Thursday, May 28, 2015

On-site vs off-site parking and a Swedish model for suburbs

It is often said that one of the great advantages of cars, notably over transit, is that it offers door-to-door travel. You don't need to walk 5 minutes to a bus stop or walk 5 minutes from the bus stop at the end of the trip to your destination, you leave your front door, get in your car and drive to the front door of your destination, easy-peasy.

Except, this isn't actually true. Cars don't appear when people leave their home, nor disappear once at destination, they have to be left somewhere, in a parking spot. So, in fact, cars are parking-to-parking, not door-to-door. The only true door-to-door transport mode is walking, even bikes are parking-to-parking (and in some cases, bike parking can be even harder to find than car parking). Taxis I guess could be true door-to-door transport too.

In general in North America, planners and developers focus on providing plenty of parking for each individual building, with parking located near to the front doors, what can be called "on-site parking" (as in, the parking is on the same lot as the building it serves). This is one result of the off-street parking requirements, that has developers building the off-street parking on the same lot as the building, because that is the lot he can build on. Driveways, parking lots, even on-street parking (if not over-used) all serve that purpose of bringing cars very close to doors.
Driveways and abundant on-street parking help bring parking spots as close as possible to housing
Low-rise multi-family housing surrounded by parking
Sometimes, the focus on convenient parking location demonstrates little short of contempt for non-drivers:
Typical North American strip mall, 1-2 minute walking distance from bu stop located right in front of it, imposes detours to residents who live behind the mall, all to have a huge parking lot built right next to the doors of the stores, to minimize walking distance for drivers
Typical North American mall, surrounded by acres of parking
The reason why I bring this up is that the convenience of parking can have a significant impact on choosing to walk or drive for short trips. When I say that travel time is the dominant factor in mode selection, this is the time door-to-door, not just in movement inside a vehicle, time taken to get to and from the vehicle may affect the decision of people to use it or not. So the closer the parking, the more favored cars will be as a form of transport. There may also be some other issues, like manual garage doors which take some time to open and close before leaving, which is why it's so frequent for the garage to be rarely used for parking by people who make frequent use of their cars.

All of this means that one way to discourage using cars is simply to make it less convenient to use them by placing parking locations farther from housing and destinations, which goes against the current regulatory regime that insists on on-site parking.

A theoretical demonstration

So how much impact does parking location convenience has?

Well, first, let's take a typical case of on-site parking with every house having a parking on the lot, in the form of a driveway. Houses are on side streets, so drivers go down to the arterial road then drive to the destination, either an office, factory or a store, which also has parking on-site. Schematically, this is what it looks like:
In yellow, the trip using cars, in blue, the trip using transit, dotted sections are done on foot, bus stops are the blue dots
So, in this case, the time wasted on car trips is minimized, with parking very near doors of homes and destinations. All in all, car trips include only 1 or 2 minutes of walking. Meanwhile, walking to the bus stop may take 3 to 5 minutes (an optimistic figure), waiting at the stop can also take 3 to 5 minutes (supposing the transit user knows the schedule and goes there just on time), and the bus stop at destination is still far from the door of the destination, so that's another 2 to 3 minutes. All in all, the transit trip includes around 10 minutes of walking and waiting, and that's if there is no transfer.

So, if we do a mode race to see how much time it takes to reach the destination on foot, on a bike, on a car or on a bus, we'd get something like this:

Mode race of the case with on-site parking, cars have a massive advantage

In this case, a 5-km trip (roughly 3 miles) would take nearly 25 minutes on transit, but only 10 minutes in a car. Cars start with a 10-minute advantage over transit and only increase that advantage over longer trips thanks to their higher speed.

Now let's take the exact opposite case, where both residential and commercial/office parking are off-site. In this case, car drivers have to walk 2-3 minutes to their car from their home and 2-3 minutes from the parking to their destination. Bus riders still have to walk the same distance to their stop, but as there is no parking in front of the destination, they will save quite some time walking to their destination from the bus stop at which they alight.

