Saturday, December 27, 2014

Prince Charles' 10 principles of urbanism: typical example of what's wrong with urbanists/architects

Recently, Prince Charles published an essay about 10 principles for sustainable cities, which has made some waves. Which can be summed up as follows:

1- Developments must respect the natural land they occupy and not be too intrusive.
2- There must be a building code to follow geometric rules for architecture.
3- Buildings must be built to the scale of humans and of the existing area.
4- Buildings must be harmonious and have a coherent image.
5- The built area must provide enclosure.
6- Buildings must be made of similar materials in a given area, preferably locally sourced material.
7- Street signs must be reduced as much as possible and utilities must be buried so that you can avoid having them intrude over the look of the area.
8- Pedestrians must be the focus of streets, not cars.
9- Density is important but must be done through low-rise buildings (townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings).
10- Flexibility rather than imposing exactly what goes where.

First of all, I do not share some people's dislike of Prince Charles. I do think his heart is in the right place. That being said, I think his approach, well-intentioned as it may be, is a good example of the main flaw common among many urbanists and architects. Namely, they care about urban areas that satisfy their own subjective aesthetic criteria almost to the exclusion of everything else.

In effect, they consider cities more as museums or art galleries than areas in which people live and work.

At the same time, they often like cities they can walk in, so that alone makes them better than the modernists of years past who preferred to experience cities through models, the windshields of cars traveling along expressways and the windows of high-rise offices. But there is still a bit of narcissism here, the idea that cities should be built to satisfy their tastes first and foremost, no matter the cost.

And here's the main issue here...

Urban policy is not just about architecture, it's also about economics

You'll note that there is a big absence in his 10 principles: the words affordable and affordability are nowhere to be found. Yet these are extremely important factors, though one I understand a royal heir is unlikely to have a personal acquaintance with. No matter how great the areas you build are, if most people can't afford to live in them, only a privileged few will get to experience them to the fullest.

Indeed, in his quest to get areas that conform to his aesthetic taste, he came up with quite a few principles that are going to make housing unaffordable. Namely, the principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are likely to directly increase the cost of building new homes. Every restriction made upon new buildings increases the complexity of approval processes and therefore the cost of getting building permits, costs that will be reflected into the value of new buildings. His principle about the control of materials is also likely to create shortages of these materials, thus increasing their prices, and thus, the costs of construction.

His principles 1, 3 and 4, asking for harmony between buildings and limiting scale also directly contradict his principles 9 and 10. Indeed, it is easy to sum up these three principles as "protecting a neighborhood's character", a common euphemism of NIMBYs for: "no development allowed". Existing areas can thus not increase density without directly running into his principles for harmony and scale preservation. Any development that is higher density to existing buildings will ALWAYS represent a break in the existing "scale" of the built area. As a result, the only way to build new density and respect those principles is to build a dense greenfield development on the periphery of existing areas. Which is absolutely insane, because then these areas are disconnected from existing dense areas and likely to require cars to travel around. Rapid transit can help mitigate the terrible location, but only to some extent.

Forbidding density in existing areas also mean that you cannot increase housing supply in areas where there is a shortage. So the shortage is just going to get worse and worse, pushing all but the richest away to areas that have bad urban design.

Neo-traditionalism: outcome or process?

Prince Charles is clearly a traditionalist who likes the traditional cities of his native land. What he doesn't seem to understand, like a lot of urbanists and architects, is that these cities didn't spring in that current form in one day. They are the result of incremental development over the years, with denser buildings replacing earlier ones (often with a little help from our buddy fire). They were not planned this way, they spontaneously evolved to their current form.

Yet, if Charles likes the outcome of this traditional city, he clearly doesn't like the traditional process through which these cities came to be, he would like to plan things out ex nihilo rather than see them evolve over time. Considering the new materials and technology available to developers, turning our back on anything that was invented after the 19th century seems foolhardy at best. The traditional process that created traditional cities is not incompatible with new building forms and technologies, there is no reason to shun them.

