Decoding dynamism, or, planned communities as “faux towns”

McwhimseyToday, in the Wall Street Journal, another slam against planned communities.  This from Constantine Valhouli of the Hammersmith Group.

These fakes towns seem oddly appropriate for a generation that grew up with shopping malls as their downtown.  Not only can they purchase mass-market reproductions of antiques, they can now live in homogenized versions of cities without grit–residences that offer amenities without character or history.

Notice the tone here, a characteristic Brahminian sneering at the consumer.  Consumers don’t know what they want and when they do, it’s crap.  (Funny, though, I wouldn’t have said that Valhouli is an old Boston name.  Funny how widely the Brahmin critique has spread.)

Valhouli’s argument turns on two assumptions, one true, one false.

He contends that

Many of the most charming neighborhoods were developed before modern zoing and building codes.  These places grew organically into complex, irregular and fascinanting urban forms. 

This is true.

Valhouli further contends,

Advances in building technology make it possible, perhaps even easier, to rebuild them [communities] in a single run.  But it seems a pity that to duplicate Harvard Square or Beacon Hill today would be a nightmare of variances and zoing relief.

This is false.

When last in Dallas, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Steve and Virginia Postrel.  They told me about a recent Dallas building that was build to look as if it had been renovated several times.  False archaeological cues had been insinuated into form and surface. 

In point of fact, variation, inconsistency and discontinuity can be build into every aspect of the consumer economy and it indeed it is now being installed there on a systematic basis.  (See the post from Vegas on Mr. Heap the architect who works with "controlled accident.") 

Indeed, one can imagine a zoning code that insisted on variation, one that said, it doesn’t matter what you build here, it just has to be inconsistent with what you build here last.  But of course one would not want to imagine such a zoning code, because, generally speaking, code do much more harm that developers.  I mean, there’s a reason why Boston pre-code is more interesting than Boston post-code. 

All of this puts the liberals in an awkward spot.  They continue to sneer at the market driven producer and the market driving consumer.  They would like to control what one produces and the other consumes.  But their grounds for umbrage is a world created without code, by the willy nilly of the market place. 

Hmmm.  Dear Mr. Valhouli, this is your rock, this is your hard place. 

But finally, this is everyone’s problem.  What we need are producers who get better at letting variation in, at "controlled accidents," at building communities that have variation and take on variation.  And what we need are building codes that are not so busy us protecting us from commerce that they prevent this commerce from creating variation and dynamism.

By the by, sometime in conversation in Las Vegas, it occurred to me that we could create communities virtually in Second Life and allow committed and would be buyers to "live" there.  This would give the powers of community a leg up.  Consumers would move into their new towns with prior acquaintance.  But more to the present point, Second Life creations of planned communities would give the developers a chance to see where the "variation" tolerances of this community lay. 


Valhouli, Constantine.  2006.  New Urbanism Revitalizes an Old Precedent.  Wall Street Journal.  June 14, 2006. (Letter to the Editor.)  P. A 15. 

For a visit to Second Life, a community of virtual communities, go here.

8 thoughts on “Decoding dynamism, or, planned communities as “faux towns”

  1. Peter

    I wonder about this, Grant. Lots of the old, residential buildings now admired for their style (eg, the Georgian terraces of Edinburgh, Bath or Liverpool, in Britain, say) consist of rows and rows of identical houses. Not much variation in pre-Victorian England, then. Were such places derided at the time they were built, too, I wonder? Or is it that age brings diversity, for example, in front-door colours and front gardens, so ameliorating the identikit nature of Georgian terraces?

    May I, while I’m here, question another assumption (one which I think you share with Mr Valhouli): Why is uniformity considered undesirable and diversity desirable? Perhaps there is safety in conformity, as there is in numbers, and people (both developers and home-buyers) may seek this.

  2. Overworm

    I hate driving into newly-built neighborhoods and seeing street after street of similar houses and fences. I much prefer driving into an older neighborhood and seeing dozens of designs that differ significantly, and fences ranging from chain link to white picket to wooden privacy monstrosities to brick and/or stone barriers.

    Restrictive covenants have a place in neighborhoods, but I think it should be a very small place. Restrict things like broken down cars, or regular on-the-street parking. Don’t restrict whether my room addition must have brick or hardiplank siding. Don’t restrict whether my fencing must be 3 feet or 6 feet. Don’t restrict the color of the paint.

    Further, I love the idea of planned communities that include business and residential buildings. That is, as long as there is a hugh variety within each smaller enclave. I dislike the planned communities wherein each the homes in each price point look different than the other price points, but very similar to the homes within that particular price point.

  3. nlamontagne

    I am really glad to see Grant posting on this issue – it is ripe for further exploration and analysis. As a urban planner and writer of zoning ‘code’ and land use planning policies, I strongly believe we are underestimating how land use regulations contort the market – and create poorly functioning communities. Does the consumer prize large, well-appointed homes on quiet streets? Sure, that’s easy. But if you want something else – or that in combination with other amenities, the land use regulatory system is even more rigid than the developer in providing choice. And where there is a lack of choice (I know there are options, but not much in new development), can we effectively gauge consumer demand?

    There is a lot more here, we are just scratching the surface. Please Grant – I need your wisdom here.

