Come celebrate the return of public life in livable cities!

And celebrate the life and legacy of Suzanne Lennard, co-editor of this blog, and the founder of the IMCL. Join us to help share the tools and strategies necessary to change the “operating systems for growth,” in the livability laboratory of Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12

Above, Carmel’s success story will be on display with lots of detailed tools and strategies — and so will those of many other cities and towns, in a venerable peer-to-peer gathering of city leaders and researchers operating since 1985.

CARMEL, MAY 31 – It’s now just over one week to go to the 57th International Making Cities Livable conference, and the program is jam-packed with expertise on transforming declining, automobile-dominated cities, towns and suburbs into walkable, mixed, diverse places that promote health, equity, and economic opportunity for all.

Carmel not only offers us many important and detailed case[study lessons in its own right, the Mayor and his staff are also our gracious hosts and partners — and we could not be in a more livable, beautiful, welcoming place. This will be a joyous event!

The International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference series was founded in 1985 by the late Dr. Henry L. Lennard, a Viennese medical sociologist, and the late Dr Suzanne C. Lennard, an English architectural scholar. The Lennards were passionate about sharing the best evidence-based lessons of great cities and towns to improve the quality of life for all. To do it, they brought together many of the world’s most innovative and successful mayors, planners, economic development specialists, designers, developers, NGO officials, and researchers and scholars.

The mission of the IMCL has always been to raise awareness, through conferences and publications, of the effects of urban planning on livability, health and social well-being. Conferences have been held annually in the United States and Europe. They are unique in enabling city officials, architects, planners, developers, community leaders, behavioral and public health scientists, artists and others responsible for the livability of their cities to exchange experiences, ideas and expertise. The varied perspectives provide deeper understanding of the issues and generate creative solutions.

The IMCL mission statement is very simple:

Our purpose is to improve social and physical health, enhance well-being, strengthen community resilience, and increase equity and civic participation, by sharing effective tools for reshaping the built environments of our cities, suburbs and towns.

The IMCL conferences have focused special attention on the importance of making cities livable for children and the aged first, the need for public transit, bicycle lanes, and traffic calmed streets, for human scale architecture and mixed use urban fabric, for reviving the city center and creating public places where people could gather for farmers markets, festivals, outdoor cafes and community social and economic life, for ALL citizens.

As we emerge from the pandemic, there are many important lessons to assess. The pandemic has revealed the nature of our urban challenges, many of them daunting — but it has also opened up new possibilities. Please join us for this important discussion, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Suzanne and Henry, and as we inaugurate the next chapter of “The Suzanne C. and Henry L. Lennard Institute for Livable Cities,” a US 501(c)(3) non-profit.

For more information or to register, visit

Suzanne Lennard’s IMCL conference is a GO in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12

Less than one month remains until the first major conference on cities to resume IN PERSON, in the fascinating laboratory of suburban retrofit, Carmel, Indiana. Final preparations are under way for the IMCL as most if not all attendees are expected to be vaccinated, and organizers finish planning workshops, tours, musical events, a Farmers’ Market, and much more

Scenes from our beautiful host city of Carmel, Indiana, including the spectacular Palladium Concert Hall, site of our plenary and breakout events, and the adjoining Farmers' Market.
Scenes from our beautiful host city of Carmel, Indiana, including the spectacular Palladium Concert Hall, site of our plenary and breakout events, and the adjoining Farmers’ Market.

The 57th International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference, originally scheduled for June 2020, is all set for a full conference June 8-12 of this year. Suzanne Lennard, co-founder of this blog, was also co-founder of the IMCL along with her late husband Henry. Suzanne had planned this conference prior to her death in 2019, and we will honor her memory, and Henry’s, at the conference.

The conference will address forefront challenges for cities as we emerge slowly from the pandemic, including health and well-being, resilience and adaptation, equity and affordability, smart and sustainable technologies, street and suburban retrofit, and tools and strategies to overcome barriers and advance positive change for cities, towns and suburbs.

The conference will have a special focus on walkable public spaces and their importance. This is a central aspect of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and and Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by acclamation by all 193 member countries of the United Nations. Participants in that process, and leading researchers in public space and its importance, will be speaking at the IMCL conference.

This topic has gained new urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social isolation and declining urban resilience have reached near-catastrophic levels. We now recognize how important it is to develop walkable, mixed cities, where pedestrians can form social contacts and more easily access daily needs safely, in an environment that promotes their health and well-being. Effective tools are urgently needed, however, to overcome barriers and implement these improvements in our cities, towns and suburbs. That’s what we will focus on at IMCL 2021.

The IMCL conferences were begun in 1985 by Suzanne and Henry Lennard — an architectural scholar and a medical sociologist. The Lennards wanted to create a premiere gathering that brought together international leaders in city policy, planning and development, leading researchers and professionals, in actual and inspiring case study settings, in a peer-to-peer exchange of the most effective solutions to pressing urban problems.

Carmel is just outside Indianapolis, a convenient airport hub that is easily accessible with short flights from Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and other cities. A direct flight is also available from Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Carmel is 30 minutes away by taxi, shuttle, bus or car. Indianapolis is also on the Amtrak Cardinal line from Chicago to Washington. D.C.

For more information or to register, visit

BELOW: Just some of our over 50 speakers!

IMCL Keynote Speaker Profile: Patrick Condon

“It’s not housing that costs too much. It’s land that costs too much.” The first of a series of profiles of June 2021 IMCL speakers and their work

Author Patrick Condon (at center) will discuss his new book Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, at the 57th IMCL conference in Carmel, IN. June 8-12, 2021. Photo courtesy Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative of the Asia Society.

Patrick Condon is a long-time Professor of Urban Design at the University of British Columbia, a highly influential urbanist, a popular speaker, and an author with noted works including Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World. He has also been frequently mentioned on the shortlist of mayoral candidates for the City of Vancouver, Canada. His latest book, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, comes at an especially important time as cities emerge from the pandemic, and struggle with all these issues. Michael Mehaffy, Executive Director of the IMCL, recently discussed the book and related issues with Patrick.

Michael Mehaffy: Patrick, your new book, Sick City, comes at an auspicious time, of course, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. And this experience has certainly exacerbated the deep problems in our cities, and also revealed their magnitude in a rather shocking way. I’m thinking especially of the affordability crisis, growing displacement and homelessness, and the decline in health and quality of life for a huge sector of the population. Meanwhile our bad habits don’t seem to be changing as fast as they need to — sprawling, car dependent development, which works pretty well in the short term for wealthier people, but once again hits vulnerable populations especially hard. And really everybody loses in that equation — it puts a drag on the whole city, as research has shown.

I guess one could take a pessimistic view at such a moment — but there’s an optimistic outlook implied in your book, am I right? That these problems didn’t come out of nowhere, they have understandable causes, and understandable remedies that we can enact if we choose? Especially when it comes to the underlying economics of the land?

Patrick Condon: That’s right Michael. As an urbanist I am not interested in just diagnosing a problem; there are many books that do that. What I am most interested in is in understanding the mechanics of inequality, as they play out in the urban landscape, and what we can do as urban designers, planners, and local officials to mitigate these systemic pathologies.

Over recent years I have become more and more frustrated by what I see as huge confusion about a simple sounding problem: why does housing cost so much. I am American born but have spent 30 years in Vancouver, Canada. And in that thirty years I have seen housing costs explode from about seven times average wages (which was already considered an unaffordable ratio) to the current ratio of 20 to 1. And it’s very obvious there that this is not a problem of constraints on the supply of housing (by the resistance of NIMBY groups, or an ossified policy process). Vancouver is famous for promoting downtown living in the style of the high rise “point tower” form. We doubled the residential population of our downtown peninsula from 40,000 to over 80,000 in just fifteen years. Prices went up. We legalized secondary suites in single family districts covering 2/3rd of the city. Prices went up. We legalized rear lane houses city wide. prices went up. We built thousands of new units along our arterials. Prices went up. We legalized the conversion of every single family lot in the city to duplexes, each duplex with a rental unit attached. Prices went up, to the point that each new half duplex created marketed for far more than the original single family home. It’s absolute crazy town price wise, and adding supply doesn’t help.

Housing prices in Metro Vancouver, Canada continue to  diverge widely from many people’s ability to afford them. Here the ability of 25-to-34 year olds to afford homes is shown at the lower part of the chart.

Why does all this matter, and what connection does this have to the pandemic and the USA? The connection is this. These irrational price gains are, counterintuitively in the middle of an economic collapse, spreading rapidly to cities in the US, cities not as familiar with this insanity as we are. And as you say, it’s hitting the young, Black and Brown, and lower income wage earners, inordinately hard. Vancouver is the canary in the coal mine, indicating an untenable future. We need to change our land development practices very soon, or our fragile urban societies cannot be sustained.

So I guess a conclusion to be drawn from Vancouver’s failures is that just adding supply — what some have called “build, baby build” — doesn’t work? And yet so many cities still seem to think that’s the simple answer, or maybe it’s the simplistic one. But I take it that what you’re suggesting is that we need to pay more attention to the underlying economics of the land? What are the issues there?