Schematic representation of the case with off-site residential and destination parking, car drivers have to walk much more in this case, even more than transit users

Trip distance vs time for the off-site parking example, here, cars lose most of their advantage for shorter trips
In this case, the same 5-km trip as before would take about 16 minutes in a car and 21 minutes on transit. The difference is much reduced and allows transit to be much more competitive. Bikes also shine here, as bikes are easily portable and offer something much closer to a door-to-door trip.

Finally, there is the on-street parking scenario, which is in the middle. If there is plenty of parking spots on the street, the results are very close to the first case with on-site parking. If there is a shortage of parking spots, then people may need to walk a bit, approximating the off-site parking example. In both cases, if parking is on-street, then destinations tend to be built next to the sidewalk, reducing walking distances for transit users.

The Swedish model

OK, so what got me thinking about this is exploring Swedish cities through Google Maps, trying to get a sense of their organization. Many neighborhoods of Swedish cities have a particular form. These cities have very strong planning, and the Swedes often live in multi-family housing, 40% of them do, many of them inside apartments built by a government program, the Million programme, under which the government motivated the construction of one million dwelling units in 10 years, a massive undertaking in a country of 8 million people.

Anyway, many multi-family neighborhoods in Sweden have a peculiar form in modern developments, take a look at this area from Vaxjo:
Residential area in Vaxjo, Sweden
Let me identify the parts of that area:
Distinct subsections of the neighborhood
What we have here is a strictly segregated approach, with a vast residential area without streets for vehicles, where buildings are linked by footpaths and bike paths. The road connecting this development to the rest of the city only runs on the periphery, and between the road and the residential area: parking lots. That way, cars are strictly kept out of residential areas where people walk and bike, total separation between motorized and non-motorized transport. It also means that cars are left near the road, which can be nearly 200 meters away on foot (700 feet)... right next to the bus stops. This also leaves plenty of trees and greenery in the residential area. Make no mistake, this isn't really urban, this is clearly a suburban area, but one where taking transit is not penalized versus using a car.

Technically, I guess the parking is still on-site. as it seems clear this whole area is one big development project, but for all practical purposes, the parking is effectively off-site due to its distance from residential areas.

Here is a particularly striking example (at least, from the sky), from Norkoping, a concentric neighborhood with parking on the outside ring, then two rings of apartment blocs, all surrounding a park:
Concentric neighborhood in Norkoping

Here is another example in Karlstad:
Suburban neighborhood in Karlstad, Sweden, with the neighborhood's commercial area identified, as well as the main footpath/bike path
This particular instance is interesting because there are very few roads for cars through this area, in fact, using Google Maps to give me walking and driving trips from one apartment bloc to the commercial area yielded me the following:
Walking trip from an apartment bloc to the neighborhood commercial sector, time of trip: 4 or 5 minutes
And here is the directions for the shortest car trip, note the time: 5 minutes, about the same as walking, so you would save no time by driving instead of walking
Another advantage of this design is that since there is only one main road, it concentrates transit users on one bus route that travels along that road. As a result, the bus line is frequent, data available online shows that the bus that does the loop actually has an headway of 10 minutes off-peak, in a city with a population of 87 000 people.

This total separation of motorized vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists may also be partly responsible for Sweden's excellent traffic safety results. Indeed, Sweden is in the Top 5 safest countries on Earth both by traffic deaths per 100 000 people and by 100 000 cars.

Again, make no mistake, this is a suburban area, and one that has strict use separation as commercial uses are set apart from residential areas, but a suburban area that seems to focus more on walking, biking and transit than on cars. Not to say that Swedish cities are only made of such neighborhoods, not at all. They have plenty of traditional Euro-blocs in older areas and single-family areas with driveways in front of every house:
Single-family houses in Stockholm
In some instances, they even use elevated parking structures on the periphery of residential areas:
Elevated parking structure in the center of the image, to absorb the parking demand for the high-density housing without overwhelming the residential area with cars, in Stockholm
The use of elevated structures is particularly interesting, because it is one way to really build a lot of parking on a very small lot, without breaking the bank. It can serve the purpose of hiding cars from view and preserving more of the lots for pedestrian-friendly amenities or design.

