Monday, January 11, 2016

Adaptability in urban design

Daniel Herriges has a really nice reflection on Scranton, PA that provides a good overview of the Strong Towns analytical approach, which tangibly links urban design with public finance and economic productivity:
This development pattern is also resilient to economic boom-and-bust cycles because of its adaptability. A place like this is built to change. Take the one block shown in the Google Street View image above (an intersection known locally as Dunmore Corners - a colloquial name like that for a cluster of independent shops is evidence of a successful place). There are two banks, men's and women's formal wear stores, law offices, an insurance agent, an optometrist, adults' and children's clothing stores, a candy store, two Italian restaurants and a deli, a bar, a diner, a salon, and the list goes on. 
And if one closes for any reason—because it can't make ends meet, because the owner retires, or because changing demographics, culture, or technology reduce demand for the service it provides—something else can quickly fill that space. When a big-box store closes, you're stuck with a big, expensive box that is hard to retrofit.
The Strong Towns approach and organization appear to be booming. This pleases me, but I do wonder when we will start seeing more rigorous empirical tests of their core concepts and claims. Their emphasis on fine-grained details like individual city blocks should provide a vast data set with which to conduct causal analysis.

Strong Towns has been effective at spreading its message via the internet and the influential policy/econoblogosphere. I predict that when some of these younger people who have been exposed to Strong Towns grow up and become economists and data-savvy social scientists, the interface between urban design, architecture and urban economics will be a hot research topic.

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