Urban Bottom-Up

Despite how the article been generated from the Western-Urban-mindset; yet it provides leads to existing applications of urban planning and design that are mastering almost 20% of the global population. In remote towns and villages, the urban quest is a bottom-up centric. Chiefs and elders will control the formation of ROW and plot attributes. Planners and officials had limited actual powers, just they work around it to enforce the formal guidelines; if any. The same is available in all heritage and ancient districts, whereas the subdivision had maintained the initial urban formation and accessibility..



How do cities design themselves?

Tenochtitlan — Image via  Flickr .

Tenochtitlan — Image via Flickr.

At a basic level, a city can be understood as two types of spaces: public spaces and private spaces. For as long as humans have built cities, we have been deeply interested in the top-down design of public spaces, from Hippodamus’ street grid to the monumental plazas of Tenochtitlan. The centralization of this element of cities makes sense: urban streets, parks, and plazas are capital- and land-hungry public goods, which might be underprovided if a central authority did not make sure land was set aside for them. At the same time, the design of private spaces has historically been a largely distributed affair, with the built landscape between blocks and parks designed in a decentralized process among thousands of smallholders, including residents, businesses, developers, and architects.

This changed in the twentieth century. In virtually every major American city, local governments regulate every detail of urban design, including maximum building heights, maximum lot coverage, minimum setbacks, and maximum floor area ratios. While the original intention of these rules varies, their cumulative effect is to completely control the minutiae of how we develop urban land, such that in most cities, the job of an architect or site planner is mostly one of rote compliance. On top of these traditional controls, cities are increasingly adding explicitly design-oriented regulations, including things like ground-floor transparency requirements, contextual setbacks, and design rules for facades.

A steelman argument for this centralized approach to urban design might read something like this: The way buildings engage with the public realm—including facades and site plans—can impose positive or negative side effects, or externalities, upon neighbors. For example, along a residential street, a building with the same facade treatment and deep setback as its neighbors can create an orderly streetscape, producing a positive externality. Along a walkable commercial corridor, on the other hand, a building with a deep setback accommodating a large surface parking lot might undermine the success of the corridor as a whole, producing a negative externality. Thus, it is incumbent on planners to control urban design, both to cultivate positive externalities and prohibit negative externalities.

There are two issues with this system: First, planners often lack the knowledge needed to know when to attempt to control urban design at all. Unlike traditional externalities, such as noise, smoke, light, or odor, “good” and “bad” design are ambiguous and subject to disagreement among reasonable people. A design that might seem to you like a disruptive and ugly oddball might seem to someone else like a welcome and exciting bit of variation.

Photo credit: Andrew Price

Photo credit: Andrew Price

We can conduct surveys and charrettes to get a general sense for what a select group of residents might like and achieve something resembling consensus on good and bad design. But even in this optimistic (and highly expensive) scenario, planners lack the knowledge to know whether the benefit of the positive externality gained—an orderly street—will outweigh the unseen benefits of potential design scenarios that will never materialize—such as a desirable but unpredictable architectural shift, or an unplanned evolution in the function of the street. Such unexpected happy accidents have a role to play in improving our cities over time, but not if they aren’t allowed to occur. Without received knowledge regarding good and bad design, or the opportunity costs of any new regulations, planners simply can’t make a robust externality argument for most design regulations in the vast majority of circumstances.

Second, even if planners could identify circumstances in which design regulation was appropriate, we (I say this as a practicing planner myself) lack the knowledge needed to actually set design standards for every single lot, even at a small scale.

The knowledge needed to ascertain the ideal (and feasible) design of any given lot is distributed among the many residents, tenants, architects, developers, and financiers involved in developing a site. These are, after all, the people with the greatest local knowledge and incentives to succeed in their design. Yet even these individuals are guessing at the ideal urban design for a site, and they often guess wrong. The key difference between centralized urban design and distributed urban design, however, is that when a failure occurs under the distributed system, subsequent actors can correct. Under the centralized system, we’re typically stuck with suboptimal design standards for decades.

Photo credit: Daniel Herriges

Photo credit: Daniel Herriges

Centralized urban design is further undermined by the fact that conditions in a healthy city are constantly changing. Cultural preferences related to design features such as setbacks evolve. Rising land values may mean that future buildings need to economize on land and build up. Even if we could all agree at a given time that a block needs top-down design regulations, that these regulations should be X, Y, and Z, and that these standards are feasible under present market conditions, conditions will almost certainly change in the future. In addition to learning from past mistakes, a distributed system of urban design provides those with skin in the game the power to iterate and modify inherited practices, testing out new urban design configurations.