This type of neighborhood design is more typical of multi-family housing, but some single-family housing also use parking lots and garages put at the periphery, leaving the inside of the neighborhood free from cars:
Single-family area with parking lots put at the periphery, in Lund
Image of one of the parking lots, in fact, parking garages, that would typically be built adjacent to houses but that are instead grouped in the same location

Images of the houses with footpaths separating the houses
Of course, that design of self-contained neighborhoods with limited roads is great for transit, but it offers relatively poor connections between neighborhoods for pedestrians, often with paths that are not in view of residential areas. It also lacks mixing of uses as commercial areas tend to be put in a different location from residential. Still, Swedish cities do a lot of effort to build bike networks, often offering faster, more direct paths to cyclists than cars. As a result, despite the quantity of greenery of Swedish cities, bike and transit mode shares are very high (bikes more for smaller cities, transit for bigger cities). All data here from TEMS.
Mode share in Stocckholm, the biggest city of Sweden (metro population of 2 millions), extremely high public transit usage, relatively low active mode shares

Mode share in Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city (about 500 000 people)

Mode share for Linkoping, a city of 140 000, there we see bikes being much more used, with still a significant amount of public transit use

Mode share for Lund, population of about 100 000. To compare, transit mode share in Toronto and Montréal is about 20%, so 16% in a 100 000-people city is quite high

Mode share for Uppsala, pop. 140 000
One thing interesting here is that no matter whether these are big or small cities, car mode share is always between 45 and 55%. This contradicts the typical belief in North America that only large cities can be walkable or can have decent transit, and that it's "normal" that smaller cities be car-dependent. Smaller cities can also favor sustainable developments, but instead of subways, this takes the form of quality bus services (or even tramways/LRT in some instances), bike paths and walkable proximities.

I'm not so keen on the strongly planned cities of Sweden, but their aesthetics may be more in sync with North Americans used to lots of greenery. Enclosure may be favored in urbanism, but not everyone likes it. Still, they are pretty successful at offering modal choice to people and at favoring all modes of transport, save for cars. The biggest flaw of this approach is inflexibility, when roads and infrastructure are built only for a certain type of development, making the area evolve over time is quite difficult.

The advantages of off-site parking

I think this model showcases how useful off-site parking lots can be, especially for a transition from suburbs to more sustainable, walkable cities. One of the big problems of density in suburban areas is that it results in cars taking over the public sphere entirely, being everywhere. The Swedish approach of putting cars in their own little zone apart from residential areas can help make it more palatable to live in an higher density area in transition from car-dependence to multi-modality, where cars will still be very present. Like a shameful disease, cars are best kept out of view of the community, allowing for more human-friendly design to dominate the public realm. The inconvenience of the parking location also encourages other modes of transport by reducing the time advantage of cars.

Off-site parking could also have an additional advantage of being possibly adaptive to demand rather than simply being regulatory. When parking is required on-site, since unused spaces on one lot cannot be used by residents of another, every lot is obliged to provide enough parking for its residents' highest possible parking demand. Off-site parking could allow for parking spots to be attributed to those who need them, so less of them would be needed, because residents not using their "allotment" could simply sell the spaces or stop renting them, allowing someone else to use that space. If parking spaces get rare, a new parking lot could be built. So off-site parking lots could theoretically do away with the need of minimum parking requirements.

For example, let's take the typical example of houses which regulation says needs to have 2 parking spots, built on-site. The regulation being what it is, the parking spots are privately owned by whoever owns the housing, and the price for the parking is bundled with the house's price. But since the regulation is there to make sure that enough parking is provided, in fact, it may well be that a significant amount of parking is not actually regularly occupied by a car.
Schematic example of houses with on-site parking spots, in light blue, ones not regularly used by vehicles, in dark, spaces that are regularly used
Now, in this situation, with 14 units and 28 parking spots, fully 10 parking spots are unused, but they cannot be used by others because they are privately owned. So even if you want to add other units, you cannot tap into the unused parking spots to avoid having to fulfill the parking requirements, because these parking spots are off-limit.

