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Toward Robust Town Building

Main Street, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, is a neighborhood that has shown to be resilient through booms, busts, severe weather, and beautiful days such as this one.

Hurricane Sandy has shifted the discussion of how we build our communities from overly focusing on sustainability to "bounce-back-ability," or, resilience. While, understandably, the response has centered around technological and social responses to weather events, we are beginning to understand that variability is normal and predictability not only is, at best, short-lived, but it lulls us into a false quiet, an ahistorical sense of security. Adaptibility is essential. Economic, social, and demographic waves sweep over our settlements in hard to predict ways just as do ocean swells and high-powered winds. Since the relative global calm settled in after World War II (with periodic shocks along the way), we have focused on sustaining a calm through provisions built to provide an illusory stability of such a system. This is akin to building storm surge walls and flood levees to feel safe from events like Sandy or Katrina that surpise us by toppling them. Instead, says Andrew Zolli

we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

The neighborhood where my wife and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been—and to some degree is simultaneously—occupied by foundries, factories, wholesalers, blue collars, white collars, artists, urban yuppies, robotics labs, startups, renters, owners, families, and single people. It is several hundred years old and is as haggard as it is beautiful. It has weathered scores of economic booms and busts, thriving today amidst one of our country's most challenging periods. Year after year, it has renewed itself with each subsequent generation. It has proven to be an excellent return on investment.

38th Street, LawrencevillePlaces such as these show a great resilience to events that are out of our control and outside our ability to predict. In the many walks through places that we love and the countless designs for our work inspired by them, we have gained a certain technical understanding for the physical dimensions of such places. But when the Great Recession happened, our economy reset and we developed an even greater understanding of the illusory stability that had amassed since the world wars. The meltdown in 2008 and the time since exposed for us the real divide between those places that are fragile and those that are not. This can most clearly be seen in the repopulation of America's traditional urban cores and inner neighborhoods while their counterparts in the suburbs and exurbs have largely languished under transitional buyer preference, unsustainable public capital outlays, and deteriorating credit markets. This has caused at least as much economic and personal damage as Sandy, Irene, the 2012 drought, or any other natural event.

The town-building industry is just now begining to understand this. Long before us, biologists established the concept of adaptive morphogenesis to describe how, through the course of natural evolution, disruptions to the status quo are embraced by a series of redundancies honed through centuries of trial and error. These inherited patterns are themselves open to constant tinkering and further evolution, retaining what proves valid and discarding failures. What didn't kill us made us stronger. Author Nassim Taleb extends this observation by outlining redundancies that are critical to this resiliency in his 2010 essay, On Robustness and Fragility (and will no doubt go to greater lengths in his upcoming Antifragile). He categorizes redundancies into three types: insurance (spare parts); size and decentralization (avoiding “too big to fail”); and functional (a plurality of uses, many of which are unintended). Redundancies, he argues, act as a backstop to unexpected disruptions, allowing us to evolve into an incrementally stronger state. The “progress” of the last 70 years, however, revolutionized town building by stripping out these redundancies, leaving us fragile and dangerously over-leveraged. Moving forward, our building program must be evolutionary not revolutionary if we are to build the missing redundancy back into our homes and communities. The question is what do these redundancies look like and how do they inform our work to make our communities hyper-resilient and less fragile?

Doughboy Square, LawrencevilleIn the months that follow, we will be devoting much of our bandwidth to this subject and evolving it with your help toward a manual that outlines basic principles to follow if we are to incorporate adaptability into our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. It will be the necessary corollary to Investment Ready Places (IRPs). These principles transcend style and are explicitly post-sustainability in their usefulness. Like cities themselves, these concepts are not new but have evolved out of our observations, conversations with others, and practice. They are the product of and inspired by our work with real people and real communities. It is dedicated to our culture's great shift toward a more robust town building.


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