at a relatively low pace and the economy was artisanal, people repeated what worked and didn't have enough scientific knowledge to know well why it worked or not, so they mostly kept to what they knew. That's it for inputs.

Now, what about the process? Well, wide-scaled planning was extremely rare, and even when there was regulation, it wasn't always implemented as civil authorities were often weak. As a result, prices and economics decided how cities would grow and incremental development was the rule, with individual actors doing largely what they wanted with their property, trying to achieve the most benefits from the smallest cost. As the modes of transport were walking and horses, streets and transport infrastructure were designed for these.
Evidence of incremental city-building process: stone walls of older houses incorporated in brick wall of more recent building, Montréal

All of these factors combined to result in the traditional city, which largely grew organically, through piecemeal  development, following price signals and economic needs of the residents.

Sprawl was a result of inputs and process changing radically...
System resulting in sprawl
First, the inputs changed, technology became much better, people became richer and demanded greater and more comfortable living quarters, improvement in agriculture and transport technologies made the need for conservation of agricultural lands near cities much, much less, so they could be developped. There was a massive move to cities and big families as health technology made babies more likely to survive their first years. Finally, the economy was becoming more industrialized and more professional.

The process was completely up-ended. No more incremental development, now planning was the rule, entire neighborhoods and subdivisions would be planned from the ground up so that empty fields would become a neighborhood in its final form without going through any intermediate form. Regulations aimed at preserving neighborhoods' current looks were adopted to prevent any incremental change. Governments started subsidizing certain lifestyles over others (tax rebates for mortgages to encourage home ownership, allowing free parking on the streets, etc...) which changed price signals and encouraged people to these lifestyles over other ones. New areas were designed foremost with cars in mind, using highways to allow cities to spread further.

All of these changes resulted in sprawl, in towers in park(ing lots), etc...

Sprawl has become highly criticized nowadays, with good reasons, so neo-traditionalists want to change the current equation that leads to sprawl. But I think one can separate neo-traditionalists in two groups: those focused on outcome, and those focused on process. You can't focus on changing inputs because these are largely out of our grasp, things we have to deal with, not things we can change.

Neo-traditionalism focused on outcome

OK, so as I said in the beginning of the post, many New Urbanists are really focused on the outcome, in some extreme cases, they have been accused of "cargo cult urbanism", of wanting certain buildings or streets regardless if that's what was actually suited or not. What they want to do is build the traditional city again, neighborhoods that look like older neighborhoods, that copy their form. However, most New Urbanists are not questioning too much the modern process of city-building. They don't seem to care that much about HOW the traditional city came to be, they just want to have that particular outcome. So what they want to do is fine tune the process, with the hope of attaining their objective:
Summary of the approach of New Urbanists focused on the outcome
So what does fine-tuning mean? It means that they will not question the strong planning approach, what they will do is that instead of planning for sprawl, they will plan for "traditional cities", instead of minimum setbacks, maximum setbacks, instead of minimum parking, maximum parking, etc... Once again, they will take a greenfield area and plan the entire area before the first shovel has hit the ground, so that it goes from greenfield to "traditional city" with no intermediary stage.

The big problem with that approach is that the traditional city made economic sense and responded well to people's aspirations and means back in the day, but these have changed. Much has been said about the decline of population of North American cities in the post-war era, but the reality that is not spoken as much is WHY the decline occurred. Yes, some neighborhoods were "urban renewed" into oblivion, but the loss of housing wasn't the primary culprit, it was the reduction of household sizes that caused most of the population reduction.

In the US, the average household size in the 1950s was 3,6 people, now, it's 2,6. Worse still, housing in the 50s was smaller than more recent housing, so if you looked at urban housing, the decline would probably be even worse. When you had 20 units per hectare (8 per acre) in 1950, that gave you a density of 7 200 people per square kilometer, or about 18 000 per square mile. But the same neighborhood today would maybe have only 4 000 people per square kilometer (around 10 000 per square mile), because the average unit would house less people.