On the other hand, if you have another approach, where the 28 parking spots have been put in one parking lot, with homeowners having the choice to separately buy parking spots, then you have the following:
Schematic example of houses with off-site parking spots
In this case, because the 10 unused spots are still available for purchase, you could theoretically allow 5 new houses to be built without adding additional parking, because there still is 2 free parking spots for each of these newly built houses. And since people have to pay for their parking separately, it makes it more worthwhile to opt out of having a car. If you're flexible enough, you could also allow for parking lots to be sold to be developed if they're not used enough, which would make cars have to compete with housing for the land.

To be fair, this can also be done with on-street parking, but I think I've made it clear that I dislike that solution, as cars parked on a street claim it for cars and clutter up urban areas. As the city is typically responsible for building and maintaining streets, reliance on on-street parking also makes public authorities responsible for providing parking for residents, opening the door to all sorts of conflicts as the city is then forced to manage parking and held accountable if there are parking problems. I find it much better to leave parking in the hands of private residents and businesses, so that the costs can be borne by those who use it, not by the community at large.

So anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think this is a way of tackling parking that could be promising. This is also valid for commercial parking lots. This approach is scalable, it could work in suburbs, where low land prices and density could at first lead to abundant, affordable parking, but also allow for a gradual reduction of the amount of parking as land prices increase due to development and better public transit options slowly make car ownership less important. In other words, I think it could be a complementary approach to incremental developments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Traditional Euro-bloc: what it is, how it was built, why it can't be built anymore

Okay, so another subject I already touched upon before, the Traditional Euro-bloc that I first identified in my comparison between the different approaches to density and city-building. I just thought it was worth a better description.

The Traditional Euro-bloc (what I at first called the traditional European urban bloc) is a form of development that is present in almost all European cities and typically forms their densest residential and mixed up sections. 

Here is a typical example, in Prague:
A more recent Traditional Euro-bloc in Prague
Traditional Euro-bloc seen from the street, in Prague
So, what is the Traditional Euro-bloc? It takes the form of buildings built wall-to-wall, lining the street, that are typically mid-rise (usually 4 to 6 stories high, sometimes a bit more or less). They have little to no front setback, providing for a great sense of enclosure (maybe even more than most North Americans would like) but having the possibility of creating a cold, claustrophobic street scene if without commercial activity and with street parking. Since buildings are built at the property line, it creates an empty space inside the bloc, that space can be used in many different ways: a shared courtyard, parking, a park, playing fields, etc...

Older areas tend to have more chaotic streets, following geography rather than a plan, they also often have lower buildings, but their courtyards are filled with more buildings, so the total density is equal or more than the more recent areas.
Older Prague Traditional Euro-blocs, less straight streets, courtyards are mostly built out

From the street, buildings are a bit lower than in the previous images
This is the type of bloc that most tourists see in Europe, the type of bloc that many classical urbanists fall in love with and use as inspiration for their recommended solutions to urban problems. Though not very tall, they often have high to very high lot coverage and so have very high FAR. For example, even the example in the first image has a lot coverage ratio of 55-60%, so the FAR is 300 to 350%. They will often incorporate retail on the ground floor, and therefore be the classical mixed-use building: retail on the ground, residential in upper floors.

OK, so that's it for the form, but as I said, I'm rather a sucker for the process. How were they built? Well, I admit being privy to no in-depth research on this, but I think that by observing them, it is possible to deduce how they were built.

