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Serviceable Places

Serviceable places are those that provide the basic services of life within walking or cycling distance, so that driving is a choice, not a necessary act of survival. Serviceable places also have places for the people that serve you those services, like firefighters, police, teachers, grocers, chefs, waiters, and a host of others, either somewhere in the neighborhood or in nearby neighborhoods so that their daily commute can be a walk or a bike ride if they choose, rather than the 50-mile drive they currently have to endure in many increasingly unaffordable places across the country. And it's not just places to live for people serving your daily (or weekly, or monthly...) needs; it's also places to live for the next generation of your family. This Next-Generation Housing answer the question of “where will your kids be able to afford a home when they get out of college?”
Dedicated urbanists have been working for forty years to figure out how to make places serviceable. They have developed a wealth of techniques to deliver all of the basic necessities of life within walking distance; the largest remaining challenge is figuring out how to provide affordable homes for the people that are serving you those services.
A few caveats: Separating all uses in a city benefits nobody. Just ask victims of "lunch rush hour” trying to get from the office park to the restaurants. Nature thrives on a multitude of deep connections between a multitude of things. A Living City thrives best when there are many businesses (some large, most small) depending on each other. A gargantuan business that tries to dominate everything is an unnatural beast to be resisted.

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Principles of Serviceable Place

Many elements of the principles of serviceable places have been developed in the past 15 years or so, spurred on by regional events like Hurricane Katrina and wider events like the Meltdown and the following Great Recession. Some of these elements are quite recent, emerging during the COVID pandemic. The most recent are most highly concentrated in Hyper-Local Economies, but are scattered through the rest of the principles as well.

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Hyper-Local Economies

US trade woes are based on two intractable problems: we demand everyday low prices, but won’t tolerate paying people too little. So long as both these conditions exist, it is inevitable that most of our stuff will be made somewhere other than in the US. Or so we thought. One of the great lessons of the COVID pandemic was the power of hyper-local economies, framed by global supply chain disruptions that made so many of us ask "why aren't we making that here?" The modest title of the Guardian piece From garden streets to bike highways: four ideas for post-Covid cities – visualised seems to have nothing to do with serviceable places, but basic principles of hyper-local economies run throughout this highly-recommended article.
Pandemic lessons abound, and most of them begin with scale. Auto-dominated places operate at industrial scale, which means you’re putting yourself in contact with many more who have come from much further away when you need to go out. Need groceries? Need prescriptions? Need supplies? Good luck with the crowds thronging Costco and the Supercenters. The Goldilocks setting (just right) is likely to be a neighborhood that’s compact enough you can get around to your daily needs on foot and still have a patch of completely private outdoors at home, even if it's as small as a balcony. A century ago, after the pandemic that began in 1918, many houses were built with generous outdoor rooms under roof; we're only now beginning to understand why they were designed that way.
Millions of us (it's not yet clear how many millions) will never return to the office on a regular basis. I'm one of them. For us, serviceable places are all the more important because getting stuck in the monoculture of a bedroom community would be unbearably boring for those who previously worked in a place that offered us many things before or after work.
The better the mix of residential & employment throughout the city, the less pressure on any particular transport system. The high standard is to make a living where you're living, meaning that your daily commute is on foot or bike, which not only saves time but also burns fat. I have chosen to make a living where I'm living, so the last time my commute was primarily by car was sometime in late 1997. So this isn't just theory; we've found a way to live it.
So we've set the stage for economies to become far more local in several regards, but it's not like anything offshored over the past half-century has been onshored since March 2020. But the pandemic has definitely started the conversation. And the issue of supply chain resilience is unlikely to fade with the receding of the pandemic because the impacts of climate change, especially the coming great migrations and their ensuing political upheavals, are primed to create great fragility in long supply chains. Even if these don't materialize, lessons learned in times of crisis tend to be much stickier than things learned in easy times. The best example of this phenomenon is how fundamentally the Great Depression changed those who lived through it as adults.

