Time, Not Distance, Determines the Development of Cities

Time, that is the time it takes to travel to a job, determines where people focus on in their search for a place to live.  Thus a city like New York City has it’s own CBD (Central Business Districts) of Midtown and Downtown, with extensions on the upper East/West Sides and infill throughout, along with growing CBD developments along the river banks of the Hudson and East Rivers, especially with regards to Newark, NJ and Downtown Brooklyn, NY.

When it comes to choices for a residence, there is a curve of acceptable ‘time to commute’ for a particular job.  Those on the outskirts of this curve might travel 2 or 3 hours each way, not because they want to but only as a necessary evil in their life to pursue their own interest and priorities. This is why the current commuter system fails, in that providing express service is just not enough to harness the potential of land just beyond the more acceptable half-hour commute, and why there needs to be ‘super express’ service to new core areas to help increase housing and opportunities while providing the ‘time connection’ people demand for their daily lives.

Thus, distance can play a minor factor in one’s decision on where to live (as it is not distance, but time that one considers, understanding that essential under current transportation options the two are linked), combined with quality of living situation, provides an opportunity for cities to accommodate a larger population with higher quality residential and commercial hubs.  Ideally, these new ‘outer hubs’ are also linked by ‘super express’ access and thus allow for the natural dispersion between high density and lower density areas.

In this way, communities can cater to the needs of individuals who each have different living circumstances, from the student, bachelor/ette, senior, family, family-clan or whatever the case may be.  In this way and through an understanding of the pros of living in suburbs or urban environments, versus their cons, one can address the design challenges to create a variety of housing that is satisfying to the greatest proportion of the population.  This way of approaching urban development has other benefits including providing better communities at lower cost (one house per lot is very inefficient), a decrease in pollution including house pollution, commuter pollution, service pollution, etc. and, allows for better use of land on the outskirts of cities for more natural uses helping define the frame of a city in a positive way.

The challenge for individuals is to connect to transportation, that offering express to reach outskirt cores isn’t good enough, that there needs to be super-express lines that really get people to the CBD super fast to make those new outskirt cores viable options. Brooklyn, Queens and the Upper Bronx are prime areas for this type of development, currently being sorely underdeveloped and impeding the ability of individuals to find quality housing in safe neighborhoods that is also readily accessible to the financial functional aspect of their lives (to make a living). Like any core, it has high density at the center merging with lower ‘infill’ density reinforcing the need for a variety of housing types. The ‘new’ need to meet the demands of future generations and increased populations is this development of multiple cores that work with one another.

Time, not distance, is a critical factor.  Left is the ability to meet the design challenges of providing quality communities and sub-CBD’s that avoid the pitfalls of urban planning, yet rise to a level where anyone would seek to live in these new communities as a symbol of status and not compromise, all at affordable prices.

Unfortunately the natural growth combined existing zoning and existing uses makes implementation ‘super sized.’ Further, with the need for dedicated ‘super express’ transportation systems, and their required space/investment make doing the above a significant effort.  Even though this may be the initial case, the value of having new viable CBD’s built in areas of lower land values with more space to actualize the project (unlike the extreme coordination of building in existing ‘old city’ CBDs, make the viability within reach, not withstanding the ultimate increase of taxable land value.

Ideally, a city would seek to implement such a plan through careful modified zoning, that is seek to carve out the required space to provide advanced metro systems (even if that means running tunnels under, and parallel to, the river).  The challenge with planning is the rise of property costs when words comes around as to the urban plan, or those who just won’t sell at the time needed, reminding me of the challenges with the Three Gorges Dam project and the resulting need to move entire villages, towns and cities from the affected area.  But this may be exactly what is required to allow our city to expand in a way that is responsible to our citizens in order to provide the quality, variety and choice of affordable housing every citizen deserves without resorting to moving 3 or more hours away from the city.  Clearly it is what other smaller cities should be considering now before the natural spread of development makes the task more painful in the future.

SimpleTwig Architecture.llc is working on such a plan, but in much broader sense.  Our goal is to develop a housing type that is both government and privately developed.  That is, the government provides the land, the infrastructure (physical party walls, foundations, parking, services, solar energy, floor structure and base vertical circulation) who then sells the ‘housing infrastructure’ to private Owners who hire their own Architects to fit out the property [facade (within a theme of the community), roof-scape, interior disposition and character] with the stipulation that they are owner occupied with rental units attached to help support the owner.  In this way the property is provided with the economy of scale pertaining to its structure and low-maintenance qualities (for longevity and healthy viability) while providing a variety of housing stock expressing individual wishes that people will be drawn to.  This allows the government to get out of the ‘design of residences’ to which they’ve shown that they aren’t completely capable of doing a good job in, yet insure that the core components of structure and safety are very well met (understanding that current townhouses are not earthquake proof and will crumble under the right conditions).

We are also working on sub-residential types, new housing types that are poorly represented or not represented at all.  The ‘family-clan’ type where multiple generations live together, or the bachelor/bachelorette/retired person’s unit that offers ample space for adults or couples yet is set in a mini-community type setting allowing for maximum interaction (to counter isolation which has been shown to shorten life spans of individuals).  Further new types is the owner-occupied type with rental income, creating a purposeful housing type that allows extra income for the home owner while providing opportunities for ‘variety housing choices’ for other people in transition to owning their own home.

On a grandeur scale, SimpleTwig is working on city infrastructure, developing ways to incorporate vehicles, utilities, play spaces, private outdoor spaces, roads, off-loading, green spaces, services delivery and pickup (trash), efficient land use that promotes additional greenery and all the little things that incorporate themselves into communities to make them high quality living environments.  Unlike utopian ideas that put people into experimental situations, our goal is to heighten that which has already shown to work in the most coveted areas, while creating purposeful (not accidental) prototypes the enhance what people naturally tend towards, like establishing the best locations for local conveniences, or providing play area that is secure for one’s children, allowing them to interact with other kids in safe environments, or reducing the need for alternate street parking while elevating open areas literally higher towards the sky and daylight, or eliminating the need to tear up roads to access utilities.  It, like a massive puzzle, is possible with the careful infusion of all the parts, placed in all the right places.  It will, when done, represent the very real potential of human living and healthy, sustainable urban growth.

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