Saturday, August 15, 2015

Point of view matters: the scourge of modelitis

When I say "city", what image pops into your mind? How would you visualize a city?

Are they images that look a bit like these?
Montréal from Mont Royal

Chicago's downtown in Google Earth

Tokyo from the observatory of Roppongi hills
Well, if this is the case, you may be suffering from modelitis.

What is modelitis? Well, modelitis is when people judge a city's look based on how it looks as a model or as seen from afar, rather than how it looks from the city itself.

The issue is a matter of point of view. Too often, people (often planners and architects) seem to care about a certain point of view of cities that city residents and workers do not regularly, or ever, have. When you make the model of a city, you tend to look down at it. It can be useful in that it allows people to look at a city as a whole, but that point of view is largely meaningless as few people can "enjoy" it.
Which point of view should be favored?
Who has that point of view in real-life? Well, birds, for one. The tiny minority who has the chance of having top-floor offices with windows or apartments in skyscrapers. People flying inside helicopters or planes. And... that's pretty much it.

Is this really the objective? To design cities so that birds will find them attractive? Meanwhile, the vast majority of people who live, work or shop in cities view cities from the ground, or from windows often no more than 4 or 5 stories up. THIS is the point of view that is important, but it is too often ignored by planners and architects used to make their decisions based on models or computer simulations that tend to favor this bird's eye view.

Why is there a focus on the bird's eye view?

I think the main reason is simple: in previous eras, the ability to visualize a city from the sky was very limited, if not completely absent. Likewise, knowledge was more technical than theoretical, so even when builders wanted to beautify buildings, in general this was done with a focus on the point of view they had as they were building them.
Old buildings in Clermont-Ferrand, note the attention to details on the windows, the cornice, etc...
A church in France, again, note the attention to details, especially on the gate
In previous eras, there was no distinction between architect and engineer, those who designed buildings also directly oversaw their construction. Architecture was a very hands-on profession. But in the modern era, architects work mainly with paper, models and computer simulations. Those who end up overseeing the construction of what they design are engineers, and finally, those who actually build the building are laborers who have zero input in the design of anything. Which means that all the authority for design decisions has migrated far away from the actual building, the point of view of the designer is thus completely different from that of the people who will actually use the building or reside near it.

The apotheosis of this is brutalist architecture, where buildings are made of concrete, lacking fine details, but emphasizing their shape instead.
Empire State Plaza in Albany is a brutalist masterpiece, it looks awesome from the sky

But it absolutely lacks in details for pedestrians up close, the only reason you would be near these buildings is if you were on the way in or out
So architects are now completely divorced from the point of view of the users of what they design, they instead are focused on their models and their simulations which gives them a bird's eye view of their buildings. As they're not incompetent, they make the buildings look good, but they look good from THEIR point of view. And thus, we have "modelitis".

Effects of modelitis

Modelitis infects more than just architects, planners are also affected by that perversion of focusing on the wrong perspective.
A still from a video about what makes city attractive, that shows a SATELLITE VIEW of Paris as an example of order and complexity, never mind that no Parisian ever had this view of their city, save perhaps an astronaut or two.
This makes planners adopt regulations that prioritize a perspective that should not be prioritized, meaning the bird's eye view or the skyline view (which is only visible from afar, and thus, not from the city itself).

The irony is that even urbanists who rebel against brutalism often articulated their criticism from the perspective of a model: versus the modernist skyscraper, they opposed a strict height-limited city, supposedly to preserve the "human scale". That criticism is also steeped in modelitis because it still focuses on the vertical scale and on uniformity as seen from afar. Someone who sees cities from the point of view of a pedestrian knows that the human scale is horizontal, not vertical. Meaning that the height of buildings isn't that relevant to human scale, what matters is how wide they are and their proximity to one another.

This focus on verticality is a clear effect of modelitis, higher stories are usually not visible from the ground for pedestrians. Even when they are, people tend to look down, not up, so most people will not even notice how tall buildings really are unless they take the time to check. A focus on a proper point of view, one of pedestrians, would focus on how a building's 3 or 4 lowest stories meet the street, not on how high it is, ESPECIALLY when the sidewalks have awnings, in which case the buildings are largely not even visible!
At the foot of the Empire State Building, sorry for the windshield perspective, the actual height of the building is irrelevant
So even if you care about harmony and order in urbanism, you should focus on the harmony and order as seen from the street, not as seen on a model of the city or from the sky. For example, Vancouver has had good urban planners who understood this and allowed skyscrapers that also had podiums that maintained the "street walls".
"Vancouverism", towers are present without disrupting the "walls" of the street", they are in the background, not the foreground
This is the view from the street, again, forgive the windshield perspective
Modelitis largely forgets the fact that buildings aren't art pieces, they are primarily consumer products, and cities aren't art galleries. It prioritizes the look of a city on a model and not whether or not it fulfills its role in responding to residents' needs and desires. A city which planners suffer from modelitis will keep making decisions based on what looks good, if this happens to satisfy people's needs, it will only do so by luck, not by design. Worse, the point of view that is prioritized is one that few if any people have, so even though the city's development is shaped by aesthetic preoccupations, it may not even look good for the residents who may be faced by wind-swept plaza, blank walls and boring streets... but hey, if they take an helicopter ride, what a view they'll have!