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Hyper-Diverse Building Types, Uses, and Values

It is easy to spot many building types & uses in this snapshot of a French hamlet, which probably doesn't exceed 20 acres. Places around the world were built this way before the automobile because people needed to get to all their daily needs on foot. And what's equally obvious is that there's a huge range of values, from the manor house to the cottages and townhouses.
Sprawl developers love to build pods of near-identical houses in subdivisions because it's almost as efficient as stamping out widgets on an assembly line. But all the same = boredom so it's much more interesting to live in a place with great variety. The highest order of boredom usually occurs in gated subdivisions, especially when they're marketed to similar demographic groups, because not only the houses but also the people are so much alike. In the town where I was born there is a subdivision where if you made $64,000 to $68,000 per year, they steered you to one pod, whereas if you made $68,000 to $76,000 per year, they steered you to another pod. In traditional towns and neighborhoods from this country's founding until today, you meet all sorts of interesting people walking to their daily needs.
And then there are the mismatches. A townhouse without a town is known in some circles as "loser housing." Why ever get cramped close to neighbors if all you have outside the front door is a parking lot? But a townhouse in town where you can walk to everything can be fabulous! Living in a vibrant and interesting place is strong compensation for living more compactly. But dense multifamily housing alone won't get the job done. China has the densest multifamily housing in the world but you can't walk to anything. If density isn't paired with both places to work, learn, shop, meet, and play, it's a mismatch no matter how dense it is. As are the places where you can only work, places where can only shop, places where you can only meet, and places where you can only play. All are mismatches if paired only with like uses.
On building types, great places usually have at least 15 commonly-occurring types, distinguished by how they surround outdoor rooms. But in most places, one type is dominant because of its exceptional fit with regional climate, conditions, and culture. The Single House of Charleston (known elsewhere as the Charleston Sideyard) is a classic example. Sprawl, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of the single-family detached Edge Yard House. How boring is that, compared to not only the great places, but also the just-plain-old-good-towns of the first two centureis of the US?
On building uses, the standard is clear: a neighborhood or hamlet should contain all the necessary uses of daily life within walking distance of every home. Because villages, towns, and cities are made up of multiple neighborhoods, they should achieve the same serviceability. And one of those uses is places to work, so that people can choose to make a living where they're living. I'm Town Architect (scroll down) at the Village of Providence in Huntsville, Alabama which was the NAHB Community of the Year in 2014, and winner of the Best in American Living Award. But Providence isn't just a pretty place; it's hard at work. While there are now several hundred residences in Providence, the number of jobs in Providence outnumbers the homes in Providence by hundreds. And no, not everyone who lives in Providence works in Providence, or vice versa, but the plan of Providence by DPZ allows that important choice, whereas sprawl never does.
On home values, I have two parameters: a 15:1 range of home values is what I consider to be the minimum for an authentic place, because anything less looks like pods of stratified sprawl. A 40:1 range is what I consider the "threshold of greatness" because great places around the world have long had this much variation or more in values of dwellings. The hamlet in this image clarly has a range of values greater than 40:1 between the manior and the smaller townhouses.

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The Experience Economy, Urbanism Style

The Experience Ecomony book describes the development over time from selling low-value commodities to selling higher-value proprietary products to today's highest-value transactions, which are selling experiences. Serviceable Places don't sell experiences as their primary products, but almost everything that goes into creating a great Serviceable Place provides good-to-great experiences as byproducts which you don't even have to pay for. The book makes the case that the next level is selling personal transformations which are much more than skin-deep, and Serviceable Places are already creating personal transformations of health and fitness by allowing you to walk or bike to your daily needs, and these transformations are free as well; they're just part of living life in a Serviceable Place.
Think about the depth of difference in experiences. Is there any built environment more demeaning than the strip center in sprawl? Fight traffic to get there on the highway, navigate the sea of parking, then shop in soulless buildings for cheap junk. Who wouldn't rather shop on Main Street? In like manner, the convenience store in sprawl sells some of the same products as a corner store embedded in a neighborhood, but the experience of getting to each is very different: fighting traffic versus walking from home.