First of all, let's go back to the first image, note that despite certain similarities in height, form and materials, the block is NOT made of one large building, nor even of a few large buildings. No, it is in fact made up of a lot of narrow buildings about 12 meters wide (40 feet).
Euro-blocs are made up of a lot of narrow buildings, not of a few big ones
Why is this important? Because if buildings are narrow, it means that blocks such as this can be built progressively, they don't need to spring up at once, building the blocs can be a matter of incremental development. But if that is true, then there must be transitional areas still around where we can see some buildings having been built up and some others haven't. And indeed, looking at smaller cities, we can notice similarities between these blocs and blocs of smaller townhouses that are present in areas that were less central and less populated, and find areas where the two building forms coexist.
The bloc's basic design is already present, but some buildings are older, smaller, with only 2 stories, whereas buildings on the main avenue are deeper and taller, yet they have the same width, so can be built on the same lot
What this means is that it is very possible for areas to have begun full of attached single-family houses with 2 stories (or maybe even one, but they're rare nowadays), only to be progressively built up, either by being replaced or by having floors added to existing buildings. Of course, this process didn't need to come up all at once, which means that for a while, there would have been "pop-out" buildings taller than the rest, with walls built ready to welcome buildings of its own size later one.

This can actually be seen in certain areas, like...
A 3-story pop-out in a 1- and 2-story area
5-story pop-out near 2-story housing
Another pop-out
Now, it is important also to consider that these areas were largely designed before the 20th century, so before elevators and modern building techniques, in a time where builders were probably a guild of artisans who didn't have a lot of theoretical know-how, so they stuck to what they knew and used local materials. That explains the similar look of buildings built in earlier times, as opposed to today where construction companies can and do design buildings on computers and calculate loads to be able to come up with diverse models of buildings, using materials imported from everywhere in the world. The lack of elevator explains why height is limited to 4 to 6 stories, as stories over the third floor have less value than the 3rd and 2nd floors. The ground floor is unique in that it is worth more if used for commercial uses, but less if used for residential use (because of lack of privacy).

I know many urbanists and architects have eyes only for the ultimate form of Paris, central Prague, central Munich and others, areas that have already largely maxed-out their Euro-blocs, with similar-looking buildings over whole blocs...


Barcelona from the street



However, it is important to understand that this is only the final form these neighborhoods took, they mostly had to go through transitions where a few buildings were taller than others, then ratios reverse and you had a few small hold-outs in a zone of taller mid-rise apartments.
In Lyon, one small hold-out in an area of 6-story high apartment buildings
So, to come back to the idea of urbanism focused on form or on process, focusing on the form of these Euro-blocs rather than the process through which they were built is, in my view, a mistake. They have emerged largely organically through incremental development, responding to economic signals and community needs, trying to replace that by a planner's dictates seems like a bad idea to me. But that's what happens when people want harmony and are ready to leapfrog stages of development heedless of economic realities to get it. Not that it cannot work, but it can also fail by making it so expensive and difficult to do that developers will pass on that opportunity and prefer to work in suburbs where regulations are less restrictive.

Can we build this today too?

Actually, the exact form of these Euro-blocs would probably be illegal, and adapting them to fulfill the legal obligations would make them much more expensive.

The primary reason is that these small buildings were walkups with, in general, 2 units per floor maximum, some are less than 9 meters wide (30 feet) and so have 1 unit per floor. They only had stairs to allow people to move from one floor to the other, even when they had 5 or 6 stories. They also were designed to be deep, to have windows both facing the street and the courtyard. Remember that exterior walls are crucial because windows are required for bedrooms and living rooms (either required by law or by buyers' demand).
Schematic of a possible walk-up building forming part of a Euro-bloc
The problem is that nowadays, regulations exist to impose elevators, sprinkler systems and concrete to buildings that are 4 stories or more in North America and in a lot of other developed nations. All of these are systems with very high fixed costs. For example, apparently the average cost of building an elevator for a multi-family building is around 110 000$ (source), and you also need stairs, for emergencies if nothing else, so it's not like you're replacing stairs by an elevator, you're adding an elevator to the stairs.

So you're piling on cost after cost, and losing some floor space every time. But if you have a small building with 4 units (a 9-meter wide, 4-story tall building) or even a larger one with 8, these fixed costs weigh heavily on each unit, making them much more expensive than they otherwise would be if the building was a traditional wooden-frame walk-up, up to 60% more expensive by my rough estimates. To solve the issue, you need to build more units per building so as to spread the costs around, and you can do that one of two ways:

1- Build higher, at 8 stories you can have twice the number of units you'd have at 4 stories, and an elevator's marginal cost per additional floor isn't that high
2- Build a much wider building, so that each floor is bigger and has more units, units sharing the same elevator.

