Declaration Main image

Declaration of Independence From Sprawl

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to break the bonds of convention in order to build a better place, a decent respect to those holding to convention requires that those seeking to build a better place should declare what impels them to the separation. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. But while equal at birth, places we inhabit can make us very unequal. 

The dominant development paradigm has for decades been sprawl, but sprawl is not the oppressor, it is merely merchandise we have been sold, and like any other Ponzi scheme it will eventually become the victim because it cannot be sustained indefinitely. 

Sprawl is a pattern of development, not a location. Sprawl is a product, not a place. The purveyors of this product make up the Industrial Development Complex, a finely honed system designed to deliver built developments at great scale. 

Today, every problem of urbanism is one of scale: Too fast. Too far. Too wide. Too loud. Too heavy. Too big. The Burden of Big is exactly what the Industrial Development Complex is calibrated to deliver, even if it breaks us, injures us, or kills us. 

The Industrial Development Complex thrives on building many things fast, so efficiency is paramount. This means building large single-use pods of very similar things. Vehicular domination is inevitable because walking or biking between distant uses doesn’t work for most. 

The poisonous consequences of Industrial Development Complex priorities are many. Some of the worst are arranged here from individual to neighborhood scale. 

There are several great things in this pic, beginning with the ability of these people to walk to their local fish market, and of the little girl to learn from her fishmonger. Why can’t we aspire to scenes like this in the US? It’s not like this only happened centuries ago.


 Build places that support wellness of body, mind, and spirit. 

  • Industrial development requires vehicular domination, but with that comes reduced air quality, which is a factor in many diseases of the body. Our place can’t control outside our borders, but we can choose to work for healthier conditions within it, and, we hope, neighbors will follow. 
  • Industrial development is just fine with thousands of deaths and millions of permanent injuries each year. Our place is not. We can accept neither the human cost nor the economic cost and are committed to doing all within our borders to steer clear. 
  • Industry wants to duplicate floors to the sky and serve them by mechanical means. Our place uses a toolkit for building the Seven-Story City, where people can do stair-climbing at home instead of the gym; a naturally occurring fitness system. Choose your floor by fitness level. 
  • Vehicular domination is accepted as essential by the Industrial Development Complex. Our place knows the toll on all three nodes of wellness — body, mind, and spirit — and we won’t accept that within our borders. 
  • Long commutes, say industry, are doors to opportunity. Our place knows they’re marriage-killers, destroyers of physical health, and impoverishments to community, because one is so rarely home. We propose to change that with opportunities to make a living where you’re living. 
Yes, it’s fun when a world-famous act comes to town, but strong local culture is built with local artists. What’s your culture strategy? Maybe you should talk to @akatieanna. Homegrown artists are always around; big acts might show up every few years. Rely on the reliable.


Encourage a local arts scene for a steady stream of cultural events. 

  • Manufacturing near homes is strictly banned by zoning. Our place welcomes craft hubs where people making similar things can live around a square and develop local craft culture because this scale of makers bears no resemblance to a factory. 
  • Conventional subdivisions put houses close to the ground for economy. Our place sets porch heights so people feel comfortable sitting there and may get in conversation with those walking by, leading to relationships, which lead to people acting like neighbors again. 
  • The Industrial Development Complex has roots in the beginning of the Thermostat Age. Our place is based on the Original Green, which is the sustainability that all our ancestors knew by heart, and where the means of living and thriving in a place were deeply embedded in the culture. 
Some of the single-crew workplaces are tiny, like the Taco Shack. In the beginning, it served tacos because that’s what the construction workers wanted, so there was a built-in customer base before any of the cottages were occupied. Build the economy from the beginning.


Build a local economy with a low bottom rung so people can start easily. 