Yes that’s the issue precisely. It’s not housing that costs too much. It’s land that costs too much. The cost of building a square foot of interior space has not risen tremendously in the past 30 years, but the price of land has. Land prices have gone up by a factor of 500 percent in just seven years in many city districts, and tragically that land price increase is hitting lower income districts in major metropolitan areas the hardest! Clearly there is something fundamental going on here, and it’s bigger than gentrification, or so called “foreign investors,” or lack of housing supply. Much bigger.

What is really behind it is a global glut of cash in the hands of investors with not a lot of great places to invest. Stocks are overpriced, bonds don’t deliver returns anymore, and after those two, the only thing really left to invest in is real estate. And by real estate, again, I am not talking about the house, I am talking about the land under it. A house a thousand miles from anywhere is worthless, a house on city land can cost a fortune. It’s obviously the location you buy. “Location, location location”! And what we’ve learned up here in Vancouver is that it doesn’t help to rezone land for higher density in hopes that the land share of the house price will go down. All that does is boost the price of the land with the land speculator being the only beneficiary. It doesn’t cheapen the per square foot price of the home at all, and in many cases, as with our duplexing zone change, it has the perverse effect of increasing it.

So I’m sure our conference attendees will want to know, what are the tools and strategies to combat this, that have been shown to be effective? And I guess I should break that into two questions: what are the long-term tools and strategies that might require more systemic reforms that we should all work towards, and then what are the more available and practical ones that we can use now, to fight the immediate crisis? What are we learning from other cities?

Well, there is a long term and a short term approach. I will start with the long term one because I really have to say a few things about the underlying economic mechanics of all this, going back all the way to Adam Smith. It was he who first drew attention to the problem of land cost. In talking about landlords he had this to say (among many other unfavorable things):

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords… love to reap where they have never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.”

A half century later, David Ricardo, another English economist, put the problem into the form of a law, known to this day as “Ricardo’s Law of Rent” which says, in effect, that virtually all of the productive value of a location will go not to the entrepreneur or the worker but to the land owner as rent. Yet another century went by before the American Henry George fully fleshed out the problem this poses for cities. He said that land rent, or price, will absorb so much of the capital value produced by city entrepreneurs and city wage earners that, in time, virtually all of that capital value gets drained into unproductive land price. When that happens, it threatens the most vulnerable workers with homelessness, and pushes the entire regional economy, and even national economy, to the point of depression. He wrote during the time of Marx, when industrial depressions were a relatively new phenomenon, and he linked land speculation to economic collapse. Spectacular land price speculations do tend to precede spectacular economic collapses. 1929 and 2008 are two cases in point. Also, the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness in our most successful cities, like San Francisco, rather proves his point. That’s why he titled his most important book Progress and Poverty, because the main thesis is that as cities become more and more wealthy, the result is that landowners get amazingly rich, while a larger and larger chunk of city residents live in precarity. Sound familiar?

Anyway, his proposed solution was to eliminate taxes on capital (a factory or apartment building for example) and income (taxes on wages), and to tax land value instead. This would fund all necessary social services and city infrastructure, and unleash the capital creating value of both workers and entrepreneurs. A win-win.

It just so happened that about the same time, the end of WWI, Vienna found itself in a position to implement a housing plan based on this idea. After the fall of the Hapsburg Empire and the enfranchisement of all Vienna citizens, that city (facing an unaffordable housing crisis) imposed a large progressive tax on apartment buildings — which of course was really a tax on location, or land — and streamed that new revenue into various forms of non-market housing. Over the course of a few decades (interrupted by WWII) the city successfully lowered the price of urban land by taxing it heavily, and then used the proceeds to buy land at the bargain basement prices their own taxes produced. Now, over 50% of housing in Vienna is non-market housing. Interestingly, if you want to rent or own a market-rate apartment in Vienna, it is a fraction of the price of a market-rate unit in equivalent cities such as Paris or Berlin. This is because the size of the non-market housing sector provides a brake on the speculative value of market-rate lands.

So the long term approach is to tax land to produce housing, in the way that Vienna did it.

Shorter term, and with an eye towards this problem in the USA, there are, surprisingly, a lot of ways to do this that are practical, both financially and politically. They all have to do with how we use zoning as a tool. We now have an advantage that neither Henry George nor the leaders of Vienna had back then. It’s called land use zoning. Zoning, and most people don’t really think of it this way, is essentially a tax. Zoning by its nature lowers land value below its so called “highest and best use” value. It’s typically not ok to put a 60 story building next to a single family home, or a pig rendering plant next to a church, even if that’s what the “market” might be demanding. Zoning has survived dozens of constitutional challenges dating back to the 1920s. Originally used to limit incompatible land uses, zoning is increasingly used to insure affordability. Many US municipalities, particularly in California where the problem is most severe, are insisting that density increases granted by the city must be accompanied by affordability concessions provided by the developer (usually in the form of low- to no-cost non-market housing units). This expansion of zoning powers has also survived Supreme Court challenges.

What is most important here is to understand that this process helps to (what I call) “discipline the land market”. The requirement to include affordable housing reduces the potential final financial yield of the project. As such this reduced yield needs to be subtracted from project costs. And the only place to subtract it is in the “residual price” for the land. So inclusionary zoning requirements, properly understood, don’t increase the price of market units — they reduce the price of land.

Finally, some municipalities are now taking this a step further. Cambridge, Massachusetts has passed what amounts to a city-wide inclusionary zoning ordinance. They are allowing a doubling of density on any parcel in the city, if and only if the project produces 100 percent permanently affordable housing, perpetually pegged to median incomes. It is not considered a “taking,” because landowners are perfectly free to develop market rate units in conformance with existing zoning limits. But if they choose the Affordable Housing Overlay path they get double density. Here again the important point is that this “disciplines the land market”. If you just doubled the density allowance city wide, hoping to increase affordability, without insisting on it, the only thing that would happen would be that land prices would also double (or more). In the end only land speculators (or as Adam Smith might put it landlords) would win. The final per square foot rents or purchase price would not drop. Those in need of housing would still be either drained of funds or excluded.

The approach you describe sounds encouraging, and badly needed — especially at this moment, when so many cities are struggling to cope with exclusion, displacement, and declining opportunities for a large part of the population, notably immigrants, the young, and other vulnerable residents.

You recently hosted the journalist Doug Saunders for a conference I had the pleasure of attending. He is author of the remarkable book Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World. It seems to me his point was that cities need to offer the “rungs of the ladder” to provide opportunity for all, to start modest businesses, and to collaborate with others to innovate and develop economically, within a fairly diverse and sometimes rather messy environment. All great cities have done this — it’s how New York, for example, took penniless immigrants from Poland and Italy and Ireland, and turned them into shopkeepers and teachers and doctors. And yet one of the problems we have now with the overheated cores is that there aren’t any more rungs — you have to have half a million dollars to start a McDonalds franchise, say, or you’re frozen out. On the other hand, maybe it’s the suburbs that now have more interesting opportunities? And perhaps we can do some innovative things in the suburbs, say with land policies, that we can’t do right now in the city cores? Maybe the suburbs are the new arena for diversity and innovation? What do you think?

Good question. There are a lot of related issues that tie into this. In my previous book, I spent a lot of column inches on the issue of how to design for “Arrival Cities” (as Doug Saunders puts it), places in the developed world that migrants from the developing world are flocking. As center-city land prices increasingly make these locations unaffordable, not just for migrants, but also for the young and the Black and Brown, the idea of the suburb becomes transformed. In the Vancouver region, migrants no longer land in the city of Vancouver but in Richmond if they are East Asian, and in Surrey if they are South Asian. Suburban settings and even their building types are being transformed in the process. Extended families now adapting 1980s cul-de-sac “monster homes” for their extended families, with welding or motorcycle repair shops in the three car garage. This is all part of the out-of-control economic re-sorting of people by class and income across the urban landscape. This is cementing cultural and economic geographic inequality into our urban landscapes as never before. It’s happening now in a way that exceeds previous imbalances caused by white flight. In the context of this conversation, if we wanted to create a more culturally and economically sustainable region, one where commute times and economic, racial, and class segregation issues were no longer getting worse and worse, we would need to deal with the real problem. And the real problem is the out of control world wide inflation in the price of urban land.

Well, that’s a lot to digest to be sure. But let me ask a final question for now: how would you sum this up as an action plan for urbanists? What can we do about this?

Well, for a start we can stop falling into the “supplyist” trap. Stop saying that if we just add density, housing will become affordable. It won’t.

Collectively, urbanists have very influential voices, earned over 40 years of trying to make communities more livable, walkable, affordable, and sustainable. As the housing crisis blazes out of control worldwide, we can use our voices in the ever more strident policy debates currently raging. It’s worth remembering that Henry George was more a politician than an economist during his too short life (he died of stroke at age 55). That’s why he catalyzed a revolution in thinking during the Progressive Era. We are still the beneficiaries of his efforts, notably in the form of the 16th and 17th amendments. We are living in a similarly crucial time. Speak out.

Secondly, we can bring an urbanist’s lens to the central question: “How can we build great mixed income communities blending the best of market dynamism with a greater public role in managing the land resource base?” In this way, our work dovetails with many current movements, not the least of which are the ongoing second civil rights wave and the push for “decolonization”. Both of those movements are fundamentally about exclusion from access to urban land. If we think about this right, and use taxing and development tools as our Archimedes lever, we can make great cities and equitable neighborhoods. But in my view, we will fail if we don’t recognize that the real problem lies in how urban land price and urban land speculation, under present circumstances, only enriches the rich, and forces the rest into poverty.