In the first case, you go much higher, which is a marked departure from the traditional Euro-bloc. In the latter, the effect is less perceptible... from the outside, but the impact on residents is much greater. Whereas in the previous walk-ups the units had windows in the front and in the back, allowing for some natural air flow through the unit, the units in a wide building will have windows only on one side, making it harder to get good ventilation and proper illumination  (a famous issue with back-to-back houses, but one that is not often mentioned when talking of condo units with a similar layout)

Interior schematic of  a wide apartment building with a corridor separating front and back units in order to allow residents of each to get to the shared elevator
OK, to be fair, there is a design to combine the apartments that have windows on the back and front with a wide building, but it is a design I have rarely if ever seen outside of Japan. Basically, you have an exterior corridor on the front or back of the building, and windows open on that corridor.
Alternative design, rare (but more common in Japan) where a long balcony serves as an exterior corridor connecting apartments, with windows opening on it
Example of this design in Fukuoka, shared balcony on the front of the building, connecting apartments to the stairs and elevator

A view of the doors and windows on the front

In the back, private balconies, also note that the ground floor is used for parking
No matter what form they take, the big problem with wide buildings in developed areas is that, unless there are already big lots for sale, you can't just replace one small building, you have to buy a whole lot of them, and they must be adjacent to one another, so that you can replace them all in one swoop. That is very hard to do, especially if people own the housing, they may be reluctant to let it go, even if they are paid handsomely to. This slows down redevelopment to a crawl as the opportunities for redevelopment are very rare.

Regulations imposing harmony between buildings also make it much harder for redevelopment to occur, as they force entire blocs to be redeveloped at the same time, which is extremely hard to do, unless one uses eminent domain, or if there are abandoned areas in cities, old industrial areas or blighted neighborhoods, which by definition tend not to be areas where demand for housing is highest.

Emulation of the model outside of Europe

North American cultures mainly come from European civilizations, but they have distanced themselves from Europe over time. Older areas tend to be most similar to Europe, areas like Boston and Québec City.
Street from the old areas of Québec City
However, most North American cities, even in the 19th century, have departed greatly from this model, mostly with the addition of front setbacks and a tendency to eschew attached buildings in favor of detached ones.
Brooklyn, the attached narrow walk-up building model of the Euro-bloc is present, but wide streets and front setbacks have been added, with front stairs to create a buffer between the sidewalks and the buildings
From the sky, Brooklyn bears some resemblance to the Euro-bloc, but the courtyards are next to never developed and don't seem shared
Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie in Montréal: also with attached building, but 2 to 3 stories only, with  Québec-style exterior stairways, front setbacks, wider streets and private backyards, often with a back alley cutting the yards in two

From the sky, the blocs tend to be much longer than in Europe, courtyards are less developed
It is important to point out, I think, that most major North American cities were mostly built in the era of streetcars and trains, which allowed faster commutes that reduced the need to really optimize to the fullest the use of land. So there is also an economic reason why the European model wasn't copied completely, if not outright abandoned. As land was less valuable thanks to faster travel (in most cities anyway), they could afford to waste a bit of land for setbacks and buffers to suit the sensibility of North Americans, more used to isolated rural buildings.

Now, in most recent years, there has been a few outright emulations of the FORM of the Traditional Euro-bloc, but the process behind their creation has been completely different. Generally, a developer will seize upon a vacant or blighted large lot and build a few big buildings copying the Euro-bloc, if not outright a bloc-sized building. For example:

Recent apartments built in downtown LA that copy the Euro-bloc form

This is the view from the street
This is a recent development in Los Angeles, an extremely controversial one. One of the projects of the same developer, built on the same design, was even victim of an arson while in construction, an arson attack that was thorough so that the entire building burnt down. Unlike the traditional Euro-bloc, it is not made up of small walk-ups, but is one massive complex with courtyards built inside. Taking a page from the North American condo lifestyle, many private amenities (pool, gym, etc...) have been built inside the project. Since it's one complex, it largely offers blank walls to the street and has been accused of being an inward-looking fortress (which is a criticism that could somewhat also be leveled at traditional Euro-blocs).

