Michigan Municipal League

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

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)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    A 13,235-Mile Road Trip for 70-Degree Weather Every Day

    This year-long journey across the U.S. keeps you at consistent high temperatures.

  2. An illustration of the Memorial Day flood in Ellicott City, Maryland.
    Environment

    In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

    Storms supercharged by climate change pose a dire threat to river towns. After two catastrophic floods, tiny Ellicott City faces a critical decision: Rebuild, or retreat?

  3. A photo of police officers sealing off trash bins prior to the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo in 2015.
    Life

    Carefully, Japan Reconsiders the Trash Can

    The near-absence of public garbage bins in cities like Tokyo is both a security measure and a reflection of a cultural aversion to littering.

  4. A line of stores in Westport, Connecticut
    Equity

    Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

    In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.

  5. Cars sit in a crosswalk.
    Transportation

    What if More People Could Issue Parking Tickets?

    Washington, D.C., considers training a group of residents to give tickets for some parking violations. Would it make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists?