Lean Urbanism Recalls a Simpler Time

Making Small Possible in a Red-Tape World

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Andrés Duany is an American architect, urban planner and a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Brian Falk is director of the Center for Applied Transect Studies and the Project for Lean Urbanism.

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Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2017 9:53 am

Over the last several decades, real estate developers and urban designers have watched building code books swell from the size of small booklets to the size of dictionaries.

Some say the increase in regulations has been essential to protect life, limb and property. Others think politics, special interest groups and neglect have supplanted common sense to create a hopelessly complex array of outdated, expensive and unnecessary mandates that serve to push small developers out of the marketplace altogether.

The Project for Lean Urbanism, created by a nonprofit group of architects, engineers, planners and policymakers, is trying to reverse that trend. The group is launching pilot projects in four U.S. cities with the goal of stimulating entrepreneurship and economic growth by cutting red tape and providing free tools that make the development process less intimidating for beginners. The four cities - Lafayette, La., Chattanooga, Tenn., Saint Paul, Minn., and Savannah, Ga. - were chosen for their commitment to lowering the barriers to small-scale economic development.

One of the groups behind the effort is the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), which works to advance the concept of New Urbanism to guide public policy and create "vibrant and walkable cities, towns, and neighborhoods where people have diverse choices for how they live, work, shop, and get around," according to the organization's charter.

A key figure in the CNU is Andrés Duany. In an address at a conference in Dallas, Duany explained that New Urbanism was once a revolutionary approach to replicating the pre-1970s way of urban development. Today, he says, the movement needs to be reconsidered.

Many builders, planners, architects, financiers and other decision makers are young enough that they don't remember the days when it was possible to easily get things done without what many feel is excessive red tape. Therefore, they don't have the knowledge of what it was like to simply decide to get a project done, work on it incrementally and with care, and finish with a product that was both useful to a community and profitable for a developer, in the absence of onerous regulation.

Duany and other New Urbanists embrace the emerging approach known as Lean Urbanism. It is a movement  working to lower the barriers to community-building, making it easier to start businesses, and to provide more attainable housing and development. It is especially suited to younger entrepreneurs and developers who have never known an environment where regulations were minimal.

The Project for Lean Urbanism is managed by the Center for Applied Transect Studies, led by Duany and Hank Dittmar, and managed by Brian Falk. According to LeanUrbanism.org, the project is open-access, allowing people who might otherwise be excluded to participate in the building of their homes, businesses, and communities. It is small-scale, incremental community-building that requires fewer resources to incubate and mature. It is focused on developing areas of the city in need of renovation and reclaiming sprawling suburbs as more community-focused neighborhoods.

The Project for Lean Urbanism is studying and promoting seven "platforms" around the Lean concept, a management philosophy developed by Toyota in the 1990s. These platforms are: Lean Building, Lean Development, Lean Business, Lean Green, Lean Governing, Lean Infrastructure, and Lean Learning.

Falk said Lean Urbanism emerged from the urban planning and design fields, and that core group reached out to developers, nonprofit community building organizations and government officials. As with New Urbanism, the desire was to move away from a car-centric way of living, where the urban core suffered from disinvestment, the suburbs were places mostly reachable by car, houses were set far back from streets discouraging neighborliness, and workplaces were far away.

Lean Urbanists wanted to develop walkable neighborhoods with narrower streets, mixed use residential and commercial buildings, and landscapes that were inviting. But that type of building was expensive and therefore could only be accomplished when the resulting properties could command high prices to rent or purchase. Falk said Lean Urbanists realized the best way to overcome these obstacles was to change and greatly reduce the rules restricting small developments.

This doesn't mean constructing buildings with inadequate fire sprinklers, for example, or being inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. Instead, Lean Urbanism tries to discover a common sense approach to renovation or building that is suited to the location and situation, and "daylighting" that approach so others can use it, too.

Falk said an unintentional consequence of large scale commercial development is that many people are excluded from participating in economic development. He said the current system requires subsidies in the form of tax breaks, public-private partnerships of some kind to make them happen, because they are so big. "A generation ago that wasn't necessary, but now it is. If this is difficult for experts, what about non-experts?" Falk asked.

