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Flexible Cities

Predictions of the future are often tricky. It requires an extrapolation of a trend from today to some kind of logical conclusion, taking into account how the object changing connects to the rest of the world. There’s a real showmanship to it all, too, when you start from the logical conclusion and then explain yourself backwards.

Cities will be radically different by 2050, with zoning codes and concepts that are more flexible and the corresponding buildings will have many uses on top of each other. Suburbs, as we know them now, will require extensive rehabilitation that will work well in some places but create wastelands in others.

See how it works? This is simply the logical conclusion of a flexible workforce and a fast-paced economy with people changing careers often. Should all that come to pass, our cities will have to have more flexible structures and more agile concepts of zoning. We can easily imagine how that might look because that is what cities were like before zoning came along about 100 years ago.

Downtown St Paul, Minnesota.  My home town.

Downtown St Paul, Minnesota. My home town.

The state of American cities is something that is worth fretting about, even if we tend to do it too much. They are the driving engines of our economy as places where diverse skills can come together and create a skill set defined by “coopertition” – camaraderie among peers where ideas are shared even as they compete. New students learn the craft and add their own touches, advancing the technology in the truest sense of the word, which is literally “the study of skill” in Greek.

More and more, workers are flexible and come onto defined projects as freelancers. They come for the immediate need and then leave when it is over. The social and legal framework that will make this a stable, resilient career has yet to be worked out and is another problem altogether.

But for buildings, the workspace needs are clear. The classic image of a start-up company with workers coming and going is set in an old warehouse for a good reason. Buildings used to be essentially barns of various sizes, with large open spaces that are flexible and can easily be re-used.

A trendy "Open Concept" (really "Open Design") home with few walls.

A trendy “Open Concept” (really “Open Design”) home with few walls.

You don’t have to watch too many remodeling shows to see how this plays out in residences, too. The “open concept” home with no dividing walls is very popular, and the construction and reconstruction business is fueled by the large engineered beams which make this possible. Construction methods are returning to those practiced a century ago because open, airy, and flexible spaces only make sense.

Combine all of these trends together in housing and we can see how a flexible townhouse might be built. An open shell where walls are easily installed or moved helps to create space as needed for low cost – including a home office or perhaps even a new bedroom as the family expands.

Take this concept one more step and the combination of professional services in the neighborhood becomes valuable. A house that can expand and contract with the size of the family, say a duplex that provides income to a young family turning into a large single-family with somewhat separated space for the teens or elders has a tremendous added value.

More to the point, this is how buildings used to be built before fashions and zoning changed them.

Post and Beam construction, done really big.  It's essentially a barn, but it works.

Post and Beam construction, done really big. It’s essentially a barn, but it works.

Before there was zoning, buildings were routinely changed from residential to commercial uses as necessary. Houses were duplexed and converted back. They were even moved if the uses around them became too onerous, as a built house was too valuable to simply tear down. All of these trends are coming back as zoning concepts relax, too.

The first wave of zoning, from circa 1920-1980, was very rigid. St Paul had zones that included “R” zones for residential where offices were not allowed. Huge swaths of West Seventh, with apartments above commercial space, were essentially criminalized outside of how they were grandfathered in.

This has been replaced with a growing use of “TN” or Traditional Neighborhood. Many of these uses are allowed in TN1, but conversion to duplex and back would not be allowed. The trend is towards more flexibility, but it still has limits.

Bitola, Macedonia, has a traditional neighborhood that never was changed.  It's all "mixed use".

Bitola, Macedonia, has a traditional neighborhood that never was changed. It’s all “mixed use”.

Meanwhile, large hunks of the city are seeing market-rate investment in large apartment buildings built along the lines of the middle twentieth century. What if the demand for apartments falls as Boomers age and Millenials want more space for their growing families, as we can expect before 2030? Are we in fact building the slums of tomorrow with buildings that will be functionally obsolete in a relatively short time? Is the city really being invested in with these new developments?

Current zoning for RM, or multiple family, encourages uses like this. Even in TN zones the market favors such apartments while the demand is high. But they are not likely the buildings that will define the city of tomorrow.

Changes in building materials, work and family life, and the overall economy will almost certainly create new and more flexible structures tomorrow. Office spaces will necessarily be more like the old warehouses that are so attractive as spaces for a start-up, and larger buildings with high central overhead may also become functionally obsolete.

If you extrapolate all the trends that are happening now forward, the cities of tomorrow look a lot like the cities of a century ago – large flexible structures with many different uses that are relatively low-slung and part of a walkable urban fabric. Zoning and construction will necessarily change to make this happen in many places. And it will be a good thing.

20 thoughts on “Flexible Cities

    • Thanks. I haven’t done anything partially baked or philosophical in a while, but this has been on my mind. At the Fort Road Federation we’ve had a lot of minor zoning variances for apartments come through and after a time I had to ask myself, “Is this really what the city is going to look like? Or should look like?” And it dawned on me that no, it probably won’t and no, it probably shouldn’t.

  1. Good blog. Zoning is over regulation at its worst. Theres a place for it but it got crazy.

  2. So interesting. However in an emerging economy and with sprawling informal settlements, the focus is on formalising housing. Traditional brick and mortar homes with rooms are aspirational, complicated by building regulations that have been introduced to reduce energy consumption – large spaces and large windows don’t do this.

    And as for the concept of work – also a conundrum. I’ve effectively been an independent contractor and knowledge worker for nearly 25 years. However, someone needs to produce (grow and process) food, manufacture vehicles, build homes, fix things like cars, toilets…you get the picture.

