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Patient Urbanism

Posted on May 01, 2013 in Urban Design , Steve Mouzon , Less Debt , May-June 2013

Build neighborhoods without high debt

Building neighborhoods patien-tly requires far less debt for infrastructure and results in places that are more interesting than those that are built all at once. This was once the way we built everywhere, but it is now illegal all over. Why? Because cities insist on “seeing the end from the beginning,” meaning that they want the developer to begin by building the final condition of the neighborhood. In human terms, it would be like deciding that we can no longer tolerate giving birth to a child that grows into an adult; we will only allow giving birth to an adult — an incredibly painful proposition that simply doesn’t work.

Go to any great city or town that has been there for at least a couple centuries, and the buildings that make up the historic center are highly unlikely to be the ones that were originally built there. At the beginning, the buildings may have been little more than shacks that were replaced or transformed a few decades later into proper wood-frame buildings. A generation or two later, those detached buildings were likely replaced with the larger (and often attached) buildings we see today.

Seaside, designed by DPZ and the birthplace of the New Urbanism, is a good example of a place built this way, but only because there was no planning department to forbid it at the time. Streets were built one at a time; the next street didn’t begin until the previous one was pretty much sold out. Originally, the paving was just crushed shells; it was covered several years later with the concrete pavers that are there today. The first building was a sharecropper’s cottage that was hauled in from a farm several miles away. The first commercial buildings were shacks, sheds and trailers. A few of them remain in their original locations, but most have been moved at least a time or two to make way for larger and more permanent structures.

Building this way allowed town founders Robert and Daryl Davis to build this world-famous town with essentially no debt after the infrastructure of the first street was paid off. Put another way, had they been expected to build Seaside’s climax condition in 1980, it’s highly unlikely that Seaside would have ever been built because it would not have been financed. Who ever heard of building a world-famous town on the Redneck Riviera amid the scraggly condos, t-shirt shops, and liquor stores that thinly populated this stretch of Highway 30A back then? No banker in his or her right mind would have gone for such a proposition.

This is even more important today, with real estate development money as tight as it has ever been. The great places we love the most were usually built without real estate mortgages. Most places weren’t wealthier than we are today; they simply built what they could afford at the time and then improved it in small increments over time. Cities and towns really need to learn this lesson again today. It just might make the difference between building and not building, and it will certainly create a better place.