In a way, the true descendants of traditional cities aren't the mummified European cities of Paris and London where all is done to maintain buildings and neighborhoods as they were in the early 20th century, but Japanese cities. Yes, Japanese cities are resolutely modern in terms of buildings, but the traditional process of city-building is still alive in Japan, while it has been replaced by planner fiat in Europe and North America. The people who built the cities people love would have likely been more than happy to have our modern technology to allow for taller buildings with more varied materials. Likewise, though the Japanese use modern materials and technologies, they still use them in a way that is more in line with the traditional process of incremental city-building. The opposite of Europeans who use traditional materials and technologies but have a strictly modern planning system to control their urban developments.

So, all in all, I would say that we need more pragmatism and less artistic "integrity" in urban development policies. Any regulation to satisfy subjective aesthetic criteria should be analyzed to see how they impact the economics of urban development, and they should only be applied if they have no impact or only minor impacts on affordability. Prince Charles' principles come from, if I may say, a radical perspective where aesthetics matter above all else, a flaw that is only too common in current urbanists and architects and result in cities that are supremely expensive to live in, with people of modest means forced to live ever farther from the central areas and to commute ever longer distances.


  1. I read his points 1, 3 and 4 differently from you. Perhaps I am just being dangerously optimistic.

    By point 1, I think the Prince of Wales has in mind the process of building modern suburbs, which essentially is to fill every valley, and level every mountain and hill as though they expected the king or god to happen along that way. I doubt it has anything to do with NIMBYism; when you're not respecting the land you're not building in established areas.

    By point 2, I think the Prince has in mind two ugly practices. Firstly buildings that present ugly blank walls which are meant for driving past, not complex walls with entrances and windows and design features and what-have-you. And secondly, that you should jump too far past the existing development: if the surrounding buildings are two-storeys and detatched and set back, to build a skyscraper all the way to the property edges would be ludicrous. But I don't think he has in mind prohibiting incremental development (for instance, a four-storey building with limited or no setback would be fine there in my opinion). After all, his concern is with housing the billions of extra people we're going to get.

    In point 4, I simply don't see how it's pro-NIMBY except in your summarised form. In full it is "Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings." I don't care much for this point, but I don't see it as hostile either. I'm much more fussed by car parking than the look of cornices.

    I think you've read his essay as if it was more of the same. His concern is not NIMBYist, but about fitting an extra three billion people into a finite world: to quote him again: "My concern is the future. We face the terrifying prospect by 2050 of another three billion people on this planet needing to be housed, and architects and urban designers have an enormous role to play in responding to this challenge. We have to work out now how we will create resilient, truly sustainable and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials and do not depend so completely upon the car. However, for these places to enhance the quality of people’s lives and strengthen the bonds of community, we have to reconnect with those traditional approaches and techniques honed over thousands of years which, only in the 20th century, were seen as ‘old-fashioned’ and of no use in a progressive modern age."

    In this, using the 20th century technology of a "masterplan" is not an entirely bad idea. How are we going to convince our neighbors to accept development if they think we're going to replace their pretty Victorian-era bungalows with contemporary ugly buildings? How will people accept development if it's easier to kill a five storey building than it is to kill a twenty storey building (because the latter is more profitable and more worth fighting for) ... so the reasonable buildings never get built? But following a transect-style style and form-based code, people can at least see what's coming, and that it preserves the integrity of the area but at a higher level of development.

    (And in any case, developers in Australia/Canada aren't going to build walkable, urban environmens by choice. They don't know anything about it. The only way it's going to happen is if the voters make them. And this plan is a little more constructive than "no".)

    So maybe I'm too optimistic about his intentions. And obviously I disagree with you about acceptable approproaches. His plan seems like a reasonable compromise ... but I'm still going to side with you, because the further you are from the middle, the more the centre moves.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      You can certainly try to articulate principles 1 and 4 in a more pro-development way, but it is way too easy for them to be thorns in the side of creating dense, livable areas. For instance, dense neighborhoods may limit the amount of natural land changed for the sake of development, but they also change them much more drastically. Some could argue that, for instance, suburbs built in lieu of a forest but on one-acre plot of lands allowing for existing trees in backyards and on property lines to be maintained is a less intrusive way of development than dense townhouses with only a few feet of setbacks, which require all trees to be removed.

      As to the principle of harmony, again, that can be debated, but people can certainly make an argument that any taller building breaks the harmony of the existing built area.

