The American land development system is broken. The Sky Method proposes an alternative with ancient roots in a time when there were no mortgages that essentially bypasses the crippled development financing system by starting small and with very light infrastructure. It also taps into the incremental mechanism by which the untrained townspeople once built the town in a far more beautiful and organic way than most planning professionals are capable of today. It can start either with raw land or with sprawl subdivisions. It can even work in reverse to deconstruct shrinking cities in a stable way. I've been working on the Sky Method since 2008 and just realized, incredibly, that I've never blogged about it.

Nolli map of Rome

I worked for years trying to figure out how the townspeople could possibly build the towns they built, both the layout of the town itself and its neighborhoods, and also the individual buildings. Several years ago, I discovered an amazing thing: if you look at several old maps of the same place that were drawn decades or centuries apart, you'll see farms transform into suburban blocks which then get subdivided again and again, intensifying into a major city.

Amazingly, the city was whole and complete at every stage, just like a person is whole and complete from conception to birth to childhood to adulthood to old age… assuming they're not maimed somewhere through life. Subdivisions, on the other hand, look unfinished until they're nearly built out. Our problem is that we've burdened present-day development with the necessity to see the end from the beginning, forcing the construction of the climax condition from day one. This encumbers the developer with massive debt at the beginning, with millions in infrastructure costs before they can sell a single lot.

Lombardy poplars flank a drive up a hillside in the Val D'Orcia of Tuscany

I set out to craft a development mechanism similar to the old ways that required very little funding at the beginning because of using many small incremental steps over time rather than flopping the whole plan out on the land at the beginning… this became the Sky Method. Sky is a new town designed by DPZCoDESIGN for a site in the Florida panhandle to be highly sustainable in many ways, a veritable showcase of Original Green principles. My dear friend and colleague Julia Starr Sanford is the Town Founder. Sky was almost ready to get underway when the Meltdown came in 2008 and the bankers decided they didn't want to lend money anymore. I hoped the Sky Method would get things going. It hasn't happened yet, but I believe that when Sky does begin, it'll likely begin using the Sky Method. Full disclosure: Julia, another dear friend and colleague Eric Moser, and I sit on the board of the Sky Institute for the Future. I'll be posting more about both the Institute and about us shortly.

farm compound and chapel near sunset in Tuscany’s Val D'Orcia

One small part of Sky that you see illustrate in the slide show above was separated enough from the rest of the plan that it could never have been conceived in today's market as anything more than a large-lot subdivision… so DPZ did the responsible thing and planned it that way because a fraction of the market always wants to be off by themselves rather than being part of a larger community.

Because it was the least desirable part of the land, I took this part of Sky and used it to illustrate the Sky Method. I began by asking myself "what if we're not limited by today's market?" In other words, to what intensity might the various parts of this hamlet mature at some distant point in the future? Maybe 50 years, or maybe 200 years or more?

garden at the edge of Castiglioncello del Trinoro in Tuscany

So I respected DPZ's streets and blocks, but stripped out all the internal lot lines. Next, I coded the frontages (the front property lines) to someday be either Transect zones T-2 Rural (light green,) T-3 Suburban (light lavender,) T-4 Urban Neighborhood (medium lavender,) or T-5 Urban Center (dark lavender; think Main Street.)

I'll blog more about the Transect soon; for now, the importance of Transect coding is that it gives predictability to whoever has jurisdiction over the project. Can you imagine going to a city Planning Department and saying "We want to build whatever we want over the years, and we won't even draw the property lines today"? Neither can I. That's why the Transect is essential: so both the developer, the land purchasers, and the regulators all know the character each part of the neighborhood will eventually achieve… and the various characters in between… just like the stages of human life.

Pienza, Italy sidewalk cafe

The Sky Method begins on most of the land by selling full blocks as family farms. Rural (T-2) roads in the Florida Panhandle with very little traffic are sometimes sand or maybe macadam. Sky was exploring in 2008 the idea of being completely off the grid, which would have required no electricity service or water lines. But even if it were served with conventional utilities, they would be very light because the loads are so low for just a few family farms.

Eventually, someone wants to subdivide their land. Maybe they want their kids to build next door, or maybe they want to sell to friends or total strangers… it doesn't matter. It's their land. So they go in to the Town Founder and pay an upgrade fee to upgrade their land from Rural (T-2) to Suburban (T-3).

They have to upgrade the entire parcel, not just what they're dividing off. The Town Founder uses part of the proceeds to upgrade the infrastructure serving that part of the neighborhood from Rural (T-2) infrastructure to Suburban (T-3) infrastructure. The rest is profit.

The Town Founder is giving up a significant amount of cash flow early on in exchange for escaping crippling debt at the beginning. But because the upgrades could continue well beyond the century mark, they become an annuity for the Town Founder's heirs.

Pienza, Italy’s Piazza Pio II

Because everyone can develop their own land to the highest Transect zone it's coded for, the landowners are the prime beneficiaries of any future development. This turns today's common NIMBY dynamic on its head because the maturing of the town brings greater value, which is in everyone's best interest. Some might hold out, not developing their land to its highest potential while those around them do. This is natural, as you can see by touring many small, ancient towns. But eventually, those landowners die and their children see the value in developing their property.

The Sky Method could be implemented by new neighborhoods (with the city's blessing, of course) or it could be implemented by the city itself. I've already been approached by a couple municipalities interested in changing their current zoning over to the Sky Method. The most exciting possibility, however, is sprawl. The Sky Method and the Transect are two of the game-changers of Sprawl Recovery. The third game-changer is Walk Appeal. I'll illustrate how the Sky Method could be used to convert a sprawl subdivision into a vibrant neighborhood someday soon.

In the meantime, consider this: Pienza, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the setting for the last four images in this post. A local historian was lecturing there last fall, and he showed plans of Pienza's beginnings as a large-lot Roman subdivision! He traced it up through the ages to the present day. I was stunned… it was a classic illustration of the Sky Method in action! Beginning with single house on lots of an acre or so each, Pienza has transformed itself over time into a classic Tuscan hill-town frequented by probably a million visitors a year! If Pienza could do that without mortgages, power tools or computers, just think what your subdivision could eventually do!

Here's quick recognition to some of my colleagues on which my work relies not already mentioned in this post:

Galina Tachieva of DPZ, author of the Sprawl Repair Manual

Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech, co-author with June Williamson of Retrofitting Suburbia