  • Being forced to own and maintain a vehicle in order to be economically viable is a heavy burden. Our place will, in time, make owning and driving a car a choice, not a necessitym because the path to car-optional takes a lot of work, in multiple steps. 
  • Industry likes large workplaces for efficiency. Our place considers work from home at small scale a basic human right so long as your sources of income agree, so we allow Accessory Commercial Units throughout neighborhoods. 
  • Conventional zoning has long banned more than one family per lot. Our place allows anyone to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit because rent can help you make your house payment, or you can have multiple generations of your family live in their own cottage next to you. 
  • Single-family zoning carpets much of America. Our place welcomes compounds, an advanced type of urbanism where several of your family or friends can rent from you and there is a central courtyard for all to enjoy. 
  • Industrial development happens at a large scale accessible only to those with Wall Street money. Our place welcomes small developers working in small increments, which helps locals get started developing who would otherwise be shut out. It’s the townspeople building our town. 
  • Sprawl infrastructure doesn’t generate enough tax revenue to be maintained long term. Our place is built compactly, so there’s far less infrastructure per property and that property generates a lot more revenue than single-family subdivisions. 
  • Blocks of urbanism laid out for maximum efficiency are limited in how they can be built upon. Our place has deeper blocks, allowing inner-block urbanism like mews courts, rambles, and many other cool things that are less expensive, increasing the range of value and increasing vitality. 
  • Stormwater management is all pipe, rocks, and concrete — and it’s ugly. Our place uses Light Imprint, which is beautiful, made up of things like rain gardens, vegetative swales, green fingers, flowing parks, and saves over $1 million per neighborhood.
  • The Welfare Industrial Complex addresses affordability with subsidy. Our place employs both alternative building character and building types like mews units to create a wide range of values affordable, even to college graduates, and which are charming as a bonus.
  • Subsidies are guaranteed only until the next election, and so should be avoided. Our place implements Naturally Occurring Affordability With Dignity using other tools beyond character and type, even including self-building when the owner is equipped to do so.
  • Industry focuses on a narrow range of housing types for efficiency, primarily single-family and apartment/condo towers. Our place builds a wide range of Missing Middle Housing types that once made up a large share of this nation’s housing stock in ways that fit right into the urban fabric.
  • Industrially fed retail wants big boxes for efficiency but leaves cities more fragile when they close up. Our place has many settings for Single-Crew Workplaces, where people can start pursuing their dreams for thousands instead of millions, creating variety and resilience. 
The Kentuck Art Center isn’t just a place for viewing art and hanging out; the long registration table to the left is always there at events so people can sign up for classes in a wide range of skills. The school building where skills are taught is in the far right background.


Build educational paths more diverse than K–8, high school, and college. 

  • Conventional schools tend to be mammoth today. Our place allows schools to begin with a single Learning Cottage, growing incrementally as the student body grows, a path not usually open to public schools, but which private schools can follow. 
  • The kindergarten-through-college path is an education factory that serves some well. Our place augments that path with things like Maker Spaces, which are part laboratory, part classroom, and part teaching opportunity, plus marketplaces of skills, and of ideas; and heritage skill schools. 
Wanda and I are writing the book Outdoor Room Design that includes a lot of interesting room types. What’s a “Coffee Cove,” for example? This is the more common Dinner Garden, surrounded by curtains with a ceiling of muscadine vines where we once lived on South Beach.


Entice people outdoors to acclimate and use less conditioning, then use efficient equipment. 

  • Engineering doctrine seals up buildings and conditions mechanically. Our place entices people outdoors so that they become acclimated to the local environment, so when they return indoors on less extreme days they may turn the AC off and open the windows, Living In Season. 
  • Conventional zoning insists on building the climax condition of urbanism from the beginning. Our place uses a system of successional intensification known as the Sky Method, which allows it to start small and mature generations into the future. An ancient method updated to today. 
  • This pattern is completely off the radar of industrial development. Our place embraces the Sky Method not only for horizontal intensification but for vertical intensification as well. The Vertical Expansion Toolkit starts with a one-story town and builds upward without demolition. 
Mews units are almost always designed more simply than the houses they serve because they were originally built as utilitarian buildings. Today, they are often more expensive than their houses would have been a few decades ago.


Design buildings that can be used for many things over time. 

  • Industrial development avoids small buildings. Our place allows tiny buildings because they are adaptable to so many uses (and can even be moved as needed), as opposed to larger buildings tailored to a single use. 
  • The building industry likes to script their bells and whistles for easier marketing. Our place builds SmartDwellings so smart they satisfy the same customer in half the size and at 60% of the cost because they’re highly adaptable, with multiple uses for each room. 
Antigua Guatemala is built at the foot of a volcano in a very seismically active region. All buildings are masonry. The walls are thick and low. Oh, and they have the most beautiful courtyards on the planet.


Build durably so that buildings can be passed down across generations. 

  • Modern construction assembles disparate wall layers into a “stud sandwich” with several modes of failure. Our place allows other, more-durable construction systems, including load-bearing masonry walls and timber-frame floors and roofs. 
  • Building science says to seal up buildings everywhere and trust the machines, even in the tropics. Our place deals far better with heat and humidity by building with antifragile elements, like non-rotting hardwoods and opening up and breathing, leaving less refuge for mold and mildew. 
  • Industry can’t explain “miracle houses” that survived recent disasters. Our place studies these and keeps a log of the things they did that helped them survive largely intact, in order that we may learn to build more durably. 
These are products of two very different living traditions sitting side-by-side at Carlton Landing. On the left is Carlton Landing’s main ingredient, the romantic descendent of Oklahoma Territorial. On the right is the work of @1000yearhouse, which has really flowered here.


