Why Andrés Duany Is So Focused on Making 'Lean Urbanism' a Thing

"Common sense has been almost completely lost in my profession," says the architect.

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Michigan Municipal League

It’s getting hard to keep track of all the urbanisms. In the 1990s there was of course the “new urbanism,” anti-sprawl, neo-traditional town planning formally embraced in the Congress for the New Urbanism. That was followed more recently by landscape urbanism, an integration of parks and green infrastructure in cities. And there is tactical urbanism, grassroots, impromptu takeovers of public space with everything from yoga classes to Adirondack chairs.

Comes now Andrés Duany, the cigar-chomping, Cuban-born architect who was a founding member of CNU, with yet another addition to the planning lexicon: lean urbanism. Funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, Duany is currently on the lecture circuit in an attempt to raise awareness about the red tape that so often stands in the way of even modest projects to improve urban neighborhoods.

“Common sense has been almost completely lost in my profession. There are too many protocols in the way,” says Duany, who was at MIT earlier this week. I caught up with him afterwards to inquire further about the rules and regulations and codes and requirements that he sees as flummoxing young people entering the design professions or seeking to do smaller-scale urban infill redevelopment.

The lean urbanism concept, he says, is like a software patch, or a workaround – ultimately a guide or a tip sheet to navigate the complicated, and often very expensive, maze of working in the built environment in the U.S. “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

Sometimes getting a project done in an urban environment is a matter of positioning, to get past the usual bureaucratic procedures that are costly in terms of time and money. One solution is to label a proposal as a pilot project. And there are ways of talking about a project to convince a planning board that a setback really isn’t necessary, or persuading a fire department to be a little bit more flexible.

“Infrastructure has become so gold-plated and extraordinarily expensive,” Duany says. “Now, they will say the rules are necessary to protect health and safety. But we’re going to do the empirical studies to show that’s not the case. Take the electrical code. Most of us are living with the old electrical code, and we’re just fine. Electrical wires run in tubes, originally 30 amps, then 60 amps. You could pull it through the same tubes. Now it’s 120 amps, and the wires don’t fit in the tubes anymore. If you have an apartment or an apartment building and you want to renovate, you have to rip up everything. How many are being burned alive under the old code? Nobody. The rationale is to require things that are gold-plated. And the people who show up at the hearings are the electricians.”

Duany describes lean urbanism as “not a philosophical approach, but a narrow seam of activity, a sharing of secret knowledge.” Tactical urbanism – the unsanctioned demonstration projects of creating a parklet or “chair bombing” a street – might be thought of as at one end of this spectrum. Groups like CNU, the American Planning Association, the Urban Land Institute and SmartGrowth America are operating at a higher political level, pushing policy reform. Lean urbanism, as Duany defines it, seeks to occupy the space between, helping guide urban development in a more practical manner.

One place where there is much to be learned is Detroit, where Duany has promoted the concept of a pink zone: a block, for example, that should be pretty much entirely exempt from the established rules and regulations. It’s called a pink zone because the red of red tape has been reduced. “It’s really just a matter of negotiation. The master developer of a planned unit development in the suburbs – all of that has been pre-negotiated,” to bypass all kinds of rules. “We don’t do that in cities,” Duany says.

Duany, principal in the Miami firm DPZ, named with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, says he plans on “stirring the pot for one year. Then we actually design the tools.” For example, he says, “We want to make legal solutions readily available and pre-packaged,” so small developers don’t have to spend big money on lawyers and consultants.

In the meantime, red tape, he says, “is driving people to do things illegally. If you find you can’t renovate your apartment in Miami Beach, you just do it without a permit.”

Lean urbanism should resonate not only with the younger generation of planners and designers who want to have an impact, but others who harbor a libertarian streak. At least some attracted to the Tea Party, Duany says, have had a bad experience with government regulation that has prevented them from doing something they feel is sensible.

“Our solutions are light,” he says. “But it’s a deep cultural problem.”

Top image: Andres Duany discusses "lean urbanism" at the 2013 Michigan Municipal League convention in Detroit. (Courtesy Michigan Municipal League)

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