Utase, Japan
I've also chanced upon a weird example of Euro-bloc emulation in Japan through Google Maps. It was so glaring that I was able to find it while looking at a large zoom level.
I am not kidding, I spotted this neighborhood UFO from this zoom level, just by looking at patterns that can be seen here, the squares in the red circle do not belong there
The neighborhood is called Utase, or Makuhari Baytown, it was built in the mid-1990s on reclaimed land, so it was tabula rasa, planners could build whatever they wanted. What I've been able to find on it doesn't say if it was the work of one private developer or if the town atypically for Japan decided to create a master plan and direct its construction.

Makuhari Baytown
There are some pretty tall structures on one side... closest to the train station, but the blocs in the middle are more scaled to typical European sizes, but with a Japanese twist, following rules of protection of access to the sun and the huge sidewalks with little on-street parking the Japanese prefer. Buildings also have big balconies, another departure from the European style.
The central blocs of Utase, with big parking lot in background
As the last image shows, again, though it resembles the outline of the Euro-bloc, the composition of it is radically different. Rather than traditional narrow walk-ups built wall-to-wall, they have used very wide modern mid-rise buildings with elevators.
Street view of Utase, big sidewalks, not much place for on-street parking and balconies fronting the street
As I pointed out however, the Traditional Euro-bloc was developed in a certain context and is the result of the incremental development of central urban areas. This is a neighborhood that was built ex nihilo on reclaimed land, so disconnected from existing urban areas. It is relatively close to a train station... but not for Tokyo. The nearest train station is about 1,5 km away, or nearly a mile away. That is not bad from a North American perspective, but this is a Tokyo suburb, where most housing lie within 500 meters of 1, sometimes 2, train/subway station.

The 6-story high Euro-blocs tend to have been built over time, in areas that were already in the heart of cities, full of services and retail. This was built in a relatively secluded area, as a result, parking had to be provided. The Euro-bloc form is not really friendly to cars as it offers little parking, often taking place in the street, an impossibility in the Japanese regulatory context. The result was instead huge bloc-sized parking lots as seen in an earlier image, or even elevated parking garages built in the "courtyards" of the blocs.
3-story elevated parking garages built inside the blocs surrounded by tall towers
You can see the parking garage between the nearer and farther towers
So this shows one issue with copying the form without necessarily looking at the process and the economic reasons why that form exists in the first place. If you just build it anywhere because you like how it looks, it won't necessarily perform as well you would think. Still, I've got to admit, that area (well, the mid-rise parts) look pretty damn nice, especially the Japanese-style streets and the balconies. But looks are one thing, function is another, I am not sure this area is quite as successful as traditional Japanese-style developments in encouraging non-motorized modes of travel.


So that was my take on the traditional European urban form of development, as I understand it. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the form that it took was due to the economic and technological realities of European cities. That form makes perfect sense in that context, but it may not be adequate in other contexts. This is the pitfall that many urban-minded people fall into, they come into contact with that building form, whether on trips to Europe or while in school studying urban planning, and they decide they like that form, then push for it.

Euro-blocs often have 4 to 6 story limits? OK, but those limits were due to the absence of elevators and regulatory environment that allowed wooden-frame 4+-story walk-ups. Nowadays, it's largely not possible to build something like that. At 4 stories and more, we are often required to use concrete, have elevators and sprinkler system, which pile on costs and make the typical building seen in Euro-blocs uneconomical to build, so if you want the Euro-bloc logic to function, you have to allow buildings that allow these higher costs to be diluted on more units. So being too focused on copying the form may severely handicap our ability to build cities that respond to people's needs and ambitions.