* * *

Patrick Condon will join us at the 57th International Making Cities Livable conference in Carmel, Indiana, June 8-12, 2021 ( His new book Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land is available for free download (PDF) at

And in print in the US at 

And in Canada:

The Surprisingly Important Role of Symmetry in Healthy Places

New research suggests there might be a “symmetry deficit disorder” in today’s built environments, with significant impacts on health, well-being, and even sustainability.

Urban Symmetry

Two environments in London. Left: Seven Dials, dating from the 17th century. Right: a typical office complex from the 20th century. These environments can be better understood as geometric structures manifesting different degrees and kinds of symmetry.


Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

March 18, 2021

Among the many factors influencing health and well-being, the environment might be the least appreciated — but in many ways, it’s one of the most important. Intriguing new research is indicating that, within human environments, the mathematical property of symmetry plays an outsized role.

The relationship between mathematics and architecture is an ancient one, and the topic of symmetry has long been central to both. But the “symmetry” described by classical writers like Vitruvius and Alberti was not limited to the idea of mirroring two sides, as is commonly thought. Rather, symmetry was a much deeper concept, covering many other complex kinds of geometrical relationships. What was important was that there was some kind of measurable correspondence, some sym + metros, or “same measurement,” among the parts as they formed a whole.

Symmetry continues to be a central concept in the sciences today, with important applications to the built environment—as our own recent research has documented. Exciting new developments in mathematics, environmental psychology, neuroscience, and other fields are transforming the scientific understanding of the essential role of symmetry in human experience, and where it goes wrong (and right too). Perhaps surprising—and most important—is an emerging understanding of the key role these characteristics seem to play in human health and well-being.

The field of architecture, for all its aspirations to cutting-edge modernity, has so far been notably backward in applying these insights. Instead, the applications of symmetry, where they exist at all, are mostly confined to superficial explorations of ever more extravagant new aesthetic packaging over what are still relatively primitive object-buildings. The lessons for public space networks, and for healthier human environments more broadly, are largely ignored.

One of the fundamental questions lost in this fashionable mix of art and technology is the ancient topic of beauty, one of Vitruvius’ famous triad of essential architectural components (which he termed “venustas”). Few people today deny the great beauty of many historic and traditional buildings. We often marvel at the incredible diversity of these beautiful structures across innumerable geographic locations, cultures, and periods. Indeed, some wonder why so many buildings of our time seem so inferior—let’s face it, so much uglier—by comparison.

It’s common to assume that this loss is just the price of progress. Perhaps the “beauty” of the built environment nowadays (if we can even agree on what that is) exists only in the powerful, machine-like logic of buildings, their daring structural innovations, or the clever abstract expressions of their designers. Perhaps the current era pays for its modern conveniences by relegating the experience of “beauty” to the status of a dispensable consumer good.

This is a common view of things—but new research shows that it’s simply not true. Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at University College London, has surveyed neurological research, including his own team’s, and concluded that the experience of beauty in the environment “is not a luxury, but an essential ingredient in nourishing the emotional brain.” Research in other fields reveals that experiencing places that are perceived as beautiful (including “biophilic” places with natural vegetation, for example) actually lowers stress in the body, improves health and well-being, and even (as one famous study showed) shortens recovery times from surgery!

Common types of symmetry that are widely perceived as beautiful, in (left) a child’s kaleidoscope (using pieces of shell that also include sub-symmetries), a “fractal” pattern generated mathematically on a computer (center), and the natural environment of Bryce Canyon in Utah (right). These beautiful structures typically combine different forms of symmetry, such as reflectional, rotational, translational, and scaling symmetries (including fractals).  Image credits: Left, Pixabay (public domain); center, Pixabay (public domain); right, Michael Mehaffy.

These and other studies unveil a surprisingly strong relationship between aesthetics, well-being, and health. Findings in environmental psychology, neuroscience, medical science, and related fields are pointing to a profound (if under-appreciated) effect of environmental structures–including their aesthetic properties–upon our health and quality of life, along with other more obvious factors. These findings seem all the more important for those who are already more vulnerable, including children, the elderly, and the poor.

The research also disproves the simplistic modern assumption that the experience of beauty is just a subjective phenomenon—merely “in the eye of the beholder.” While there can be great variation among people as to some of what they find beautiful, there are also broad areas of commonality. For example, many geometric characteristics of natural environments and of the human body (like the symmetry of faces) are almost universally considered beautiful. This universality is anchored in shared biological roots, and in the shared ways that we react to certain kinds of structures, according to Zeki: “mathematical principles of symmetry, harmony, and proportion…are part of the cognitive apparatus of all brains.”

This is true not only of natural environments and beautiful “biophilic” vegetation, as Zeki notes, but built structures too: “What universality architectural beauty may possess probably lies in satisfying inherited brain concepts of proportion, harmony and geometric relationships that are more formally expressed in mathematical terms.” In other words, there are discernible geometric properties in surroundings that most people unconsciously find beautiful, and those properties are also conducive to physical well-being and quality of life. That’s a finding with potentially momentous implications.

Environmental designers surely have a professional responsibility to avoid harm to users, and indeed, to actively promote their well-being. The question is not whether there is a place for artistic creativity, novelty, and individual expression—surely there is—but rather, how designers can anchor this creativity within a common framework of sharable characteristics that are most likely to produce physiological benefits for users. It is the business of science to provide exactly that kind of knowledge for built environment professions–just as the practice of medicine relies on the health sciences, for example.

What science reveals is that nature has shaped unconscious preferences so that humans are instinctively drawn toward conditions most beneficial to health and well-being. When we are forced into “ugly” or stressful environments (as revealed by medical measurements), it creates much more than superficial annoyance. The task for designers, then, is to start with those documented factors that will best promote the health and well-being of users, and then explore the infinite possible varieties of expression using those factors.

When it comes to identifying these “salutogenic” (health-giving) factors, our own work on environmental symmetry has yielded fruitful results. Once again, we are referring here to “symmetry” in the broader mathematician’s sense, as a kind of structural correspondence between parts. In addition to the familiar mirror symmetry, we can add translational symmetry (where patterns are replicated), scaling symmetry (where patterns recur at different scales, as in fractals), rotational symmetry (as in the iris of an eye), and other combinations.

Examples of different kinds of symmetry in nature, and in human architectures. Top row: reflectional or mirror (tiger), rotational (Sun), translational (ducklings), and scaling (fern). Bottom row: reflectional (Classical building), rotational (stained glass), translational (Islamic tilework) and scaling (Alhambra). Image credits: Top row, left: S Taheri via Wikimedia Commons; center left: public domain (via Pixabay); center right, public domain (via Maxpixel); right, public domain (via Free Nature Stock). Bottom row, left: Ryan Kaldari via Wikimedia Commons; center left, Thomas Ledi via Wikimedia Commons; center right, public domain (via Pixabay); right, public domain (via Pixabay).

In most natural environments, the different forms of symmetry occur together and in combinations with others. Our work and others’ has found that this compound symmetry has a particularly strong association with the experience of beauty. When these compound symmetries contain high levels of interrelatedness, as is evident in many natural structures, we refer to this as “deep symmetry.” (One could say that there is a “symmetry of symmetries” in these structures.) Such structures (including built environments) have many layers of symmetrical sub-structures built up into a very complex interrelated whole.

“Deep symmetry” also interrelates specific objects with their surroundings, and to us as viewers too. This deep symmetry extends mathematically to the larger scale of urban spaces, neighborhoods, and city regions (and ultimately to the Earth, and even the Cosmos). This new understanding of the symmetrical relatedness of buildings and cities rejoins the sadly separated disciplines of architecture, urban design, and planning, within a larger natural framework.

The human body as a whole incorporates such “deep symmetry”—especially so in bodies universally regarded as particularly beautiful—as do many natural environments. This kind of structure can be contrasted with what we might think of as “shallow symmetries”—merely pasted together symmetrical structures that do not interrelate. By contrast, many contemporary designs exhibit shallow symmetries (like the endlessly repeated window units in the example at the top right of this article).

Some examples of “deep symmetry,” in the human body (left), in a natural environment (center) and in human architectures (right). In each case, multiple symmetries and distinct kinds of symmetries are combined and interrelated through further symmetries. In the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, the irises have rotational symmetry, the face has reflectional symmetry, the hair has scaling symmetry, and so on. The rotational symmetry of the sun in the middle is combined with the reflectional symmetry of the water and the translational symmetry of the repeating birds, and the scaling symmetry of the water patterns. Taktsang Monastery in Bhutan repeats translational groups with reflectional symmetry as well as elements with rotational symmetry, and elements with scalar symmetry, all in translational symmetry as they adjust to their positions over the rocks. Image credits: Left, George M. Groutas via Flickr; center, @Chiaralily via Flickr; Right: Douglas J. McLaughlin via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s important to note that the mathematics of symmetry is not some mysterious occult realm of knowledge, or mystical set of secret formulas. In fact, it is widely comprehensible, and widely useful in practice (as Vitruvius, Alberti and other pioneers demonstrated). Indeed, as the cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez pointed out, mathematics itself is simply the symbolic manifestation of the human process of cognitively ordering the environment—that is, of modeling the symmetries of experience. (What we call a “formula” is nothing other than a mathematical symmetry between one side of an “equation” and the other.) The ability to model these symmetries of experience was the key to the evolutionary survival of humans, and, more recently in history, to the development of advanced language, mathematics, and science.