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Business & Transportation Scale

Mega-stores, mega-churches & mega-schools must all be served by mega-highways. Density doesn't drive congestion; concentration does. Barcelona's Old City is 50 times as dense as most American cities yet thrives w/tiny streets because many small destinations are finely distributed. We stayed in the Old City years ago, and discovered to our amazement that we could get to all our daily needs not within a 15-minute walk, or even a 5-minute walk, but within the single block within which we were staying. The blocks weren't tall (5-6 stories at most) nor were they huge at ground level. Their secret to providing so many needs was that the businesses were family-scale, so there could be so many of them in a single block. Original Green Scale has more to say about this.

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Municipal Solvency

The most profitable part of any town is a well-designed Main Street, even a very modest one such as this one. They not only generate far more property tax per acre than any other part of town, but they also generate sales tax. And a Main Street good enough to be a destination draws from the region, boosting the effect. Both Charles Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 have long shown how even disinvested Main Streets out-perform the shiny new big boxes in town on taxes per acre, usually by an order of magnitude or more. Couple that with the infrastructure improvements the cities and towns give to the big boxes, and any rational person who does the math would have to question why a town would ever want a big box.
Entry roads into sprawl developments have no real estate value, but they are a maintenance burden. Main Street, on the other hand, almost always has the highest value per linear foot in town.

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Community Resilience

Middle class strength based on a few big high-paying corporate employers is more fragile than it has been in our lifetimes. Middle class strength based on many small local businesses is far more resilient, especially now.

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Serviceable Place Conditions

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Making a Living Where You're Living

The real solution to traffic congestion is not more lanes, but rather transforming neighborhoods into places where you need to drive less because you can make a living where you’re living and walk to the grocery store. Nothing reduces the need for lanes or for transit more than the ability to make a living where you're living. But in order for this to work, it must be an interesting place because working in fields of boredom grows old quickly. Wanda took this picture of me working in the side garden of our Miami condo. We have had the good fortune of being able to make a living where we're living since 1998... almost a quarter-century now. Theory is good, but living your theory is better.

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Stumble-Home Zone

Two drunk drivers can kill a lot of people, including themselves. Two drunk pedestrians will do what? Bump into each other and maybe fall down? Their chance of death from a fall isn't zero, but it's far less than with a several-thousand-pound chunk of high-speed metal. Scenes like this pretty much guarantee drunk driving every night, because how many people in a bar really have a designated driver? Serviceable places are likely to have as many or more food and drink establishments as they have retail, but because these places are within walking (or stumbling) distance of home, the whole place is much safer.

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Embedded Exercise

Places where you can walk, run, or bike to the gym have an extra level of embedded weight loss over gyms to which you must drive. And your other daily activities have embedded weight loss as well. I lost 60 pounds moving to South Beach; a highly walkable place. And all the meals you're seeing consumed here? Walking to Lincoln Road and back burned about 250 calories for me, so my meals were essentially 250 calories less than if I would have driven.

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Calm Signage

Signs that must attract fast-moving customers from the highway are large and expensive, leaving little budget for the building, which is one reason why commercial strip architecture tends to be banal and boring. In a place where customers walk by, signs can be 2-3 orders of magnitude less expensive, so the buildings can be much more charming. And signage doesn't need to overwhelm old buildings like this one because the customers are on the sidewalk just below.

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Serviceable Place Tools

Serviceable places thrive when there is a strong concentration of several important types of businesses. Single-crew workplaces to the list because they make a place so interesting because they are the superpower of diversity. Third places and a neighborhood grocery are essentials as well because they meet daily needs. Maker spaces are morning's first light of a recovering place, and they mature in time to craft & artisinal workshops. Legacy shops are often run by those with the best stories to tell, while the inn in town opens travelers up to all these things, and meaningful civic space gives the community a place to go for many special events throughout the year.

