New Form Follows New Function

Note: This post was co-published at Strong Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on improving U.S. land use patterns.

At Strong Towns, we’re part of a growing chorus, spanning across disciplines, bearing a message that communities making forward-thinking, high-return public investments will be positioned more strongly for the future. The mechanisms of growth we’ve outlined at Strong Towns are each unsustainable in the long run, as is much of the development they have enabled us to produce.

Form follows function.

While I am always reluctant to quote secondary online content, I would be remiss to skip the following Wikipedia commentary about the origins of this phrase, which architect Louis Sullivan (evidently) made famous:

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn’t going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was “form follows function,” as opposed to “form follows precedent.”

Sound familiar? We are together part of a dialogue about how to harness all the interrelated processes that cities accomplish, in ways that secure tandem environmental and fiscal sustainability. We don’t have a choice. Truly functional places in the future will house spaces that perform at much higher rates of return than what we currently have. They will produce energy as well and use less of it. They will perform more than one role at once. Our definition of function is shifting rapidly, hence will form.

On that much we all agree. The dialogue gets more colorful at finer grain, however. An aesthetic approach, for example, prioritizes fostering of attractive places that will draw talent (especially talented younger people), cultural vitality, private investment and job creation. An operating approach, for lack of a better term, establishes higher-amenity areas based on criteria ranging from proximity to transit, existing infrastructure, or job concentrations. More broadly, a regional approach emphasizes investment in connecting productive nodes (of employment, housing, et cetera) into a network. Urban/suburban rhetoric doesn’t fit in any of these approaches. They overlap. One size won’t fit all.

What is common among the successful cities of the future, and the neighborhoods and submarkets that bind them together, is functionality. Effective networks of people and institutions, vital job markets, courageous civic leadership are essential for transition to a new form. But each is undermined by the burdens of unproductive land use and infrastructure providing low return on investment.

The key function of modern cities is to harness the talents and skills of its people. The form that follows is a city of intentional and high-return infrastructure and design.

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