This symmetry-modeling is an example of our inherent order-seeking, meaning-seeking behavior. We are constantly striving to find “meaning” in the world—that is, to relate ourselves to experienced structures, to find patterns of coherence and consistency, and to replace informational disorder with a coherent understanding of our surroundings and ourselves within them. (We might call this view of things a “symmetric structuralism.”) We evolved to instinctively seek this kind of meaning in environments, and it is reassuring and satisfying when we find it—whether in a formal and symbolic sense, or a more tacit and perceptual sense. Justifiably, we refer to this experience as “beautiful.” (In a similar sense, mathematicians often describe certain formulas as “beautiful.”) The unsurprising corollary is that environments in which we do not find this meaning—commonly called “ugly”—are stressful, and potentially harmful to well-being.

It turns out that the built environments that most people find most beautiful, including historic and traditional ones, possess this meaning-rich structure that we refer to as “deep symmetry.” Importantly, there is also a strong (and not coincidental) correspondence with those environments that produce the most positive measurable effects upon well-being.

The architect Christopher Alexander set out to catalog the forms of this deep symmetry, referring to “fundamental properties” that we observe repeatedly in things that we experience as beautiful or full of life. He found that he could do it empirically with just 15 geometrical categories (Figure Four). Many of them correspond directly to forms of symmetry (e.g., “local symmetry,” “levels of scale,” “echoes”, and so on). Others are more complex mixtures. Nonetheless, Alexander’s work shows that it is possible to empirically map the geometric characteristics of deep symmetry –  and moreover, to find a surprisingly close congruence to the vast and diverse array of natural and historic human environments that possess it.

Christopher Alexander’s “Fifteen Properties,” found repeatedly in common natural structures, and in human structures that we experience as beautiful and full of life. Image credit: Michael Mehaffy, from open sources under fair use.

What about the many contemporary environments that do not display this deep symmetry? They may have a very shallow or learned, cerebral form of symmetry, or a mere veneer of symmetry (like a thin product packaging). Research is beginning to reveal that this shallow symmetry is associated with environments that produce stress, and may contribute to illness, depression, and other disorders.

For example, Penacchio and Wilkins (2014) show that visual scenes that lack the scaling and other multiple symmetries found in natural environments “provoke discomfort, and even headaches and seizures in susceptible individuals.” Le et al. (2016) confirm that “patterns with unnatural statistical properties are uncomfortable to look at … with consequences for brain metabolism, and possibly also for health.”

The journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to highlight research evidence he found documenting the negative impacts from lack of contact with natural environments and forms, especially for children. Now we can see an even broader phenomenon, and one that is closely related: we’ll call it “symmetry deficit disorder.” The deficit in the experience of deep symmetry in modern environments causes an actual disorder in human beings—that is, we identify a geometrical condition that can impair the function of the body and mind. The cause of both disorders is ultimately the same: people seem to have an innate need to connect with the biological structures, and their symmetries, that drove the evolution of humans.

How did this “symmetry deficit disorder” come to be so pervasive in contemporary times? Was something as serious as this accidental? After all, we noted earlier that places and periods throughout history produced beautiful buildings and environments with deep symmetry as a matter of routine—in spite of many other problems those societies faced.

As also noted earlier, some people think that society simply made a calculated trade in the modern era, sacrificing this ordinary—and older—environmental beauty based on deep symmetry for sanitation, medicine, technology, and the like. Very well, they say, we got more sterile, machine-like buildings, but they were orderly and functional, and occasionally costumed with imaginative artworks. What’s wrong with that?

Too much, actually. It’s not only that these environments are taking a documented toll on human health and well-being (by the evidence of data regularly emerging from the medical professions). They are, like the resource-guzzling technologies that made them, profoundly unsustainable (by the evidence of data coming from energy and resource use).

Once again, history offers important and humbling lessons. Consider the Pantheon in Rome, say, which has lasted 18 centuries, in large part because it has been treasured as beautiful by each of the 80 or so generations that kept and sustained it. Yet today we pat ourselves on the back for calling a building with a lifespan of 60 years “sustainable,” and very many new buildings are demolished or fall into disuse after only 40 years or so.

On the left is the Pantheon in Rome, built 18 centuries ago, and exhibiting many forms of compound symmetry. On the right is a new “green” skyscraper, whose symmetries derive mostly from its veneer of plants. The underlying structure is a fairly ordinary stripped-down object-building, of the kind that has been fashionable since the early 20th century. It is common for such buildings to be demolished within a half-century or so. Image credits: Left, Evan Qu via Unsplash. Right, Victor Garcia via Unsplash.

A deeper level of unsustainability is caused by the disordered processes that disrupt ecologies, resource bases, and, no less, the human quality of life. In that sense, the mathematical ugliness of the built environment is a manifestation (and a warning indicator) of deeper dysfunctions, and deeper asymmetries. This problem cannot be dismissed as “merely” an aesthetic one. The remedies, therefore, must be more than aesthetic—they must dig at the core of the processes that generate these ugly places, as well as the ugly products themselves. Process and product are inseparable.

Chief among these processes are the economic and cultural valuations of consumption, disposability, and novelty. Most people already recognize (or suspect) that our cultural and technological systems do not rest on a durable footing. As we have written about before, one way to address that shortcoming is to reform the runaway economies of scale and standardization, which are proving so destructive. While there is a useful role for these economies—in nature and in human systems too—there is also an essential, and largely missing, need to temper them with economies of place and differentiation. Rebalancing systems in this way is essential to the transition from an unsustainable “depletion economy,” to a more sustainable, regenerative, “repletion economy.”

Similarly, while we can welcome visual novelty and excitement in human environments, durability, profoundness, and deep symmetry play a much more essential role. The latter qualities maintain the human race on a viable evolutionary trajectory, whereas their neglect or suppression could trigger catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, contemporary systems of production over-value the shallow appeal of the new and exciting, with the consequence that there is a “race to the bottom” to build ever cheaper, ever more disposable, but ever more superficially exciting, environments lacking deep symmetry altogether.

Architects have become complicit in this auto-destructive system, for fateful reasons. At the turn of the 20th century, architects signed up to support the unbridled industrialization of the human environment (and its unsustainable development, and ultimately its dehumanization). Fatefully, they became essentially a marketing arm for this unsustainable economic transformation. Rhapsodic theorists from great universities legitimized the cachet of a novel type of fine art, by eulogizing its allure, thus providing compelling packaging for this new—and toxic—industrial product.

Ironically, it is not altogether easy for architects themselves to see this. (We say this as researchers and teachers of architecture ourselves.) Through a process we have previously called “architectural myopia,” architects—like other professionals—have their own lenses through which they see the world and their work. For example, the research literature repeatedly documents that architects have fundamentally different judgments from common people as to what constitutes a beautiful building.

For architects, a “good” building is more likely to be stripped down, dramatic, unadorned—an example of what we have previously termed “geometrical fundamentalism.” From their cognitive perspective, this geometry seems most appropriate for contemporary times, with its focus on machinery and power. At the same time, they have a prevalent aversion for the ornate patterns of nature, and of historical design forms. Instead, trained architectural taste is consistent with an early 20th century fantasy of a “modern” future defined by that bygone era’s stripped-down futuristic images.

The new research coming from social psychology, environmental psychology, and other fields, is helping us to understand what is going on—how those individuals who are removed from the flesh-and-blood reality of a situation must substitute their own “construals” for that reality, often with negative impacts on others. The lesson is that all of us see the world through our own cognitive biases, and with our own “bounded rationality“—sometimes with unintended consequences.

Architects (and other futurists) do experience beauty, just like everyone else. But as research shows, the beauty they experience largely ignores key attributes of the natural and physical world that all of us share—the structura naturalis as we refer to it (Latin for “natural structure”). Rather, they are much more focused upon the beauty of their own mental constructions (shared mostly among other architects)—what we refer to as structura mentis.

There is an essential place for both kinds of structure. After all, the beauty of literature and of other arts comes largely from the mental symmetries of structura mentis. This is the important domain of symbol, allegory, metaphor, and all the other rich capacities of literature and the arts.

But when it comes to the impacts of the actual physical environments where humans live their lives, specific geometries do matter, as the research shows. The health and well-being of users (and of the natural environments upon which we depend) must take priority over the individual prerogatives of artistic expression.

The new insights on symmetry in the built environment offer fertile ground for further development of practical tools and approaches. They cut through the meaningless “style wars,” and transcend considerations of which kind of object-building we might like or dislike, or whether or not we are “modern” and “with it.” Instead, they simply provide a growing body of evidence about why certain environmental characteristics are beneficial, and how we can create more of those beneficial environments.

This comes at a particularly urgent time when the world is urbanizing at a historically unprecedented rate, with profound impacts upon future resource use, ecologies, and quality of life. Clearly, we cannot afford to remain mired in the same old “business as usual” patterns.  Professional responsibility and good citizenship demand that we recover the methods for enriching the symmetries of our human environments. As the new research shows, these places do have profound impacts upon us — and increasingly, it appears, upon our future.