Design places and buildings that can be loved because they will be cherished and maintained. 

  • Most HOAs insist on tidiness everywhere. Our place allows some parts of the urbanism not visible from the street, such as rear lanes and alleys to be Goldilocks Messy (just right), so things don’t have to be perfect everywhere. 
  • Design review is usually taste-based: “Thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you.” Our place uses principle-based review built on regional conditions, climate, and culture. Because there are several-to-many right ways of doing things, serious disagreements are rare. 
  • Most architectural pattern books code historical traditions, and that’s good. Our place opens up the rationale of each pattern again so everyone is allowed to think again and innovate, therefore moving toward new Living Traditions in architecture. And that’s better. 
  • Industrial development seeks higher-style product, even if assembled with the cheapest materials. Our place builds true to itself along the Vernacular-Classical Spectrum, which runs from charming to elegant, so everyone has something to love, just in different ways. 
  • Dead traditions stay the same. Our place, by embracing Living Traditions that evolve, looks for the latest tools, including The Matrix, which expands the Vernacular-Classical Spectrum into a matrix with a cross-axis from reserved to romantic to launch new Living Traditions. 
  • Design review in many places is a time-consuming and onerous process. Our place uses Pre-Approved Plans calibrated to our region that are permitted by right because we’ve approved them before the building owners even see them. And our stock of plans is large, for great variety. 
Organic eyes on the street are great, and consists of people out going about their daily (or nightly) life. But mechanical eyes on the street like security cameras are creepy, and make you ask, “how safe is this place, anyway?”


Build places where urbanism’s most vulnerable parts can be secured in uncertain times. 

  • Police and fire protection is spread thin in sprawl. Our place allows them to protect four times as many households per mile because it’s built much more compactly. And with fire ratings based on distance, sprawl fire protection is far more expensive. 
  • Electronic eyes on the street are rising, but too many CCTVs makes you wonder how safe the place really is. Our place encourages organic eyes on the street, building a night economy that entices people (and their dogs) out because when they see something, they say something. 
This is what a great mixed-use place looks like in early evening: people sitting on the plaza, people in restaurants and shops around the plaza, and people in the homes above the plaza. A place abandoned at the end of the workday is not nearly so good as this.


Encourage small business to locate so people can walk and bike to their daily needs. 

  • Conventional planning, even by the good guys, is an expensive process that can run on for years. Our place embraces Tool-Tag Planning, an ultra-lean process that can be used for periodic updates and is simple enough to engage the youngest members of the community. 
  • Industrial development parses pods of housing into very narrow values ranges for efficiency. Our place is committed to at least a 15:1 range of housing values, which makes the place much more interesting and allows small business owners and some of their workers to live here. 
  • The prevailing paradigm of large single-use pods and auto domination means all must drive. Our place embraces the Web of Daily Life, which is the map of our daily needs, and how many we can reach on foot or bike. How many now, and how many when gas is $20/gallon? 


Prioritize self-propelled means of access within neighborhoods. 

  • Subdivision street design is boring for efficiency. Our place encourages each landowner to give a Gift to the Street, which can be as simple as a weekend project, and it encourages everyone to walk along the street of gifts. 
  • City engineers dominated creation of the public realm in heartless ways until recently. Our place embraces Tactical Urbanism, a once-subversive movement that engaged locals to change their places in charming and unconventional ways. Cities now engage tactical urbanism for its success. 
  • Industrial development embraces walkability in name only, but too late. Our place embraces the higher standard of Walk Appeal because it’s no longer good enough for a place to be walkable — it must be appealing to walkers. There are many implications and many virtuous cycles of Walk Appeal. 
The Kitchen Garden usually has the outdoor kitchen grill and other elements on one wall, but for the three other walls, consider edible things that you might need for what you’re preparing. Herbs & vegetables are obvious.


Foster a local food culture within and around urbanism. 

  • Conventional zoning and HOA rules often forbid growing food in front yards. Our place encourages gardening anywhere, so long as gardens visible from the street are planted in an attractive way. The edible and the ornamental go well together here. 
  • Industrial efficiency doctrine calls for land to be carpeted with the same land use. Our place is built more compactly so that we can preserve forests, fields, and waters at the edges, places everyone can walk to. 
  • Mega-groceries force everyone to drive for food. Our place encourages small neighborhood groceries within walking distance so no neighborhood is a food desert and you only need to drive for food on special occasions.

All photos courtesy of the author.


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