There are three primary settings in which lower-density urbanism can be useful, and where conditions favored by YIMBYs are weak or nonexistent: as a replacement for what is currently slated to be built out as sprawl, as a recovery process for existing sprawl, and in small towns that are growing. Giving up on these settings forces all development intended to combat the housing crisis into urban settings, ideally near transit, where land is much more expensive to acquire and to develop. It also allows the sprawl machine to roll on unimpeded. The best vehicle for implementing principles illustrated here at the scale of a neighborhood, hamlet, or village is not a major production builder, as these principles violate almost all of their conventional industrial practices. Instead, look to the record of stronger New Urbanist developers who are no strangers to doing things considered unconventional by the Industrial Development Complex in the interest of better places with stronger lifetime returns.
These images are from the Waters, a place near Montgomery, Alabama, which I planned while a partner at PlaceMakers, and later served as town architect until the economic meltdown in 2008. The principles illustrated work at the scale of a neighborhood, but also at the scale of infill development.
Replace Sprawl With More Valuable Models
The disruption of any established model occurs only because of another model that carries substantially more value. An order of magnitude of value creation is a threshold that gets many people’s attention. Small incremental increases aren’t considered to be worth the brain damage of implementing a new model, but models that create the most value are the best carriers of real urbanism.
It’s clear that some percentage of the U.S. workforce will never return to the office full-time. Cottage industries, long thought dead since the days of Ned Ludd, might actually become patterns of the future. These can take several forms. New developments, recovering sprawl, and intensifying villages and towns are all prime candidates for those seeking new places to work from home surrounded by significant degrees of urbanism.
Accomplishing lower-density urbanism in these three settings benefits from a blend of four principles: Building compact hamlets and villages and preserving most of the land in perpetuity is primarily a financial move, both increasing developed land value and substantially reducing infrastructure. Listening to the land is both a financial move with potential seven-figure savings but strongly supports building places people love. A wide range of housing values not only contributes strongly to more affordability but also makes the place more interesting. And a robust mix of uses is essential to true urbanism and can capture a substantial amount of both commerce and traffic within the place. Following all four of these principles has a strong paradoxical benefit: On the one hand, places created this way can deliver developed land values an order of magnitude higher per acre than nearby sprawl, while at the same time delivering a quantity of truly affordable units usually entirely missing in most sprawl.
The original plan of the Waters was conventional sprawl, carpeting the land with large-lot housing and destroying most of its character. We took a different approach when PlaceMakers was brought in.
Hamlets and Villages in the Distance
From the beginning, we laid out the Waters as a necklace of hamlets and villages around the large lake, with most of the land preserved as fields, forests, and waters. It was important to see the hamlets and villages as “urbanism in the distance” instead of “the subdivision just across the drainage ditch.”
Two closely-paired hamlets on the left of the plan have an existing forest in between, and the road between the hamlets meanders through the woods, so it seems like they’re farther apart.
We worked to create a network of long views across the plan to accentuate the feeling of distance, because if your view contains an obelisk, bell tower, or some other element deep into a hamlet across the water, your focus is on that element, which is farther away than the nearest edge of the urbanism.
The previous sprawl plan included about 800 units on the 1,250-acre site, for a density of 0.64 units per gross acre, or about 1 unit per acre taking out the large lake. Because our plan preserved most of the land and we built much more compactly, we got over 2,500 units on a lot less acreage for a density of about six units per gross developed acre. Andrés Duany makes the case for eight units per gross developed acre as the sweet spot of urbanism for several reasons, including the fact that at this level, most of the infrastructure doesn’t get kicked up to the next level, like the need for a four-lane street. Eight units per gross acre can be 15-20 units per net acre, so density can be substantial.
The Waters created developed land value previously unthinkable in the area by following these principles. This image, fortuitously shot before the house between these two was built, illustrates them well.
Short Walk to a Long View
Studies dating back to the 1990s have shown that when there is a long view into nature, values increase substantially. And the increase in value goes at least two blocks deep into the urbanism, but only if the view is accessible to those dwellings embedded in the urbanism. It’s standard practice to back houses onto a view into nature, whether on a golf course, a waterfront, or some other long view. This provides no benefit to any other real estate because the view is inaccessible to anyone else. Backing onto the view is known (at least in Southern vernacular) as “mooning the view.” So wherever there was a long view, we fronted the urbanism onto the view, with a drive in front accessible to anyone. And because we built compactly, the majority of building lots were within a two-block walk of a long view into forests, fields, or waters—or, in this instance, all three.
When development at the Waters began, the prevailing development paradigm in the area resulted in developed land value of $20,000 per net acre because subdivisions all around were selling 2-acre lots for $40,000. But as soon as people got the picture of what we were doing, the developed value of land within the Waters became $500,000 per net acre. Literally 25 times as much as land right across the street. This well exceeds the order of magnitude of difference needed for a smart developer to take a serious look at ditching conventional sprawl development practices for the more robust model of real urbanism.
Quick back-of-the-envelope math with before-and-after densities above reveals at least a 6-to-1 ratio between infrastructure required for the sprawl design and that required for what was built. Other efficiencies below boost per-unit infrastructure efficiency substantially.
Listen to the Land
Listening closely to the land allows you to preserve much of its character, creating places people love, which is a huge key to value. Frequent listening opportunities are fencerows, hills, rises, and streams.