A few more buildings that exhibit high degrees of compound and deep symmetry. Left, Santa Caterina del Sasso Monastery, Lake Maggiore, Italy; Center, Central Market, Valencia, Spain; right, Byodo-in Temple, Hawaii. Image credits: left, public domain (via Pixabay); center, @nosoylasonia via Photohere; right, @little_plant via Unsplash.

Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D., is a researcher in architecture based at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and director of the International Making Cities Livable conference series. He is the former president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League neighborhood association in Portland, and he now lives in the Columbia Gorge with his children and grandchildren.

Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., is a professor of mathematics and architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

This article first appeared on Planetizen.

Guardian (UK): The real cause of the housing crisis?

Profile of a new book that describes “…numerous actors in a complex network of landowners, housebuilders [developers], financial backers, professional bodies and politicians who are engaged in propping up the status quo to ensure that their interests prosper – at the expense of everyone else. The housing crisis is no accident…”

A recent article in the UK newspaper The Guardian profiles The Property Lobby, a new book  that suggests the UK housing crisis is the result of a “finance-housebuilding complex” that is “armed with foreign cash and backed by top lobbyists, [to] keep property prices high.”

Author and researcher Bob Colenutt of the Institute of Urban Affairs, University of Northampton, describes issues that seem uncomfortably similar to those in the US.   Perhaps that isn’t such a surprise, given that real estate markets and capital flows are increasingly global — or were, at least, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps this situation, like many others, deserves a more sober reassessment in the wake of the pandemic.

From the article:

Over the decades, governments of all colours have announced bold new methods to solve the housing crisis, but little has changed. Headlines have continually told us that we are short of 4m homes, that thousands are homeless, that 1.2 million people are on council house waiting lists and that a million private tenants are in deep poverty – not counting the impending impact of the coronavirus pandemic – but no effective action is taken. Instead, funding for social housing has been slashed while subsidies are lavished on the private sector housebuilders, in the hope that affordable housing will be delivered through “planning gain”.
…It’s a Faustian pact from which the public is doomed never to benefit. As Colenutt puts it, the situation has led to “the ultimate absurdity of public authorities actively pursuing higher values from market-led development in order to find crumbs for social housing development.”

Meanwhile, the housebuilders get ever richer. Berkeley Group, one of the Top 10 UK builders, built 3,536 homes in 2017, which sounds like a decent contribution to meeting the housing shortage. That is, until you realise that the average price of these homes – proudly described as “popular with overseas investors” – was £715,000. Tony Pidgley, the company’s founder and chairman, received a personal payout of £48m in 2018, after a previous payout of £23m in 2015, when profits rose 42%. At the same time, Berkeley has consistently reduced the amount of affordable housing on its developments across London, on the grounds that the local authority targets were “unviable”. Over the past eight years, Berkeley made a profit of more than £3bn.

Colenutt is not just describing the problems, but he also offers some proposed solutions:

…there must be fundamental land reform to bring development land forward for housing at sensible prices so that new housing can be truly affordable and existing prices can stabilise. Colenutt points to the examples of Germany and the Netherlands, where local authorities buy up development land at its existing use value, draw up real masterplans, then offer sites to housebuilders, who build to the plans of the local authority. In this way, housebuilders are simply builders of houses, not land speculators.

He says it is finally time to tax developers’ land banks and implement “use or lose it” measures, to discourage housebuilders from hoarding plots with planning permission. And, most importantly, the Treasury and the Bank of England must be weaned off their dependence on land and house prices, and rebalance the economy away from property. All of this is eminently possible, if the powerful property lobby can be resisted, and some local authorities are already beginning to take the lead, in spite of central government policy. As the Coin Street Community Builders’ slogan puts it: “There is another way.”

Read the full article here.


Why “a building is not a tree”

Or, how Christopher Alexander’s landmark 1965 paper can still guide us in thinking about the coronavirus, and other urban challenges

Or, how Christopher Alexander’s landmark 1965 paper can still guide us in thinking about the coronavirus, and other urban challenges

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a sober reassessment of a number of urban characteristics, and none has been more maligned – inaccurately so, I fear – than urban density. A closer look reveals that clustering of people in certain environments (like nursing homes) is far more likely to spread infections than in other places with similar population densities – notably public spaces. As I have written elsewhere, it’s quite possible to maintain “sociable distancing” in many kinds of public and semi-public spaces.

What are the lessons for urban density in private places? One of the topics that needs careful assessment in the wake of the pandemic is the impact of tall buildings, which also tend to bring many people into close contact — notably in their elevators, lobbies, and other spaces.

Epidemiologist Shai Linn has observed that the incidence of infectious spread can be high in tall buildings. He has drawn an analogy to the spread of coronavirus and other diseases in cruise ships: in both environments, people tend to crowd into elevators, stairs and other common areas. In both environments, infections (of all kinds) can spread rapidly.

There is an important point to be drawn from Linn’s work and others’. The issue is not merely that many people are in spatial proximity, but that they must pass through the “choke points” of centralized spaces, where airborne transmission is much more efficient. (Successive touching of “fomites” like door handles and buttons is also part of the problem, but can be controlled more easily.)

What is the deeper problem with these centralized spaces? One can think of the structure of a tree, where all the branches, twigs and leaves are connected only through the trunk. Similarly, in a tall building or a cruise ship, all the parts are connected through central elevators, stairways and common areas.

By contrast, a web-network doesn’t have to concentrate everyone into central spaces – even when a given unit of space has the same number of people, that is, the same “density.”

The drawing at the start of this post makes this point. We can contrast a tall building with a street lined with tightly packed rowhouses, or a series of small apartment buildings, each with its own entry on the street. Such a web-network allows people to be in social proximity – able to practice what I have called “sociable distancing” – without being forced into the kind of adjacency that allows transmission of pathogens.

As it happens, the urban and architectural theorist Christopher Alexander described these two kinds of structures in a famous 1965 paper. Alexander, who is better known as the author of the classic book A Pattern Language, wrote in his paper that “A city is not a tree” – or at least, a good city is not. That is, the best cities are not dominated by centralized tree-like structures, but rather, they have many web-like sets of connections that he referred to as “semi-lattices.”

An obvious example of a tree-like structure can be seen urban street patterns. Many sprawling suburban communities show a tree-like pattern that is easy to differentiate from, say, the web-like grids of many older cities (as in the figure below). The trouble with tree-like patterns is that they force traffic into limited “choke points” where it becomes congested and hostile to pedestrians. This pattern doesn’t allow vehicles or pedestrians to connect through other shorter trips between the branches, as is the case with the web-network. That usually means neighborhoods with tree-like structures are not walkable, are not very well suited to transit, and are prone to traffic congestion.

The sprawling, “tree-like” pattern at the top of this drawing makes it much more difficult to travel to the different destinations by transit, or especially, by foot. The pattern at the lower part of the drawing is much more inter-connected, offering many more ways to move and connect. Drawing by The Prince’s Foundation.

For Alexander, there is an even more fundamental problem for cities organized as “trees.” Cities get their vitality and their dynamism from these inter-connections — from the diversity of people who come into mutual contact, from the mixing of different activities and movements, and from the “overlaps” that happen when things are not neatly segregated into tree-like schemes.

He concluded:

It must be emphasised, lest the orderly mind shrink in horror from anything that is not clearly articulated and categorised in tree form, that the ideas of overlap, ambiguity, multiplicity of aspect, and the semilattice, are not less orderly than the rigid tree, but more so. They represent a thicker, tougher, more subtle and more complex view of structure.

If good vibrant cities are not “trees,” what about buildings? It seems the same logic applies: at the scale of buildings too, and especially as they connect to the public realm, we should seek overlap, multiplicity of aspect, and the other characteristics that Alexander celebrates. We should seek buildings that are more fine-grained, with redundant connections to the street, rather than one centralized “tree trunk,” as tall buildings typically feature.

In structural terms, we can compare a tall building to a kind of “vertical cul de sac” – or a kind of vertical gated community, with all the same potential problems of that problematic structural form.

And as we can now see, for similar structural reasons, such structures are also more resilient in the face of a pandemic.

The diagram at the top of the post, developed by the UK Urban Task Force in 1999, shows three schemes, each with exactly the same relatively high population density (75 Units/Hectare or 30 Units/Acre), but with very different network structures. The scheme of small flats to the lower right offers many different connections to the street, and it avoids centralized “choke points” where everyone must come into close proximity.

It’s often assumed — wrongly, as research has shown — that tall buildings are necessary to achieve higher population densities. Yet these three schemes all have exactly the same density. They only differ in the way that those populations can connect — as “trees,” or as “web-networks.” The tall building is clearly a tree, with all its structural vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, at this moment in urban history, the growth of tall buildings around the world is nothing short of explosive. As research is showing, the factors that propel their growth seem to have less to do with best practice knowledge, and apparently more to do with the dynamics of short-term capital, images, branding, and even the egos of their promoters. This is not the path to sustainable or resilient cities. It may in fact be the path to catastrophe.

Let us hope that, as this pandemic prompts a reassessment of recent urban orthodoxy, the tall building, along with other mega-structures, will be part of a much-needed critical re-assessment.