Modelitis applied on an urban park: Square Viger in Montréal

Square Viger in Montréal is an example, I think, of modelitis applied on the design of an urban park. It is highly controversial and the current mayor thinks of simply having it redone from the ground up.

Here is what it looks like from a bird's eye perspective:

So from the sky, it offers a lot of patterns which don't look too bad. Rather than a flat surface, there are different landings separated by small flights of stairs.

However, here is what it looks like from the point of view of people walking on the sidewalk:

This is extremely non-welcoming, and as a result, the square is deserted, apart from the homeless, drug addicts and drug dealers. Let's count down the elements that make it unfriendly to people.

  1. All in concrete. There are a few trees and plants put on the concrete structures, but they have low visibility and, in the case of the plants, basically invisible when people are under these structures
  2. Right angles everywhere which increases the unorganic nature of the concrete.
  3. Too many stairs. Stairs are not a pleasant place to walk in, so they should be avoided where possible. They are hard on the knees, slow down travel and are a safety risk. Dividing the square needlessly into several landings separated by small stairways was a huge mistake.
  4. Too many blind spots. The concrete structures and small walls result in many places being hidden from the street or from the rest of the square, this creates a feeling of insecurity as who knows who can be hidden there, especially when one knows the usual "population" that hangs around the place.
As a result, it is an unmitigated disaster, no one goes there if they can avoid it. Local residents will even make detours to avoid it, even if it is the shortest path to their destination. 

Yet, architects and the artist community still defend the square. They swear the design is good and part of Montréal's heritage. Basically, they're saying that the problem is the public who is not "educated" enough to enjoy the Square. Again, this comes back to the problem of seeing urban developments as art rather than as consumer products. On an artistic model, this may be a good design, but a Square is meant to be a public place that welcomes people to it and invite them to relax inside. In this case, the judgment of the "consumers" is clear: it is a total failure.


So, to sum up, it is crucial when judging cities to judge them from the point of view that matters, that of pedestrians or of residents looking out their windows. Too many people favor a bird's eye view of cities, or one from afar (skyline) that is not relevant to the actual people who live, work and shop inside cities. This results in misguided rules that ultimately hurt a city's potential at fulfilling its primary role of providing a good place to live and in which economical, cultural and social activities may occur.

Finally, I think that we must keep in mind three things:
  1. The human scale is horizontal, not vertical: human beings do not usually look up, so the actual height of buildings is not that relevant, but distances that are too great between locations tend to discourage people from exploring areas and from walking from one place to another and so destroys the strength of urban areas.
  2. Buildings are first and foremost consumer products: buildings exist to provide locations where people may live or where economical, cultural and/or social activities may occur. This is why they exist and their primary function. Aesthetic considerations are not meaningless, but they should be a secondary preoccupation. Sacrificing function to protect a desired form is a perversion of architecture, that should always put the human being, his needs and his desires, at the center of its process.
  3. A pedestrian-friendly design should focus on detail, not shape: buildings in many, if not most, highly attractive places are often basically simple boxes, but they compensate by focusing on the details of wall, windows and doors to provide things to look at when people are up close. The form of buildings can only ever be glimpsed by looking at a distance, and often only by looking at it from the sky.

Friday, August 7, 2015

In defense of by-right zoning: the dangers of arbitrary planning

An argument I've sometimes heard when strict zoning is criticized is that it's not so bad, because developers can simply ask for a zoning change or variances, which is certainly true. This is hard to get when you are in a residential area, but in most downtowns, which are primarily offices and commercial areas, the local opposition will be much less, so developers have more chances to get it.

Some urbanists and architects also like this approach because it gives a way for urban planners to review any given project and extract concessions from the developer in return for approving the zoning change they request. Since developers are often seen by urban planners and architects as greedy people who have no sense of aesthetics, subjecting their projects to review by "proper" architects and planners is viewed as a good thing, and the zoning change provides a lever to force developers to change their plans. They refuse, they don't get their zoning change.

So, is this actually a good approach? To have zoning limits so strict that almost all projects have to demand variances and changes and reviewed by urban planners and architects?

Uncertainty and land prices

I've already made the argument that land prices are extremely useful in shaping cities. Urban development is an economic enterprise, and as such is extremely reactive to price signals, the most important one here is the price of land. Any person wishing to develop an area must first buy the land on which the development will occur. The more expensive the land, the higher the density of what developers will build. If land is too expensive, then low-density projects are nonviable economically and so are excluded. If land is cheap, then low-density projects are viable and may occur.

But what determines the value of land? The land owner wants to sell for the highest possible price, the land buyer wants to buy for the lowest possible price, but what yardstick helps to determine the proper value of land?

Well, my theory, which I believe is pretty sound, is that the potential profit value of development is what decides how much the land will sell for. In essence, a development generates revenues that are the difference between the market value per square foot and the construction cost, times the number of square feet that can be built.