      I'm not saying that he is a NIMBY, but his arguments do provide perfect ammo to NIMBY-ism. The important point is that any regulation to uphold some subjective aesthetic criteria is going to have impacts on the cost of construction of buildings, an effect that is swept under the carpet far too often. If you make development too expensive in existing areas, developers will flee to the periphery to build in green fields. What's more is that there is a tendency when talking about housing costs to say "So what, we're just eating into developers' profits"... except that if you make it unprofitable to build, you also make housing just plain unaffordable to own, and it seems many people don't understand that.

      As to incremental development, I've already talked about it on a post in November about incrementalism. Using thought experiments, I've pointed out how incrementalism is fine, but the more strict you are, the more expensive housing will get. So you can't just say "this area is 2-story high, we're going to allow 3-story buildings" or "we'll allow 6 stories in an area where most buildings have 4", the economics behind the replacement of a 2-story structure by a 3-story one are just plain terrible, it becomes profitable only when housing prices are through the roof. To have decently sized (say 1 000 square feet) apartments be affordable, you need to allow each increment to triple or quadruple existing density.

      As to developers not being ready to build walkable areas, I'm not so sure. Much of the New Urbanism movement came from developers and architect firms that wanted to build something other than sprawl and came up against rules and regulations adopted by city governments. Minimum parking requirements, road width regulations, strict zoning, etc... If a developer wants to build a small grocery within walking distance of residential areas, but the city requires him to find 2-3 acres of land to build a parking lot on, trying to find the place to build it in an existing area is nearly impossible.

      I think developers can be taught to build walkable areas. If it's shown that these areas make more money, many of them will quickly learn to try and build them, or build in them.

      I think the more promising alternative is to kill, or make rare, large development projects. Meaning cities build street grids and apply loose zoning, then the area, rather than being planned out, is developed piece by piece, lot by lot. This allows for smaller buildings (avoiding blank walls, even if the ground floor is used for parking) and allows small developers to prosper. Asking for development to occur area by area rather than lot by lot makes the capital requirement for development much higher, excluding a lot of small players.

    2. I think killing large development projects is really the best idea. Right now, developers are these big evil abstract entities, but that's only because the small-timers have been chased out of the market for the most part. Used to be, people built their own houses, contractors would build apartment buildings to sell to urban professionals, and so on, before ever-tighter zoning and building codes required so much of an investment in lobbying that only the big evil developers could afford. I'd love to see reforms that make smaller scale development easier.

      And as far as deregulating things, I'd take it a step further and deregulate platting too. Perhaps the city could lay out the initial lots and the grid of main streets, but I think it would be interesting to let people split lots if they feel like it, and put in their own streets if they find it necessary (maybe with some rules about maintaining connectedness). Because if you really think you can make money by splitting off the rear half of your lot and selling it, why shouldn't you? If you want to sell a 15x15 foot corner of your lot, why should the city stop you?

    3. It seems like nowadays developers will just buy up a big chunk of farmland and then develop it without selling any individual vacant lots.

      Buying an entire farm is too expensive for anyone but big developers, so what was different about the past (19th/early 20th century) that made small time developers (for greenfield development) more common?

    4. Greenfield developments of the type we're accustomed to is mainly a recent development and a result of the car. Before that, you couldn't just buy a farm and build a subdivision in it, it would have been too far for people to walk to the city. The closest you'd get would be streetcar suburbs, train suburbs and company towns, where one company would buy lots of land cheap to develop. Organically emerging cities would probably have been a mishmash of small lots where people had built their own homes, so getting large lots to make a massive development in would have been pretty hard.

      I think there may be technological reasons and economic reasons for small-size developments. Technologically, the size of buildings was limited by then current techniques. Economically, I think that banking was less developed and access to capital was harder. But I'm just supposing things. Someone much better versed than me in these issues would be much better to explain.

    5. I think that in the past the original landowner generally did the subdivision themselves. So you have a small farm or country estate, and after a nearby streetcar line opened up, they'd subdivide the property around their original house and use the profits from the sale of the land to keep up their house or move or whatever. You can usually find an original farmhouse within a rather more regimented neighborhood that doesn't seem to fit quite right due to style, age, and setbacks. Larger mansions might remain, but divided into apartments, or after enough time they're probably more likely to be demolished and replaced with a cluster of newer houses more like the rest of the ones in the subdivision.

      I think in the US the first fully built-out subdivisions started appearing in the 1920s. It wasn't just the advent of the automobile, but as simval mentioned, that's also the emergence of easy credit, and also some of the first zoning laws as well.