Gratz: “Zoning out the human-scale city”

The article by Roberta Brandes Gratz in the New York Review of Books, featuring an image of the Hudson Yards project.

The long-time colleague of Jane Jacobs writes in the New York Review of Books that “This is a New York story only for now” and “Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country.”


In yet another timely warning to Portland and other cities, Roberta Brandes Gratz, the long-time friend and colleague of activist and urban champion Jane Jacobs, describes the dangers of reckless upzoning and transfer rights:

I weep for my city; it is committing urban suicide. I am a daughter of Gotham, born and bred. My lifelong interest in the vitality of the city included a thirty-year friendship with famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, with whom I, and a small group of activists, founded the Center for the Living City to build on her legacy…

This is a New York story only for now. Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country. When it comes to real estate, New York City may lead the way, but others follow in time.

It appears that Portland is already following this path, notably in the adoption of the Better Housing by Design ordinance, which was opposed by Commissioner Amanda Fritz in a stinging critique (covered in the current Northwest Examiner on Page 1).

Gratz points out how progressive goals like sustainability become a mockery under these and similar “deregulatory upzonings:”

In 2018, Chase Bank announced that it would tear down the fifty-two-story, black-and-silver-ribbed, early Modernist tower at 270 Park Avenue in order to build a new tower at least seventy stories high. This will be the tallest-ever demolition of a perfectly viable building in New York City. In 2002, Chase began a total renovation of the building to LEED standard, a green building certification that gave it “platinum” status, a rating that acknowledges the value of preserving the embodied energy of an existing building and avoids energy use for demolition, landfill, and new construction. Landmark skyscrapers across the country—from the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly Sears), and San Francisco’s Transamerica—have taken this environmentally responsible approach and upgraded their buildings to LEED platinum standard. And in doing so, Chase also benefitted from the five years of federal environmental tax credits that go with that designation. Then threw it all away.

To achieve the extra height and bulk of the new 270 Park, Chase is taking advantage of the “upzoning” of nearby mid-Manhattan that was applied in 2017 to a seventy-three-block area around Grand Central between 39th and 57th Streets. Upzoning’s relaxation of city planning regulations expands the development potential of new buildings by allowing increased height and density (the number of units or amount of floor area on a given lot), and simplifying the transfer of “air rights” from landmarked buildings to new sites within the district. (Air rights are the so-called unused development rights that would allow a hypothetical taller building on a particular lot, but they can be transferred by sale from one lot to another, depending on the district’s zoning designation.) A portion of any air rights sale does go into a city fund specifically for area subway and pedestrian improvements—but, in this case, that would be for an area already jammed with pedestrians.

Chase was thus able to buy air rights from the landmarked St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some six blocks away, and construct a taller, bulkier building. Preservationists have identified at least thirty-three buildings worthy of landmark protection from such redevelopment in this Midtown district, but after fierce resistance from real estate interests, only twelve have been so designated. By no logic—design, environmental, planning, zoning, landfill capacity—does demolition of 270 Park make sense, especially when at least some in the architectural community are trying to advance sustainable design…

Gratz also stresses the importance of a healthy urbanization process, something that Jacobs was careful to articulate:

Writing almost sixty years ago, Jacobs drew a distinction that warned of the difference between gradual evolution that does not disrupt a city and “cataclysmic” change that threatens a city’s fabric. The alteration we witness today is cataclysmic. Hudson Yards, the new mega-development on Manhattan’s far West Side, is only the most glaring example, but the supertall towers that are spreading like kudzu elsewhere are an increasingly visible disgrace. It is all a reflection of the stranglehold of big real estate interests, with their power to manipulate the zoning code beyond reason. Hudson Yards represents a kind of privately controlled gated community in the sky—definitely a cardinal sin of urbanism—but even more significant, from my perspective, is 270 Park.

Urbanism is the uneven process that creates cities, over time and organically, through a confluence of democratic, economic, and social forces. This is what Jacobs called an “urban ecology.” This same process can also rebuild and strengthen even troubled cities today, if given a chance, and if big profit-driven real estate interests are not the overriding force in urban development. But authentic urbanism is a process, not a project subject to a design or plan. The result is a balanced mix of buildings and uses resulting in a built environment at human scale. That is precisely what is being lost today in New York City.

In a description that could apply to other cities (including Portland), Gratz describes a “perversion” of the public process, including the provess of establishing historic landmarks:

The redevelopment of 270 Park Avenue, which has slipped under the radar of public attention, is an alarming precursor of things to come. It is characteristic of the way the city is committing urbanism suicide, a death by a thousand smaller, self-inflicted cuts. And it reflects how real estate owns and controls a city that is supposed to run on democratic principles.

First is an underrecognized perversion of the landmarking process. Originally, landmarked buildings were awarded air rights to compensate for their owners being prevented from tearing them down and rebuilding on the same site. Those air rights, though, could be transferred to a building adjacent or opposite. Air rights from landmarks were never meant to float afar. A major consequence of the upzoning, though, is that air rights have now become transferable to increasingly distant lots…

Gratz spares no criticism of the New York development community and its “strange bedfellows” in the public sector:

There appear to be no limits to what the development community gets away with. They’ve taken effective control of both the City Planning Commission and the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA). They have also succeeded in intimidating and taming the Landmarks Preservation Commission, restraining its original mission and turning its system of historic tax credits attached to landmark buildings to new commercial advantage. They are so in control, their machinations are not even hidden…

In another disquieting parallel to Portland and other cities, Gratz points out the egregious fallacy of local claims for building heights as a strategy to promote affordability:

Advocates of upzoning argue that it is needed to allow construction of taller buildings to create new affordable housing units. Real estate interests’ upzoning mantra perpetuates a confusion that height creates density. This is a dangerous myth. Along with many American cities after World War II, New York experienced years of demolition and de-densification in the name of “urban renewal.” This misguided movement, often acting in the name of “slum clearance,” used the concept of “towers in the park” to replace old neighborhoods that had grown up organically around a density of mixed uses—residential, businesses, factories, markets. “Urban renewal” demolished existing communities, never replacing as many housing units as had previously existed.

Gratz calls for a more cautious assessment of the impacts of unchecked upzoning, and the potential for better alternative development in the many empty sites in the city.  She closes by calling for a vigorous campaign to that end:

If we continue to allow the erosion of the human-scale city and long-evolved urbanism on which it depends, then I fear for the future. The first thing needed is a public exhibit of the many empty sites across the boroughs of New York, and a representation of what further, unchecked upzoning will it make possible to build in the future. But without a well-organized, well-financed campaign like the effort to save Grand Central, or a singular leader like Jane Jacobs able to take on the powers that be and a press willing to give these battles full coverage, the perilous undermining of authentic urbanism will continue.

The full article is worth a careful read, and  available here.


The New Yorker: We need to “decommodify” land and housing

PLight of the Urban Planner
The New Yorker article by Nikil Saval

A recent article on the work of geographer Samuel Stein argues that our housing dilemma derives from an “unholy fusion” of development and politics — “the real estate state” — which exacerbates, rather than solves, our crises of affordability, equity and sustainability.

This blog has frequently pointed out the egregious flaws in the “magical thinking” of some planners and activists — some of whom are friends of mine — who hold that adding housing supply at almost any place, of almost any kind, will somehow lower prices, promote equity, and achieve sustainable urban development. Worse, in the absence of a careful application of evidence-based tools and strategies, grounded in research evidence, we have argued that this deluded thinking will promote gentrification, degrade urban livability, and in the end, serve only the unaccountable interests of the real estate development, planning and design industry.

(Full disclosure, I am a member of this industry, but one who is, I hope, willing to entertain well-argued self-critical evidence — given the stakes when we get it wrong.)

Now, a thoughtful piece in the New Yorker dissects the flaws in this “magical thinking,” and it’s worth a careful read — and it offers a cautionary lesson for Portland and Oregon politicians, planners and activists.  A few excerpts:

In 2018, Scott Wiener, a California state senator representing San Francisco, introduced a co-authored bill that detonated a debate over housing. The aim of Senate Bill 827 was to override local regulations on building height in order to allow denser, high-rise construction near transit hubs. At once radical and simple, its target was nothing more, and nothing less, than zoning—the most common American way to control land use. Zoning determines whether a building is commercial or residential, how big it can get, whether it’s a single-family home or a high-rise tower.

[NOTE: The author fails here to make a crucial distinction between two very different kinds of zoning regulation, namely regulating use, and regulating form. The former is a culprit in any number of 20th Century fiascoes, including racially and culturally motivated exclusions.  The latter is a more recent and very different kind of reform tool, much more neutral on use, by whom, when, and so on, and much more suited to produce coherent, walkable urbanism at any scale.  The idea was prefigured by Jane Jacobs in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  But to continue from the New Yorker article…]

S.B. 827 elicited heated arguments, along with a few bizarre political coalitions. In supporting the bill, housing advocates found themselves allied with wealthy developers. Meanwhile, in opposing it, anti-gentrification activists found themselves allied with rich homeowners from places like Beverly Hills….despite late-breaking attempts to include anti-displacement measures, the bill failed to make it out of committee, losing 6–4. Of the votes in its favor, only two were from Democrats, Wiener and his co-author—further proof that the housing debate involves some strange bedfellows.