Falk said Lean Urbanism began in part because small enterprises were disproportionately burdened by the system they had to navigate. "Think about economic development burdens for the small actors such as permitting, zoning, construction, licensing and financing. You will realize that while it may not be easy for larger projects or actors, it is more difficult for smaller ones," he said.

Lean Urbanists identify four groups of "non-experts" who they want to help create smaller scale projects. The first group is young people. "People in longer careers have seen this regulatory burden increase slowly and can adapt," Falk said. "Young people entering the field just see a big wall in front of them and find it difficult to overcome and so they don't get started. They have little know-how to navigate the system."

The next group of non-experts is immigrants who work in the construction trades. "When we see construction crews out working, made up of immigrants, we assume that's the extent of their skills. But some might have been developers or engineers in their home country. And yet here they're laborers because they can't navigate the system... so they don't reach the extent of what they could contribute," Falk said.

The third group of non-experts is broadly described as makers. These are people who work with their hands in various ways such as mechanics or skilled craftspeople. Falk said they are very skilled but are not accustomed to the paperwork. "Our tools will be available for all of them," he said.

"When thinking about who was affected we realized the cost is huge when all these people are excluded," Falk continued. "Not just to them but as a society when people can't participate in the economic development of their communities."

The Lean Urbanism Project is developing tools that will be made freely available to governments and organizations seeking to get things done, to entrepreneurs without the know-how to overcome hurdles, and to small builders or homeowners who could build well in an economical, low-tech way.

In each of the project's four pilot cities, the project team will work with city authorities, entrepreneurs, activists, and nonprofits to select a neighborhood, identify impediments to small-scale projects, create an action plan of projects to begin the revitalization, and develop a custom kit of tools to make them possible, Falk said.

These pilot projects will identify viable, short-term, incremental improvements and the talent and resources needed to make these improvements, develop mechanisms for getting past blockages and barriers, and develop an action plan for implementation by local people.

Falk said the idea is to have projects "out of the ground" within a year to 18 months. Project partners will include real estate developers, construction firms, new businesses, land banks or other nonprofit groups such as merchants associations and main street organizations. "It could even mean a market to incubate retail or a shared commercial kitchen for people who want to start food service businesses," Falk said.

The primary outcomes of the pilot projects will be the Lean Scan, a Pink Zone, and a Toolkit, which will be widely available for free once the projects are completed:

The Lean Scan will be a tool for finding latent opportunities in a town, a district or a corridor and leveraging underused assets in a way that unlocks synergies between built, financial, social and natural resources. The final, refined and publicly released Lean Scan will be for those people who already have the energy but have been impeded.

A Pink Zone is described as an area where the red tape is lightened. A Pink Zone may be an overlay zoning category where new protocols are pre-negotiated and experiments are conducted, all with the goal of removing impediments identified in the Lean Scan. The focus will be on issues related to zoning, building and business.

The Toolkit will be a set of resources based on a survey of ways to restore common sense to the processes of development, building, starting small businesses, community engagement, and acquiring the necessary skills. Falk said these tools will include the Zoning Code Repair Tool, which shows people how to analyze their local zoning codes to see how they address these issues. "Based on that they will see how to tweak the code on a small number of issues to enable lean urbanism to succeed, rather than having to overhaul the entire code," Falk said.

Another tool to watch for is A Beginners Tool Kit for Lean Development. "We hope to encourage and recruit small-scale developers," Falk said. "A lot of people who are capable should be participating in real-estate development. That's the case whether it is as a business or for additional income on the side or to lower their own living expenses, developing their own homes, or a small business owner developing the building her business will be in. This is about decreasing expenses, creating wealth for the future. We're creating a toolkit for people interested in doing that themselves."

Falk said Lean Urbanism has a message to decision makers within cities and counties. "This is one way for them to diversify strategies for economic development. Often efforts are focused on the home runs. Some economic development offices would rather get one single 500-person company, rather than attract or encourage fifty 10-employee companies or 250 two-employee companies. Many financial institutions prefer a single $500 million project rather than 500 million-dollar projects. If you look at that angle you see lots of ways in which the system is unintentionally set up to encourage that scale," Falk said.

Lean Urbanism takes a smaller approach. "When we look for solutions we focus on scale as a way to get things done. If you stay small you stay below triggers for onerous requirements. That is useful if it is small actors we are trying to help," Falk said.

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