Grade as if You Only Had a Wheelbarrow
The first overall step to listening to the land is to grade as if you only had a wheelbarrow. If you do this instead of mass-grading the site, you’ll not only preserve the great majority of trees, but also many other features of the place. Doing so on a hilly site like the Waters not only makes for places people love, but can also save over a million dollars per neighborhood. I had to fight our civil engineer fiercely for weeks until he realized that most of the things he was trying to do which would neuter the character of the place wasn’t actually engineering code, but rather just standard practice. For example, there’s no code against mono-pitched streets; it’s just standard practice that says you should crown all streets. On flat land, that’s no big deal, but when running with the contours on sloping land, it can be costly to both budget and character. This scene would never have been possible had standard practices prevailed.
The Avenue of the Oaks at the center of this image began over a hundred years ago as a fencerow, which is a naturally occurring feature of rural land that begins with a fence. Regardless of whether the land on either side of the fence is cropland or pasture, tree seeds that fall right along the fence usually grow. This creates a line of trees that look as if they were planted intentionally that way. The previous plan of the Waters would have obliterated the fencerow both by disrespecting it in plan, and also by grading according to standard engineering practice. When asked by the town founder what to do about the fencerow, the answer was obvious: “Make it the center median of the Avenue of The Oaks, and it will help the neighborhood look as if it could have been here for a century or more.”
Shortly thereafter, the town founder asked, “The previous planner said we need to waste that pile of dirt somewhere. Where would you waste it?” “Do you mean the hill over there?” “Yes.” “I’d keep the hill exactly where it is, line a street up with it, build a wedding chapel on top, and call it Chapel Hill. It’ll be the money shot of the entire neighborhood.” He agreed, and so we did—and so it is. Another part of building a place people love, just by listening to the land.
This bungalow court at the Waters was built on a slight rise in the land. We excavated land around it for a rear lane and put the dirt in the court, making the bungalows park-under, resulting in outstanding net density. And the 30-foot court width is ideal, boosting density not achievable with a wider court.
Expanded Housing Range
No single move you can make impacts the housing crisis more than dramatically expanding the range of values of homes within a neighborhood. The Industrial Development Complex builds in narrow striations of value, designed for people in 5%-8% bands of income and telling us that people like living with very similar people. But “everyone just like me” is a great definition of boredom. The fact is that they’re not trying to sell us what we want most; instead, they’re trying to follow industrial efficiency protocols by building large numbers of very similar products in each pod of a subdivision. Human reality is far different. A place with a large range of housing values and types is more interesting, and interesting places are more valuable. We were able to achieve a 15:1 range of values at the Waters, running from cottages to mansions and including a number of Missing Middle Housing types. The best urbanism has a 40:1 range of values or more, at which point all sorts of things become possible that are utterly impossible in thinly striated pods. And consider this: doubling the range by building mansions twice as expensive is hard; doing the same thing by building homes twice as affordable is much easier, and is a much more powerful tool for tackling the housing crisis.
Here’s a single block at the Waters with a 10:1 range of values. Large houses line the street at the top. The three small cottages to the right are each one-bedroom and originally sold for about $156,000. Townhouses at the bottom of the image front a green below, and mansions to the left front out onto the lake with a village in the distance across the water.
Don’t Fear Affordable
Just like the one-bedroom cottages, it took me years to persuade the developer to build carriage houses like these, which are compact one- or two-bedroom units sitting atop a two-car garage. All along the way, conventional real estate advisers were saying, “Don’t you dare do that. It’ll never sell.” And just like the one-bedroom cottages, they became hot sellers because they were meeting market demand not satisfied by larger houses. A simple strategy eventually tipped the balance against the naysayers: “Look, I’m not asking you to build a hundred of them. Just build one or two and see what happens.” So he did, and soon he was asking, “Where can we put more of these? People love them!”
Mix Useful Uses
Your first choice of uses should be those needed every day, or at least every week. One of the worst strategies in a place intended to be a good home for Work From Home people is a neighborhood center filled with high-end boutiques. They might draw any given resident once per month, or maybe even once a year. Instead, choose things that will be frequent draws. This neighborhood square at the Waters has a print shop, a fitness center that’s a YMCA branch, a coffee shop, a dentist, a CPA, a church, a real estate office, and a market/cafe. Other nearby uses include the wedding chapel, a swim club, and the cheekily named “yacht club,” which is a boathouse.
We didn’t do everything right. A big miss was the Post Office. The Seaside Post Office is gang mailboxes dressed up in civic clothing with a blessing from the USPS. We could have had that, but I didn’t hold out for it forcefully enough (that’s on me). Fortunately, the Waters eventually made it right by moving an existing building to the square and adaptively reusing it as the Post Office when demand arose for a full mail center. It has a nice porch where people hang out. Another big miss was one of ignorance rather than one of tenacity. We were familiar with and designed for a few types of Missing Middle Housing in 2003, but when developed and named “Missing Middle,” they opened up so many new/old types we never considered back then. If I were redesigning the Waters today, I’d include much more Missing Middle Housing, which would both increase the density and also the affordability of so many homes there.
Don’t give up the largest swaths of land where we can make a difference against the housing crisis. Ideal locations for transit-oriented developments along a transit line are a vanishingly small percentage of available land area, when measured against the sprawl-bound land which can be rescued and the existing sprawl and villages and towns that can be redeveloped to welcome more intensity and a mix of uses. Do the highest-density stuff, if that’s your passion. But don’t stand in the way of those of us willing to help rescue places that can have great impact. We’ll be your allies if you can look past your chosen silos and see the problem holistically. Join us.
All photos by the author.