Scaling Down Development

There are a lot of problems with our current approach to residential development.  For something in such perpetual demand, it's amazing that the market has not been able to figure out a good way to supply it.  We need quality housing in large quantities.  Note that adjective: qualityAs we saw in 2006, housing built with no attention to quality or sustainability of place is not truly in demand; it created a valueless bubble that eventually collapsed. 

 If we need housing so badly, how can any housing be abandoned?

If we need housing so badly, how can any housing be abandoned?

There has long been a dissonance between what new development provides, and what people actually want.  This still hasn't been solved by the latest trendy solution to the housing problem.   Sharing is often touted as the basis of the new urban economy, but in a new survey by Ikea, the extent to which people are actually willing to share living space is tested.  Read the article here, but our takeaway was this quote:

“These will be co-living spaces with hundreds of bedrooms and huge common areas. And yet, according to our survey, most people would prefer to be part of the smallest possible community—four to 10 people. The only exception are ‘couples with children’: they’d prefer to be part of a slightly bigger community of 10–25 people—presumably to share the workload of looking after the kids. In any case, no one says they’d prefer to live with hundreds of other people.”

Even as we are still tearing down the failed mega-projects from the 1960's, we still insist on creating human habitats at a non-human scale.

 2020.  New WeLive project in New York City.

2020.  New WeLive project in New York City.

 1972.  Old 'new' approach to solving the housing problem.

1972.  Old 'new' approach to solving the housing problem.

We are really good as a country at pulling together capital, resources and talent to do big things, as is evident in our amazing museums, stadiums, towers - but that can't be the way we approach everything we build.  A complete city is a series of the big things filled with a granular in-between, the space in which we live our daily routine - a space which is suffering from our addiction to big, and our inability to see small.

 Diagrams (altered) by Leon Krier, The Architecture of Community

Diagrams (altered) by Leon Krier, The Architecture of Community

We, as humans, prefer to live in groups on a scale closer to 10 to 20; we identify ourselves by these small groups and tribes, which repetition at a scale of 100's actively works against.  Yet we have convinced ourselves we have to build 100s and 1000s of homes at a time to try to solve all problems with one fell swoop, and we have been at it so long that it's reflected in our institutions, from our zoning laws to our parking requirements to our financing methods.  It is baked into the American landscape.

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BUT that is slowly changing, thanks to the emergence of a new type of thinking from city planners and a new type of developer that is lowering the entry bar to just about anyone.

In my next post, I will talk about how these bad habits are baked in, where it's changing (HINT: New Orleans), and why it's an exciting time to build small projects!

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