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Single-Crew Workplaces

Tiny is huge. Single-Crew Workplaces make all sorts of things possible for neighborhood centers today that would be impossible until decades into the future if you follow conventional retail recommendations. This is the Rum & Bean at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize. The Rum & Bean and the sales office were the first two buildings built at Mahogany Bay (with apartments above), on my recommendation, and if you listen to any retail expert in the US, they'll say that's absolute insanity. You need 500 rooftops to even support a corner store, they say. But that's with ULI (the commercial big boys) recommended sizes.
The Rum & Bean, however, wasn't any normal Third Place. It's 14 feet wide and 24 feet deep, and it is operated every day by two people: the server (this woman, on the morning shift) and the cook in back serving up light fare, with coffee (the Bean part) mornings and the Rum part evenings. And because the developer (an enlightened woman usually developing offices in Washington DC) bought into this idea, she was turning a profit almost from the beginning, before closing on a single unit at Mahogany Bay, because Mahogany Bay was the coolest place within walking distance, so all the neighbors came and supported the Rum & Bean.
But Single-Crew Workplaces are far too big a story for a footnote on another page, so Single-Crew Workplaces stand alone as an initiave of the Original Green.

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Neighborhood Grocery

The smallest groceries mentioned by mainstream experts are 12,000 square feet, but many consider 20,000 square feet the minimum viable size. This grocery store, operated by the same family in Beaufort, South Carolina for nearly a century is 864 square feet. I stepped it off; 24 feet by 36 feet. Had this store not been there, that neighborhood would have been a food desert for a century. No, they don't sell 27 varieties of hot sauce; just Tabasco and Cholula. But they meet the needs of the people who live nearby because they care about their neighbors, as their success depends on them. And yes, that cottage peeking out from around the left corner is the shop-owner's home, making this a Live-Beside flex house.

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Third Places

The classic Cheers TV show had the ultimate Third Place tagline: "where everybody knows your name." Like the mythical Cheers bar (no, it's not at the bottom of Beacon Hill), a Third Place can be a place that serves alcohol, but it can also be a coffee shop; Starbucks has shouldered into the Third Place discussion in a strong way, but the best Third Places are local because who's more likely to know your name? A corporate empoyee, or one of your neighbors?

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Maker Spaces

Maker spaces, as noted above, are morning's first light for a recovering neighborhood because their needs are so minimal and therefore easy to achieve: a roof that (mostly) doesn't leak, Water to bathrooms, electricity to baths & large spaces, and an ability for people to get into and out of the spaces. Not everyone succeeds in a maker space, but those who do can move up to craft & artisinal workshops.

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Craft & Artisanal Workshops

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Legacy Shops

People usually spend their first careers making as much money as they can in order to buy all the usual stuff and send their kids to school. But when they retire and start thinking about their next careers, they often ask themselves "how can I best leave a legacy?" There are a couple good things about legacy shops that makes them a great fit for the town center of a serviceable place: First, they usually have a good story to tell because a good story is essential to leaving a legacy. And legacy shops tend to have

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The Inn in Town

Highway hotels in sprawl force travelers to drive everywhere for anything the hotel doesn't sell. The inn in town lets you get out and explore, have breakfast, and maybe even walk to your meeting. I serve as Town Architect at the Village of Providence in Huntsville, Alabama, and these are two of the three hotels on Providence Main Street; each the highest-occupancy location for their chains in the region. And it's a virtuous cycle, because all those travelers able to walk right out the door of their hotels and have a choice of places to eat or shop for necessities help make the Providence town center the most vibrant place in town on any given evening.

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Meaningful Civic Space

"Green space" in sprawl is usually leftover and completely unusable unless there are picnic tables along the edge. True civic space like a town square is designed for the neighbors to gather for many neighborly purposes. Recreation centers in sprawl force people to drive, so kids are prisoners in their own houses if they can't get a ride. Civic space in town, whether park, green, square, or plaza, is almost always great play space where no membership is needed.

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