    This brings me back to your mixed use – all of that is spot on, and it will be interesting to see how things look in 2050. Wonder if I’ll still be around – I’ll be on the other side of 85!

    • We’re the same age, so we’ll see what we make it to see. 🙂 I do think that buildings ultimately reflect the values of a society, so as our values and arrangements change we will see changes. I’m just trying to predict what they might look like, and my conclusion is that there are a lot of buildings that will be functionally obsolete if we keep changing as rapidly as we are.

      • Ah, that could be fun – perhaps we’ll still be blogging 😉

        I think that there are, already, lots of obsolete buildings that are either standing derelict and/or are being re-purposed. I think of some of the original waterfront developments and the Turbine Hall and Foundry developments in Johannesburg and Cape Town, respectively. Also the “old” office blocks in the centre of Cape Town that are becoming multi-purpose buildings where millenials live and work. Then there are the old power stations, and I think, a gas store I heard about in London that’s being “protected” because it’s one of a kind. Definitely obsolete.

        In our village, people who live in some of the original village houses, built of mud bricks, with reed roofs wax lyrical about their being warm in winter and cool in summer.

        I agree with you that our cities and building reflect society, and it also reminds me of how sensible the Roman houses I saw in Mallorca were – then and now – for different reasons.

        I’m going to stop bethering and go and watch some cricket. Thanks for replying and for the chat!

        Good evening!

  3. I could be argued that the land use control system in Mpls and St. Paul functions mainly to allow politicians to extract money from developers and for developers to extract subsidies from politicians. And then there is the notorious abuses of eminent domain…. The (sort of) absence of zoning in Houston has been much discussed, for example here: http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/hotproperty/archives/2007/10/how_houston_gets_along_without_zoning.html. One can see, in San Jose (CR, not CA) mansions next to shacks and the world continues to revolve.

    • It has in recent years, for sure. But we are seeing a lot of market-rate unsubsidized development going in to both cities lately, which is to say that they aren’t extracting money from the system. That heartens me greatly.
      I think there is a need for a good zoning code, but I don’t think we have it yet. When we got TN zoning along Seventh, legalizing the standard build of the last 150 years, I was greatly heartened and there seems to be good movement to the right things for the street. But … the scale! Jeez. So much of it is so big. That’s not good. But the era of big subsidy is mainly over and the less we look to large office towers the better IMHO.

  4. There is so much cookie cutter development going in that all looks the same. And they are huge like those apartments at the city line by the airport. I can see how they will go downhill in a hurry if there is less demand for apartments. Does anyone want to live in a big complex like that or is it just people who can’t afford something else?

    • i would think that people who can afford those apartments could easily afford an individual house, or row house, or condo, or other alternative. The rents are not low. Partly it must be an aging population no longer interested in maintaining a property. Plus younger people for whom suburbia is not the dream. But from an investor/developer perspective, there must be a difference between building something and selling it–with the future value a problem for others, and building rental property. Or is it assumed that rentals can be converted to condos if the profitability declines?

      • You’re right – there has to be some need for these units. I see a lot of young Millenials in them and I fear that they will “outgrow” such units, but there are older people in them, too. It may work.
        No one is building condos now – the burn from 2008 is still hot. Some of these can convert if the market comes back, and many are being built so that this is reasonable. We will see.
        It’s not that I think these units do not belong here, it’s a question of scale. There are so many going in! I hope we’re not over-doing it. And I think that flexible space is going to serve us a lot better, is all.

  5. There is a lot of investment in the cities right now but most of it seems like throwbacks to the 1990’s, I don’t see anything really new. Maybe that is the problem?

    • That is my main concern, yes. They are applying formula development to a changing landscape and it may not be best. I could be very wrong, but I think it’s worth thinking through and talking about.

  6. I agree almost 100%. We NEED multi-use, with any hazardous businesses being the only things kept distant, but HIGHLY regulated so they don’t pollute the rivers, air, etc. I’d like to see urban farming everywhere in the modern city, too. Rooftops, vertical farming, patios, yards/lots, hydroponics, greenhouses… the closer people are to their food sources, the healthier they’ll be. Largish farms and ranches would need to be further away, but if we implement the urban farming , we will need MUCH less factory farming. Factory farming needs to go extinct right now.

    I really like the idea of flexible buildings. There’s no reason we can’t build them to be green buildings as well. We already have the technology to start.

    • I am afraid we don’t regulate the right things in the right way. Urban farming is really hard under current zoning – why? Why is mixed use so hard to put in? Granted, no one wants a factory plopped down next to them – or a huge sports bar. But aside from those uses, aren’t there a lot of things like a dentist’s office that would be OK?
      New buildings are all pretty green, so that is a trend for sure. I feel that this trend will only continue. But attached space is always greener in many ways, and density encourages transit. It’s a question of the right density for stability in my opinion.

  7. Pingback: Flexible Cities | Marlene Dotterer

  8. I have no good read on the politics of the Cities. But to me it does seem that there is too much emphasis on increasing density, and bringing in but new developments, and not enough appreciation of the value of the existing neighborhoods. Many of these seem to strike a reasonable balance between the excesses of suburbia and the constraints of over crowded urban living. I tend to think these will be highly valued in the long run, especially if the Cities can get their acts together in regard to crime, infrastructure, tax rates, air quality, lead abatement, and so on.

    • Absolutely. That’s what transit projects are all about anymore – not actually moving people but “spurring development”. That sounds great if you’re the rider but tough if you’re the horse. And we’re the horse.
      Existing neighborhoods were built the way they were for a reason, and the strongest ones have a good visual appeal. They may be off a little in the best density possible, but the passage of time has proven them to be the most viable generally. It’s what works.

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