Patient development was once the normal American way to build, as it was in other parts of the world as well, but patient place-making began to seriously erode about a century ago and is almost unheard-of today because of several seemingly disconnected factors. But before we get to those, here's the thumbnail sketch of patient urbanism:
• Patient urbanism doesn't have to build the climax condition of a place from the beginning, but can start with small temporary structures and move or improve them over time.
• Patient urbanism can do the same with infrastructure, starting with gravel roads that eventually might morph all the way to paved Main Streets.
• Patient urbanism works in small increments, doing a good job with each little piece before moving on to the next instead of trying to do it all at once.
• Because patient urbanism is good with little pieces, it's good at infill development as well.
Patient urbanism was once the default American way to build (as it was in other parts of the world as well) but it's really rare today because of these factors, which I've arranged in roughly chronological order of when they began:
The car allows us to live where we want and work somewhere else. Before the automobile, it wasn't possible to build large swaths of the same building type because you needed to live near your work, and near the butcher, the baker, and all your other necessities as well. As did everyone who worked for the businesses and institutions that served you. Trains first allowed us to live remote from work, but once you arrived home, everything else still needed to be close around, so the railroad suburbs retained the traditional fine-grained mix of building types… until the car arrived and allowed us to work, live, shop, play, worship, and learn, all in different places.
Developers bought into the industrial paradigm, which is based on economies of scale. Small incremental projects aren't interesting to most developers because if you develop like an industrialist, you need high-dollar jobs in order to get involved because you're looking for those economies of scale. The alternative to economies of scale is economies of means, which produce very different results. Scale and patience are inextricably intertwined. Patience allows very fine-grained place-making, whereas impatience requires large swaths to be developed quickly.
The regulation of the built environment is without doubt a heavier burden today than it has ever been. The architects bear a lot of the responsibility because they slowly forgot how to design lovable buildings, beginning with the Great Decline, which started just before the Great Depression. So most new projects seem like downward trades from whatever was there before, whether a pasture or an old building. NIMBYs are a testament to this long sad track record of downward trades. So we place ever-heavier obligations on new developments, including requiring them to build the climax condition at the beginning instead of allowing them to develop patiently in ways that might be less predictable. Unpredictability can't be tolerated if change is usually bad.
A mediocre plan can be finished quickly, because there's not so much to them, but great inspiring plans by heroic figures such as Daniel Burnham often took a half-century or more to realize, so they had to be patient. But municipal planners so discredited themselves by allowing the demolition of huge swaths of American cities in the Urban Renewal programs of the 1960s that they ceased to plan, relegating themselves to being something more akin to "urban accountants," counting parking ratios, building height, and floor area ratios. The New Urbanists, composed at the beginning as a rag-tag band of developers and architects finally said to the planners "if you won't draw a plan with compelling vision, we will" beginning in 1980. But by then, the damage had been done because the development industry had been rebuilt around quick, low-aspiration, developer-driven plans.
Social upheavals and violence of the 1960s created a lot of fear, and people left the cities in massive waves, fueling the suburban building boom. Many cities around the country began pulling themselves back together in the 1980s, but fear wasn't necessary any longer to drive the suburbs because they were the shiny new places, even if it was just new vinyl and sheetrock. The boom charged on, right up until the Meltdown.
Developers spun the "city fear" into an urban legend that read like this: "people, for the first time in human history, want to live in places with other people exactly like them." So the developers stratified subdivision pods in a very fine-grained manner. There's a big sprawl development in my hometown where if you wanted to spend $320,000 to $360,000, they steer you to a particular pod. I am not kidding… it's that narrow of a range. But if everyone I'm around is just like me, then that's a little boring, isn't it? The real reason for spinning the myth is that developing many pods of very similar product is very efficient because when builders buy ("take down") pods of lots for very similar houses, they get really good at building those house plans over and over again. And if you're an industrialist, you love efficiency.
These historic trends built the massive development machine that built suburbia. That machine went off the rails at the Meltdown that spawned the Great Recession we're still struggling to escape. A lot of smart people like Chuck Marohn and Kaid Benfield make the case that it was too good to be true because we were mortgaging our future to keep the machine going. Today, we really do need to re-learn how to build places patiently… don't you think?
Well said, Steve!
It seems impossible to provide 80,000 units per year in a place like Atlanta or Los Angeles using small increment development. 19th century Savannah was in fact built by the developers of Georgian London. If architects and designers are to prosper, we must tap into this large economic stream.
Agreed the best places evolve on a miniscule scale, but Bath, Edinburgh, Boston, etc. are very good places.
Steve, Try to construct this narrative without developers as the specific active agents of making the world a crappier place. I think you may be giving us too much credit.