      The street I live on started off as a more organic development, with two sizable apartment buildings on the main street where the streetcar ran and a small dead-end block going perpendicular to it. I suspect the side street ran through the middle of a small farm plat or orchard or something. The apartments were built around 1915, and one two-family house was built on the side street at about the same time. The rest of the lots however sat fallow during WWI and in the early to mid 1920s a half dozen small bungalows were built all at once to fill out the street. Whether these houses were Sears type kit houses, something from a plan book, or all built by a large city-wide builder, I don't know, but they're scattered all over the city.

      By the later 1920s you see completely self-contained subdivisions that weren't done piecemeal like this, where every house is "the same" and it was clearly a package deal. Before then even the construction of the street itself was rather convoluted, as they usually just platted and graded it, laying some sewers and water pipes, but leaving things like paving, curbs, and maybe even sidewalks to be built by the city later.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Developers are becoming aware of the urbanizing trend. Read into some of this:

      Here's an Australian developer that purchased an old factory, that happened to be on top of a train and tram line, and are trying to develop it into a self enclosed walkable village:

      Still, for every 1 project heading in the right direction, we see 9 suburban projects.

  2. Sorry, one of my paragraphs begins "By point 2, ...". It's meant to say "By point 3, ..." because its content refers to point 3. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. I've been saying this for about year now.

  4. This is a great point:

    "...the economics behind the replacement of a 2-story structure by a 3-story one are just plain terrible...To have decently sized (say 1 000 square feet) apartments be affordable, you need to allow each increment to triple or quadruple existing density."

    It shows how a lot of Cincinnati's 4-plex apartments from the 1930s-1950s came about. They replaced single-family houses in many instances. Not many have surpassed that level of density however because that's also the time when the zoning hammer came down.

    Other than attrition due to urban decay and road-building projects, the only example I can think of where these have been replaced with something bigger is in a currently under-construction project in the city's most desirable neighborhood (it's basically a streetcar suburb type layout with some lower density railroad suburb typologies too) In this case, 5 or 6 of these apartment buildings are being replaced by a single large condo development. Unfortunately, because of zoning restrictions in the rest of the neighborhood there isn't going to be any appreciable increase in density, but the new units are going to be fantastically expensive. It's basically replacing $650/month 1-2 bedroom apartments with $1 million dollar 2-3 bedroom condos. If the single-family residential zones weren't protected with an iron fist maybe such a silly shuffling of the multi-family housing stock wouldn't be necessary.

  5. Is it significant that when the British news media refers to "affordable housing" they almost always mean "subsidized housing"?

    1. That is common in North America too, France too from what I hear. The problem is that most people do not consider the reasons why housing is so expensive and assume it is just a fact of life on which they have no control, and so the only way to make it cheaper is to subsidize it. There is also a lot of hatred against developers, and arguements that housing could be made more affordable by making it cheaper and easier to build are easy to demonize as people selling out to developers.

    2. When I commented on an earlier thread about "politicians want house prices to be high, to enable MEWing* funded consumer spending", perhaps I was being UK-centric. As you mentioned on one of your other threads, in the UK developments have to be approved by local authorities on a case-by-case basis -- this began with the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

      The heyday of private housebuilding in Britain was actually in the interwar period. Although Northern England suffered terribly in the Great Depression (witness the Jarrow Crusade) the South recovered very quickly (because Britain dumped the gold standard in 1931, and because the South had a lot of new industries such as electronics and car manufacture). One of the most famous suburban developments of that era was "Metro-land", which followed the course of London's Metropolitan subway line.

      In the post-war era, even more houses were built, but most of them were council housing (public housing built by local government) -- these were not originally subsidized, and were so plentiful that the private rented sector was largely reduced to a rump for those ineligible for council housing (such as people with criminal records).

      The current high house prices in Britain owe a lot to the policies of Margaret Thatcher, who not only sold off most council houses to their tenants at a knock-down price, but forbade councils from building any more houses to replace those sold off. This was a brilliant piece of political manoeuvring, as the new homeowners became reliable Conservative voters from then on. American Republican politicians also promote suburbia (homeownership and driving) along with stock and gun ownership, as a think-tank found in the 1970s that these traits were reliable predictors of right-wing voting.