Land owners know this and will set their expectations for the price of the land they sell accordingly. It's important to understand that, generally speaking, only the building itself generates revenue. Parking (unless it is tolled) doesn't generate revenues, neither do trees or grass (green buffer space), etc... It's the building that generates revenues, that is either rented or sold to people who want to use it. The rarer the land, the more land owners can negotiate a higher share of these expected revenues, the more abundant the land, the lower the share they can negotiate.

So what does that mean for urban developments? The market value is largely an input from the real estate market, it's relatively easy to get from looking at other developments. Construction costs can also often be approximated based on local construction costs. So the big question here is how many square feet of revenue-generating floor area can you build? That will determine what the land is worth.

So we come back here to the Floor-Area Ratio. I once said that it was not a proper vector for urban regulations because there is no direct negative externality of FAR that justifies its direct regulatory control. However, I may have jumped to conclusions too soon. The point is that controlling FAR may actually help the market determine with a greater amount of certainty the total potential revenue of development on land.

For example, if the value of office space is, say 300$ per square foot (not the rent, the actual value), and the construction cost is 200$ per square foot, that's a total revenue of 100$ per square foot. If allowed FAR is 200%, then that means that development revenue is limited to 2 square feet of revenue-generating floor area per square foot of land. So there is a ((300$/sq ft - 200$/sq ft) X 2 sq ft floor area/sq ft of land) 200$ revenue associated to each square foot of land, which is a hard cap on land value. If land owners get on average half the total revenue, then the land value would be about 100$ per square foot.

So when FAR is limited, either directly or through a combination of height limit and lot coverage limit (setbacks, margins, etc...)...
Front setback and minimum margins reducing the area the building can cover, here, the maximum coverage is 42% of the lot, if there is a height limit, then FAR is indirectly limited (for example, if 5 stories are allowed, maximum FAR is 210%)
...or through minimum parking requirements, then this helps clear up the uncertainty as to the amount of revenue-producing floor area that can be built on any given lot. This helps both the seller and the buyer of the land establish a potential land value, and thus helps them come to an agreement on price much faster.

But what happens when you keep zoning very strict with the expectation that you will consider requests for variances and zoning changes on a case-by-case basis?

Well, in that case, an arbitrary component is introduced, creating uncertainty. The zoning may currently limit FAR to 100%, but maybe in one case the city allowed one project to have 200% FAR based on a zoning change request. What message does that send to every land owner in the area? Even if your land is zoned for a 100% FAR, you should price your land as if it were zoned twice as high. Of course, developers would be wary to pay such high prices, because there's no guarantee they'll get a zoning change.

The result is making development less likely, as land owners price their lots well over what they are currently zoned for while developers, afraid of risk, may balk at the idea of paying land a certain price that is only justified with a zoning change.

Other impacts: corruption, blackmail and administrative bottleneck

Everywhere in the world, arbitrary power is always associated with another phenomenon: corruption. Without strict guidelines, public administrators have the freedom to make decisions based only on their own feelings without having to explain them to anyone. As a result, given the massive amount of money involved, developers have an incentive to do all they can to get administrators to come down on their side. I'm sure developers would prefer doing their thing without having to grease a few palms, but in the context of arbitrary urban planning, the temptation may be too great.

This may also go the other way, with either administrators or even sometimes NIMBY groups using the situation as leverage to extort favors from developers. For example, forcing developers to pay directly for the repair or replacement of local infrastructure, or forcing the developer to provide public goods like parks in exchange for building permits. This can result in much higher prices for new constructions as all the burden of providing for local infrastructure needs can be unloaded on them alone. This doesn't mean that having developers provide certain social goods is a totally bad idea, rules that establish certain fees to contribute to a local infrastructure fund to pay for the marginal cost of new developments may be a sensible approach, but this has to be set in the rules long before any project is proposed.

Finally, there is one final drawback. Setting up a case-by-case review process of every project is extremely expensive in terms of labor and time. Since cities have a limited amount of planners and architects, if there is a construction boom, then the review process might get congested as the urban planning department is overwhelmed with projects to review and comment. This can lead to delays and a limit on how many projects get the green light in cities, limiting new constructions just when demand is highest for them.

All these factors coalesce into one major final negative effect: the elimination of small-scale developers who do not have the funds and expertise to deal with all these issues and of small-scale developments that do not yield the revenues to justify facing down all that process.

In conclusion

I think what cities need is not more control by urban planners and architects, but less... arbitrary inputs in the development process need to be reduced to a minimum. Where rules exist, they must be applied upstream, based on clear, established guidelines to reduce, or even eliminate, uncertainty. When upzoning is required to deal with higher demand (and I believe rules must have a pro-redevelopment bias), this upzoning should be gradual and affect a large area, not just spot-by-spot rezoning based on specific requests. Even exceptional projects should ideally be realized in the context of specific rules, for instance through the purchase of "air rights" (buying unused FAR limits or height limits from lesser density developments) or incentive-based zoning (giving FAR or height bonuses for certain initiatives).

As in most things, in terms of urban development, the rule of law must be predominant, not the rule of men, in order to provide certainty and to level the playing field.