S.B. 827 nonetheless has spurred a more substantial conversation about zoning reform, of all things, than any urbanist could have predicted. Unfortunately, much of this conversation has taken place online, meaning that it’s resembled people screaming past one another and then shrinking into two opposing crags of congealed vitriol. On one side are the YIMBYs—the acronym stands for “Yes, in my back yard”—who believe that prices are too high because of market distortions that limit the amount of housing people actually want and need. For them, the solution is to increase market-rate housing, which, over time, will result in a reduction in prices and rents. Opponents of YIMBYs—often called “NIMBYs,” meaning “Not in my back yard” (as a term of opprobrium, it of course predates YIMBY)—have a variety of rejoinders to this argument, but they center on the idea that building market-rate housing will never deliver the amount of housing that people need, at prices they can afford. Furthermore, they argue that the immediate effect of introducing such housing is gentrification and displacement. It is at this point that the argument devolves into accusations that the YIMBYs are tools of rich, white real-estate developers, and that the NIMBYs are tools of rich, white homeowners, and the space in between these two positions is quickly converted into a muddy field, where no one dares show a white flag.

The particular airlessness of this debate is only partly due to its growth in the complexity-free vacuum of the Internet. The more significant constriction is that it is an argument that takes place almost entirely according to the terms of real-estate development. In a recent book, “Capital City,” the geographer Samuel Stein puts this debate into context, and adds to it. He argues that our housing dilemma derives from an unholy fusion of development and politics, which he calls “the real estate state.” Stein, a geographer at the City University of New York, tries to establish how industrial cities, in becoming postindustrial, opened the way for real estate to enter the breach. “Landowners have been determining the shape of cities for centuries, and the idea of housing as a commodity—even as a financial asset—is not exactly state of the art,” Stein writes. “What is relatively new, however, is the outsized power of real estate interests within the capitalist state.” Deriving his insights from left-wing geographers and urban historians, and also from interviews with activists in New York City, he alternates a panoptic view with one that looks more closely, from the ground up, at what reckless development does to lives and livelihoods.

But Stein’s special aim is not just to show how real estate controls everything, which, if you were halfway paying attention during the financial crisis—rooted as it was in the predations of housing markets—you already know. His principal point is that the power of the real-estate state flows from the dynamic between development and the profession of city planning. Planners are usually thought of as bureaucrats, though sometimes they take on the aspect of legend: Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who tamed rebellious Paris into wide avenues that couldn’t be barricaded; imperious Robert Moses, who pummelled New York with expressways. Stein’s planners are at once lesser and greater than these. Though they may look like mousy cubicle denizens—determining the right sort of window treatment for a historic house, or calculating the Area Median Income for a smattering of affordable units in a luxury building—they’re more influential than they appear. Planners, he writes, “are tasked with the contradictory goals of inflating real estate values while safeguarding residents’ best interests.” The position is an inherently uncomfortable one. But planning holds out the promise that the future is, at least in part, knowable. Explicit in Stein’s narrative is the idea that a different, more democratic kind of planning might lead us to more democratic kinds of cities…

…Developers need planners, but a conflict arises when the former look to the latter for interventions in public space. “They demand that the state build the infrastructure that makes their land usable,” Stein writes of developers. At the same time, they are “fiercely protective of their property rights” and suspicious of planning insofar as it threatens their control over land. Planners, in turn, are agents of the public, but they are beholden to developers, in practice. Democratic societies require at least a display of public input, but often only a display: “planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’ parameters.” From this comes the charade of public-comment sessions, familiar to most active city dwellers, in which so-called stakeholders are invited to discuss development plans, whose basic outlines they have little chance of influencing.

Similarly, planners who want to assert broad control over the public realm are often dependent on recalcitrant businessmen, who are unlikely to give them the full measure of what they might want to achieve, since planning often involves the creation of public infrastructure that requires business to get out of the way. Much of what does get achieved requires catastrophic, violent interventions in the lives of the very people that planners are trying to help. The land for Central Park, the “green lung” of New York and one of the greatest parks in the world, was secured by expelling Manhattan’s largest African-American settlement. The construction of most public housing required the resettlement of thousands of households, often those of working class African-Americans, in the destructive process known as urban renewal. (Urban renewal, James Baldwin said, in an interview, really “means Negro removal.”)

…This history sets up Stein’s main story, which is about the contemporary high-priced city of gentrification and displacement. Mercifully, his analysis does not mention hipsters, artisanal stationery stores, or CBD lattes. Instead, he discusses how planners have once again played a central role in scaling up gentrification “from a neighborhood phenomenon of renovation and reinvention to a larger process of displacement, demolition and development.” A miasma of guilt and misunderstanding surrounds discussions of gentrification. The usual story—of upwardly mobile people moving into depressed areas and displacing existing, less well-off residents in the process—is at least partly true. But, as geographers have pointed out for some time, it also requires disinvestment: neighborhoods decline, in part, because of state neglect, and yuppies rush in where planners fear to tread. This is how the familiar story of places such as SoHo, in lower Manhattan, and Park Slope, in Brooklyn, begins. Those neighborhoods were abandoned by the government before they were occupied by new residents.

Similarly, the past three decades have been characterized by hyper-gentrification, which is a largely legislative phenomenon, the work of planners and policymakers—not simply an ineluctable market signal that is sent when someone opens a vegan doughnut shop. Stein details the number of planning-policy innovations that have made it easier for developers and large nonprofits to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes. In 1971, the establishment of New York’s 421-a tax program gave developers abatements on luxury construction, for anywhere from ten to twenty-five years. (One of the great beneficiaries of 421-a, Stein notes, was Donald Trump, who built Trump Plaza, on the Upper East Side with a thirteen-million-dollar tax break.) In 2016, when the program was set to expire, 421-a cost New York $1.2 billion a year. A recent revision to the law, under Governor Andrew Cuomo, brought the cost to $2.4 billion a year. That’s about six hundred million less than the M.T.A. requested from the state to fix the ailing subway system. These are the sorts of numbers that reveal how the real-estate state declares its priorities. As legislators made developers’ lives easier, planners became the helpless accomplices of urban inequality.

Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” an indictment of American city planning, appeared in 1961; Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker,” an indictment of an American city planner, appeared in 1974. In the years between their publication—and partly owing to their arguments—planning lost whatever was left of its swashbuckling air, and was increasingly seen as a clumsy, illegitimate, even villainous profession, its members casually carving their utopian visions into the fabric of complex, heterogeneous cities.

When planning lost its revolutionary élan, it also lost its sense of ambition. Many mid-century planners, for all their missteps, tried to engineer a more equal city. As planning lost its power, an impressive variety of inequities crept into policymaking.

…According to ultra-YIMBY reasoning, the addition of [high-priced] apartments might not be a problem, since housing markets are, like other markets, subject to supply and demand. But, as the author Rick Jacobus recently argued in the magazine Shelterforce, the housing market is segmented, better understood “as a set of interrelated submarkets that can move somewhat independently than as a single market.” For example, rent for student housing may roughly follow the laws of supply and demand, but, in general, its cost isn’t eased by building a lot of housing—what matters is the supply of student housing and the demand from students. By the same token, upzoning that allows for more affordable housing to be built has effects on existing affordable housing. “When planners upzone neighborhoods to allow bigger buildings, rent-stabilized landlords will have every reason to sell their properties to speculative developers, who could then knock down the existing properties and build something bigger and more expensive,” Stein writes. The long-term effect of a housing boom may be a housing bust—but, in the meantime, all sorts of pain may be inflicted on existing residents.

There are other reasons to be cautious. Historically, attempts to remedy segregation through the real-estate market have often ended up increasing it. In a groundbreaking new book, Race for Profit, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, shows how the post-urban renewal-planning regime came to rely heavily on the real-estate industry. New forms of subsidized loans were, in her phrasing, a form of “predatory inclusion,” trapping black homeowners in substandard housing, while developers continued to reap dividends. Her analysis covers a specific period in time, and a particular kind of housing market, but its conclusion is general and damning: the American real-estate market was founded on racism and still depends on it. White NIBYs have kept multifamily buildings out of wealthier neighborhoods, in no small part to keep those neighborhoods racially homogeneous, and it is doubtful that real-estate developers can solve this historic inequity.

Though Stein supports efforts that would increase housing construction in wealthy areas, he is clear that these policies need to be part of a broader program. In a recent article for Jacobin, he argues that there is a general “overreliance on zoning,” which is, in any case, “a tool ill-equipped to confront the private land and property markets.” The solution, therefore, “is… the decommodification of land and housing.” In other words, having a market for housing is itself the problem. And a return to large-scale planning is the answer.

…Decades of a housing crisis, accompanied by decades of organizing and activism, have finally led to revaluations of public housing and regional planning. A policy team led by the tenants’-rights activist Tara Raghuveer recently produced a proposal for a “Homes Guarantee”—a marquee plan that proposes the construction of twelve million new, permanently affordable homes as “social housing.” Meanwhile, the law professor Mehrsa Baradaran… has called for a twenty-first-century Homestead Act, under which a public trust would be tasked with purchasing distressed or abandoned homes in historically redlined areas—a form of direct capital investment with the aim of remedying the racial wealth gap. Both are serious proposals that have the potential to shift power away from developers and toward the people historically excluded from the housing market. To be achieved, both need the backing of enormous social movements. They could also resurrect large-scale planning, conceived on a freshly democratic basis, as a profession of consequence. The planner, after decades of irrelevance, or worse, might yet be a figure of note—and perhaps, in a time of crisis, one of purpose.