  4. jens

    building in little accidents or inconsistency and discontinuity is nothing new – it is just what has been seperating great architecture from good architecture forever. (the magic lies in the contrasts – in the unexpected – all through the history of art; and in japanese interior design there is also the term *wabi sabi* which i am sure you are familiar with)

    with communities it is stll else…
    because you can never plan the dynamics of development. or in other words: architecture is static – comunity is dynamic.
    remember the movie *dogville* and the little shortcut that people had taken over the years.
    you cannot produce that.
    but what you can produce of cause are the objects a shortcut might run through.
    you can produce the obstacles that a community can shape over time.
    you cannot plan a community anyway – i have seen marvelous failures in the netherlands in germany in spain in france in england and also some fair results – and the key message is: community is unpredictable (it is a lot easier for planned suburbs with family housing so).
    i think it is essential not to fully finalize an urban project like that but to leave it in parts edgy and rough so that is gets its shape over time. put something into the way of people. let the community shape it self by shaping the neighborhood.

    (did i make myself understood?)

  5. jens

    maybe that is exactly what you were referring to with “controlled accident” in the “vegas post” that i just read

  6. Constantine

    Dear Grant,

    I read with interest your critique of my recent letter in the Wall Street Journal, and felt compelled to respond to several points you raised.

    My criticism of aspects of certain planned communities should not be read as a denunciation of planned communities in general. Neighborhoods are combinations of goods, services, and brands. I have found that historic neighborhoods and planned communities that do not have a distinct identity provide commodity housing, while those with charm and a desirable brand can command a market premium.

    These neighborhoods are valuable in part due to their scarcity, and to elusive qualities that don’t show up on any balance sheet or census. It may seem counter-intuitive, but historic protections and certain zoning restrictions can actually create value and attract further investment because consumers know that the qualities which initially attracted them are protected.

    Your criticism of these protections seems like a free market justification of the 1960s and 70s urban renewal movement: ‘the market assigned a minimal near-term value to old neighborhoods and found that a higher and better use would be to level them for megablocks of housing and offices.’ What towns like Boston and New Haven lost to urban renewal were not just historic buildings and neighborhoods, but potential economic catalysts. Gentrification and revitalization are decentralized processes that begin because a neighborhood is intrinsically an attractive place to live. Lower Manhattan would be a much different place today if advocates like Jane Jacobs hadn’t fought Robert Moses’ proposal to put a freeway through today’s West Village and SoHo.

    I respectfully refute your claim that my argument is built on a false premise: today’s zoning and building codes would indeed make it almost impossible to rebuild a Harvard Square. To cite just one example, current setback requirements would require buildings further back from the street, which would reduce the immediacy and intimacy of the main thoroughfare. However, I agree with you about the importance of avoiding repetitive forms, and I commend to your attention Russell Versaci’s Building the New Old House for additional case studies on creating new buildings that look like they evolved naturally. Some developers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have recently been using this approach to good effect.

    Your column opened with:

    >“Notice the tone here, a characteristic Brahminian sneering at >the consumer. Consumers don’t know what they want and when they >do, it’s crap.”

    You may have missed the point of my letter if you feel that educating the consumer is sneering at the consumer. Hammersmith’s goal is to educate consumers, developers, and municipalities on how to leverage and preserve value that might otherwise be overlooked. We strive to create places that will be valuable and cherished for generations. Places that people choose to settle in, not settle for. The status quo has largely been careless land use and the demolition of heritage assets for well-intentioned projects with unintended consequences. If opposing this status quo is sneering then … Jeeves, another bottle of the Lafite ’55! And bring me my monocle.

    >”(Funny, though, I wouldn’t have said that Valhouli is an old >Boston name. Funny how widely the Brahmin critique has >spread.)”

    It would be unthinkable to let that pass without comment. Please correct me if I am not reading this in the manner that it was intended: does having a surname ending in a vowel make me a hypocrite because I share a cultural view with a demographic that you find elitist? Check your history – Brahmin ideals can be traced back to Pericles’ Greece.

    > Dear Mr. Valhouli, this is your rock, this is your hard place.

    Hmm … the last time a Greek was given a rock and a hard place, the result was Mt Athos, the stone monastery built atop an imposing plateau. And that is a development that can still teach us lessons on planned communities today.

    Grant, you raise a valid point that this is everyone’s problem – I don’t foresee development without codes or zoning, so our priority should be finding and encouraging the best practices among developers and municipalities.

    I look forward to your future posts, and I welcome your thoughts on our white papers on Rebranding Urban Neighborhoods and Creating a Town Brand through Heritage Assets, at:


    Constantine Valhouli
    The Hammersmith Group

  7. steve

    This is way late on the thread (I’ve been out of pocket) but I have to plug Chapter Five of Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style here. The key point is that consumers are different–some want uniformity of type A, others want uniformity of type B, others want diversity of various kinds, etc. In Southern California, a market of competing “master-planned communities” offers an interesting model. Owners of land parcels compete for builders and residents on the basis of their plans as well as their locations. This system allows for both choice and control, in that buyers have a choice about the level and type of control they will experience. It turned out that as of a few years ago, there was a market for greater architectural diversity even in planned communities, although imiitation may have bid down the premium it gets.

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