The professional planner is trained to yearn for tighter urban design controls, as if cities without comprehensive, top-down design control would devolve into chaos and disorder. In reality, cities contain within themselves mechanisms that allow us to gradually discover optimal urban design across time, and being a good planner requires that we humbly seek to understand, empower, and where necessary mediate, these processes.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. In Part 2, coming tomorrow, I will delve into a specific example—front setback regulations, or how far back a building must sit from the street—to illustrate how cities can “discover” good design over time rather than impose it up-front.

Urban design is best seen as a bottom-up discovery process rather than something that can or should be imposed from the top-down. To concretize this point, let’s examine one aspect of urban design: front setbacks, or how far back buildings are located from the public street or property line. How can cities naturally discover optimal front setbacks, instead of presupposing the answer?

In most cities, front setbacks are determined by regulations which require that buildings sit a certain minimum and/or maximum distance from the front property line. These standards typically vary for every land use and are often binding on new development. The block below, from a residential district in eastern Queens (subject to a 20-foot front setback) is a typical example of the urban design output of this system. Its aesthetic value is subjective: one man’s positive externality—an image of order—could be another man’s negative externality—an image of banality.


Historically, front setbacks were regulated toward reasonable ends: they were designed to reserve right-of-way (or land through which anyone can freely travel) in the event that the municipality needed to widen a road or lay new pipes in the future. Beyond that minimum set aside, buildings could be as close to or far from the street as local conditions required.

This earlier system kept the power to discover the “right” front setback depth with people who had a stake in the project. With every building, developers and architects had to ask: How much of a front yard do I need to to sell or lease out this space? As with all pre-zoning land-use regulation, the answer was discovered through a distributed, trial-and-error process. Based on local conditions like land costs, demand for floor area, and cultural norms, a developer would guess and check at different front yard depths. Successful guesses could be replicated, while unsuccessful guesses could be phased out.

If you live in a city with a lot of development from the pre-zoning era, you can go and see physical evidence of this trial-and-error discovery process. As an example, let’s look at Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood that was partially built out before the adoption of zoning in 1916.

What’s going on here? Subject to the constraints of land costs, developers were trying to discover just how much of a front yard residents needed. Along this block, front setbacks on a single street could range from five to 15 feet. Some of these guesses might have been wrong and provided lessons for future development. Alternatively, many of them might have been right, with different residents having different desires regarding a front yard. In any case, what’s clear is that the neighborhood is engaged in an active process of trying to find the right front setback depth.

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This isn’t to say that a self-designing neighborhood only produces messy results—far from it. For all the diversity on this pre-zoning block in Long Island City, Queens, in terms of land use, lot coverage, and heights, the front setbacks are noticeably consistent in approaching zero. High land values in this area pushed residential uses to the front of the lot to economize on land, while the natural needs of commercial and industrial tenants drew setbacks down as a matter of preference. Industrial tenants simply wanted more space and were largely uninterested in front setbacks. Meanwhile, commercial tenants were deeply interested in tiny front setbacks, as they depended on street level engagement to draw in customers.

For this reason, the pre-zoning transition from residential to commercial is easy to spot, as front setbacks are the first thing to go in the transition to commercial. You can see this on streets as diverse as Madison Avenue (left) and Hillside Avenue (right):

Nobody had to master plan or design these streets—the front setback naturally evolved in response to changing preferences and market conditions. One or two shopkeepers discovered that a closer storefront got more business, and the rest followed over time.

This discovery process doesn’t only take place across different land uses or individual tenants. It’s also necessary unfolds across time, as land prices and economic circumstances constantly rise and fall, with implications for what people can and can’t afford.

Take the block front from the Upper East Side depicted here. This eclectic mix of buildings don’t line up. What’s going on here? To put it bluntly, one-hundred years of the city naturally responding to changing land values is what’s going on. When the green house was built in 1866, it was an outer suburban manor. Land prices were low, and its owner could afford to profitably set aside a modest front yard. As Manhattan moved uptown, and land prices increased, buildings inched forward, and by 1989 (the building on the far left), astronomical land prices required that developers economize on land and scrap the front setback altogether. This process couldn’t have been designed and it doesn’t need to be designed.

We realize in the front setback—as you might realize in any number of other urban design trends—that cities naturally possess the power to understand and reformulate themselves as conditions change. This occurs not through evolution in the best-practices of planners, but through a much messier and more organic process involving millions of decentralized decisions. To be an urbanist, I suggest, is to be curious about this process, to try and understand and cultivate it, to lightly intervene only when it clearly fails, and to practice a great deal of humility before proclaiming what urban patterns are “right” and “wrong.”

Nolan Gray




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