Read the full article here.


Learning from Vienna

Maintaining quality of life in spite of population growth

This blog has long argued that we have much to learn about livability from other cities. Indeed, that was the philosophy of blog co-founder Suzanne Lennard, who founded the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference series with her husband Henry in 1985, and ran the conferences partly from Portland.  She felt that Portland had many lessons to share with (and to learn from) other cities like Vienna. In fact, the conference series alternated between locales in the US and European cities including Vienna.

As a recent article in CityLab recounts, Vienna has taken steps to counter the myriad destructive impacts of real estate dynamics and global capital flows, which Portland has seemed so unable to comprehend, let alone counter.  Indeed, a simplistic “build baby build” mentality has prevailed in Portland.  Some seem to believe in the silver-bullet strategy of deregulation and upzoning, and all will be well. As we have argued, this approach does little to address the challenges, and in some case actually makes them worse.  As an economic geographer from the London School of Economics put it (quoted in our last blog post):

“Upzoning is far from the progressive policy tool it has been sold to be. It mainly leads to building high-end housing in desirable locations…. Housing is an area where the law of unintended consequences is most powerful. The idea that upzoning will cause housing affordability to trickle down within our metropolis, while also setting up Los Angeles and San Francisco as the new golden land for people in less prosperous regions, is just a lot to promise—and it’s based on a narrative of housing as opportunity that is deeply flawed.”

Clearly Vienna has been more circumspect — with much better results to date.  The city maintains a strong supply of affordable housing distributed across the metropolitan area, not jammed into tall buildings in the core.  Much of it is “social housing” — housing created not as a speculative commodity but as a human right, with a variety of tools and funding mechanisms.  `And all of it is created as part of the seamless creation of livable neighborhoods that are healthy for all, especially children and families.

As Maria Vassilakou, the city’s former deputy mayor, put it in the CityLab article:

“A livable city is a city where people live because they want to, not because they have to… A city that is good for children is good for everybody.”

The City has maintained this livability, not by stiff-arming or demonizing residents, but by engaging them in a “win-win” civic planning process.  Where other cities (like Portland) have sought to marginalize existing grass-roots resident groups, Vienna has empowered them.  The City has supported and even strengthened bottom-up, neighborhood-level actions to improve livability, rather than imposing simplistic solutions top-down — whether through a city planning regime, a powerful real estate development entity, or a lobbying group of self-interested professionals (the combination of which we have referred to as an unhelpful “architectural-industrial complex”).

From the article:

In Vienna, one way that happens is with a community grant scheme that bestows hundreds of modest €4,000 grants for small neighborhood-level public-space improvement projects. “Once one of these initiatives gets implemented, it changes the perspective of the whole neighborhood,” Vassilakou said. “I think this works because this is not top-down. It’s the bottom-up kind of inspiration that can change the city.”

Read the full article here:




Thinking of Portland as an “urban connectome”

Network Graphic

New research suggests that cities, like brains, are immense networks of connective patterns built up over time. Understanding this evolving structure will help us to formulate better urban policies and practices, in Portland and elsewhere.

Few developments in the sciences have had the impact of the revolutionary discoveries in genetics, and in particular, what is called the “genome” – the totality of the complex pattern of genetic information that produces the proteins and other structures of life. By getting a clearer picture of the workings of this evolving, generative structure, we gain dramatic new insights on disease processes, on cellular mechanisms, and on the ultimate wonders of life itself. In a similar way, geneticists now speak of the “proteome” – the no less complex structure of proteins and their workings that generate tissues, organs, signaling molecules, and other element of complex living processes.

An important characteristic of both the genome and the proteome is that they work as totalities, with any one part potentially interacting with any other. In that sense, they are immense interactive networks, with the pattern of connections shaping the interactions, and in turn being shaped by them. Proteins produce other proteins; genes switch on other genes. In this way, the structure of our bodies evolves and adapts to new conditions – new infections, new stresses, new environments.

It turns out that something very similar goes on in the brain. We are born with a vastly complex pattern of connections between our neurons, and these go on to change after birth as we experience new environments and learn new skills and concepts. Once again, the totality of the pattern is what matters, and the ways that different parts of the brain get connected (or disconnected) to form new patterns, new ideas and pictures of the world.

Following the naming precedent in genetics, this structure is now being called the neural “connectome” (because it’s a structure that’s similar to “genome”) and the race is on to map this structure and its most important features. (Much of this work is being advanced by the NIH’s Human Connectome Project.)

What do these insights have to do with cities? As Steven Johnson noted in his book Emergence, there is more in common between the two structures than might appear. There is good reason to think that, as with brains, a lot of what happens in cities has more to do with the overall pattern of connections, and less to do with particular elements.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out over half a century ago, the city is a kind of “intricate ballet” of people interacting, going about their plans, and shaping the life of the city, from the smallest scales to the largest. This intricate pattern is complex, but it’s far from random. As Jacobs argued, it exhibits a high degree of order — what she called “organized complexity.”

And it’s physical, starting at the scale of the sidewalk, and encompassing all the other movements and connections of urban activity. “Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow,” she wrote. We may also be plugged in electronically by telephone and now Internet, but (as research by Robert Putnam and others is showing) the root of the system is the physical proximity with the people we know and work with.

More than that, this pattern of connections generates remarkable efficiencies, forming a kind of “network metabolism.” Jacobs has since become famous for observing highly local “knowledge spillovers,” casual transfers of knowledge about a job or a new tool or idea, that help to grow new enterprises and new economic activities. Her insight, now called a “Jacobs externality” by economists in her honor, helps to explain how a city generates wealth. As we have written before, this phenomenon might well help to explain why cities are so efficient with resources per person, relative to other places.

In the same vein, the brain scientists offer some other important insights. For one thing, more important than the density per se (of neurons, or of people) are the patterns of connections. So we have to be able to ensure that many “neural pathways” can form and re-form – in the case of a person’s brain, that the person is healthy and well-nourished enough to remember, and learn. In the case of cities, we have to ensure that we have well-connected, walkable cities, facilitating many cross-connections.

The brain scientists even believe now that this pattern of neural cross-connection is key to the formation of consciousness. In effect, the different parts of the brain join up into a larger system, and the result is that the system self-organizes into a state that is smarter and more aware. When a brain sleeps, this larger pattern seems to dissolve into fleeting sub-patterns – and we experience the loss of consciousness, and sometimes, dreaming.

Something similar might be going on with well-connected cities: they can self-organize to become “smarter” in their ability to generate great urban vitality with fewer resources. But this is true only if their “neurons” (the people) are able to be connected, especially physically connected, in this way.

Similarly, a city can “lose consciousness” by becoming too fragmented and too sprawling. Automobiles and other machinery can help to connect the parts of the city, but only in a very limited and encapsulated way. By contrast, a walkable public realm has vastly more capacity to form and re-form connections between people, allowing a dynamic pattern of interaction to form and sustain across the city’s urban fabric.

This lesson of self-organization carries an important implication for planners and urban designers. It suggests we need to focus less on the specific elements in relation to one another – and how we might imagine they are best placed – and focus more on how we can help them to self-organize into more complex (and more efficient) patterns.

On the other hand, human brains do not start from scratch as we once thought, nor do societies – we all have patterns that we learn and apply to new situations. So too, cities have patterns that facilitate this network structure. Like a good memory or innate knowledge, the best walkable cities of history offer us many good reusable patterns to create vibrant, walkable, resource-efficient cities.

A corollary is that in our automobile-connected suburbs, it seems we have been replicating this pattern of connections – but only with heavy and unsustainable inputs of resources. Furthermore, as noted before, the structure of encapsulated cars, and existing networks of people we already know, are no match for the open-ended nature of public space networks, and their capacity to exploit “propinquity and serendipity” – the accidental connections with people we don’t already know, where, as research shows, the new knowledge and innovations form. If we want more resource-efficient cities – and more creative and resilient economies – then it seems we will have to look much harder at this dynamic, and ways to exploit it to our advantage.

How can we do this, concretely? The brain scientists are working hard to map the connective patterns of particular brains, to get some idea of how the patterns tend to form characteristically within the “human connectome.” For cities, it seems we might do something equally useful: map the characteristic urban patterns that have proven most conducive to this connected vitality, and that also do not interfere with – or better yet that promote – the capacity for urban self-organization.

In a sense, we already do this when we speak of design types, or planning models. But this work is usually very constrained by parochial debates within the architecture and urban design disciplines over “progressivism” versus “historicism.” The result is that there has been a stagnation of real progress in this area. At worst, we have slipped into what Jacobs called a “neurosis” of “imitating empiric failure, and ignoring empiric success.”

By contrast, the brain scientists point to another, less ideologically constrained path. It seems we might have much to learn from a more open, aggressive mapping and re-applying the genetic patterns of such an “urban connectome,” looking at the most effective patterns from a range of cities around the world – and over centuries of evolution.