If you try to build a new area like a streetcar suburb of the 19th century today, you would not achieve anywhere near the same level of walking mode share or vibrancy because the population density would be much lower today than it was in the 19th century. So if you want to have the same population density, you need to build much more units in the same area... and that often means taller, which many New Urbanists do not want as it is not a copy of past cities. But the inputs have changed, and it must be accounted for.

Same thing for retail, back in the day of traditional cities, all the stores were small residential stores, but nowadays, people are used to bigger stores with more choices and better prices. Stores that do not fit in traditional city form, full of small buildings that are too small to fit the big stores. If you stubbornly refuse to provide the place for these stores to exist, you may convince people to take cars to big box stores in car-oriented developments instead. Which exemplifies one of the biggest pitfalls of this approach: older areas were optimized to satisfy people of an earlier era, modern tastes may well differ, so why expect people today to be just as satisfied with 19th-century housing as 19th-century people were with it?

Neo-traditionalism focused on process

So the first group was focused on building new areas that copy older areas, hoping to achieve the same positive results. The second group, much less influential and organized, is interested not necessarily in the FORM of traditional cities, but on the processes that led to their creation. I would say that Strongtowns is the biggest organization I can think of that seems to take this approach.

The idea is the following: the traditional city was built under a certain set of rules of incremental development based on maximizing returns and optimizing the use of space and resources to obtain the most benefits at the smallest cost, and indeed, as long as the process stayed the same, traditional cities adapted well to new technologies and changing wealth levels. Streetcar suburbs were different from traditional cities of earlier eras, but they are still highly effective and economically efficient. Though the inputs changed, the process of their creation was similar.

So, instead of trying to merely copy traditional forms that were well-suited for earlier times, maybe we should instead try to return to the process that led to traditional cities.

Neo-traditionalists focused on the process mainly want to return to an earlier process of city-building, even if the outcome is different than traditional cities, as long as the logic behind their construction is the same, it may result in similar positive effects
What does reviewing the process mean? It means reviewing government interventions to stop systematically supporting certain lifestyles at the expenses of others. It means allowing incremental development by defusing NIMBYism through a significant weakening of zoning and urban regulations. It means being more lax in delivering building permits. It means stopping to always favor cars over other modes of transport. It means restoring price signals so that people pay for their use of resources, encouraging them to make wiser, less wasteful decisions.

Will returning to the traditional process (or approaching it) result in areas that look exactly like traditional cities? No, it won't. As I said above, the inputs have changed, technology has changed, the economy has changed. In the traditional city, all buildings looked similar even without regulation because the material used to build the house was sourced locally due to the economic realities of transport and there were few people who were able to build houses adequately. These people knew how to build houses that would stand largely by rote, not by scientific knowledge of load-bearing properties of different structures, so they built the same model of house with the same materials over and over.

Nowadays, we can import building materials from the other side of the world without major costs or issues. Engineers and architects can design buildings in whatever form they want, we have the knowledge to evaluate designs that can stand and those that can't, we don't need to proceed by trial and error. People also demand better made housing and bigger living quarters, which may well result in mid-rises and high-rises being the best, logical answer to these needs in given areas rather than traditional low-rise walk-ups. Chain stores demand bigger floor areas than previous neighborhood stores did, so we may need malls or huge multi-story department stores, etc...

All of these mean that since the needs and desires of society has changed, this traditional process will also have a different output than it did in the past. However, it is the belief of these neo-traditionalists (and I qualify myself as one) that if we get the incentives right, the process right, then we should not fear change. It may not look like the old traditional city, but it will WORK like it, because the same logic will shape it.


So that's my take on the two different approaches of neo-traditionalism in urbanism: one, which tends to attract architects, is more focused on using modern planning systems tweaked to obtain cities that look like old traditional cities, and the other, which tends to attract economists more, which cares most about using a traditional process of incremental city-building.

In the real-world, we can see the first approach in "eco-neighborhoods" like Jakriborg in Sweden, a high-density area built to look like an old Swedish city with traditional architecture... which was also built from scratch in the middle of a field, next to a train station.
Jakriborg, meant to look like a traditional city, but built in the middle of nowhere next to transit, using a modern approach of planning developments to their smallest detail before beginning construction on anything
On the other hand, Japanese cities, with their loose zoning and regulations, obey the traditional city-building process much, much more. The buildings may be modern, but the logic behind the shaping of urban areas is still based on the same economic and social reasoning as that of earlier traditional cities.
Odawara in Japan doesn't look like a traditional city with its tall apartment towers and elevated parking garages, but the logic that lies behind these modern buildings is completely traditional: the economic optimization of space to satisfy the people's needs and desires as efficiently as possible
Though my sympathies are clearly towards the latter group and I do criticize what I consider an unwarranted obsession to replicate older building forms that are not necessarily well suited to the modern world, I think the two approaches remain far superior to the modern approach that resulted in sprawl in North America. The two approaches need not be opponents either, I could conceive that a form-based code could be designed to maintain some connection to old urban areas in terms of look while allowing more variations to permit the economic optimization at the basis of the traditional city-building process.


  1. I'd add Steve Mouzon to the process-oriented camp too, especially his "Sky Method" which is all about the incremental development approach. He's also very much interested in developing updated vernacular architecture (maybe place-based is a better term), which is similar to the broader Japanese city development pattern in that it's the "traditional way" continued through modern times and responding to those modern inputs.

    1. And I would also add Besim Hakim, who has basically made it his life's work to study the processes that produced traditional urbanism (particularly the urbanism of the Mediterranean region), and how those processes might be applicable to contemporary cities. His most recent book, which I have not yet read, appears to address this topic head-on:

    2. Hakim's work is excellent. Here's a collection of articles that sample his themes:

      Another process oriented group with suggestive ideas is Michael Mehaffey and Nikos Salingaros, with the help of Christopher Alexander. See the "Design Methods" section of Mehaffy's bibliography at and Salingaros's collection of articles at

      In regard to the original post, I think process and outcome methods can both produce good, attractive, well-suited results. I see much less distinction among practitioners than you suggest; good designers will use either or both approaches depending on the situation and its particular requirements.

      If you can conceive a better form-based code, you should certainly develop it and present it to the design community, because I imagine it would be very useful for many cities, planners, and designers.

    3. Thank you all for your comments and your references to other process-oriented thinkers.

      Laurence, I must admit that I made a mistake in writing the last part. I did not mean to claim that I could conceive such a form-based code by myself. I meant that I could conceive that such a code could be developed, I've modified the text to represent my opinion better. Sorry for the misunderstanding, it was clearly a mistake on my part.

      As to the differences in reality, I think it is significant in fact, because most of the codes I know of in North America ALL try to maintain harmony in the scale of buildings, often mandate similar materials, building lines, etc... I think it is easy to confuse this because in the end, both have to act on the process to change the output, the difference is that planners who focus on the output have a clear idea of how a neighborhood should look, and they will shape the process to obtain that. Meanwhile, a process-focused planner would rather modify the process to include more economic maximization and a less wasteful logic, but not care particularly about what the output actually looks like. From what I have seen, this is extremely rare among actual planners.

  2. I think there's also an economic and historic logic to the American planning system. It was well-adapted for the problems of America, namely growing a very large and empty country very rapidly, and then growing cities very rapidly outward as they rapidly suburbanized due to improvements in transportation (rail initially, and then cars). I also think that it's outlived its usefulness, and indeed there is one incredibly harmful assumption lurking underneath both traditional "sprawl" planning and "form-based New Urban" planning. Both of those mandate all sorts of things in order to produce what they perceive as a desirable and harmonious "result". But in a real city, there is never a final result, because the city is a living thing and keeps changing as the world changes around it. And that's where the process-based thinking really is necessary, because result-based leads to people thinking that the city has achieved some kind of perfection and demanding that it never change thereafter.

    1. The idea that neighborhood should reach a "final", harmonious state is indeed a commonality between the two approaches. In my view, there is an implicit message of such a method that says "my sense of aesthetics matters more than your ability to find an affordable housing option where you want to live", which I highly disagree with.

    2. It kind of makes sense until you think about it. Also, it kind of makes sense when you're going from empty field to built-out suburb: the rate of change slows drastically once given patch of suburb and its immediate surroundings get built out. But it never stops entirely, because people themselves get older, have children, etc.