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.

Productivity and Design Merge in the Gated City

Cover3 Since his publication in the New York Times' Sunday Review this past weekend, Economist magazine correspondent Ryan Avent has been showered with digital ink following release of his short book, "The Gated City." Based on his Sunday excerpt, it's clear his fundamental argument is that land use and productivity are inextricable.


The policy arena is stocked with arguments over which strategy or which sector provides the most efficient return for job creation (for a sample, search "jobs per dollar" on Google – although, as this commentary indicates, your results will be different than mine).

This dialogue, however, does not usually consider the spatial issues involved. How many jobs, and of what type, are created across a city or region? Employers rely on a workforce that is trained and educated, able to reach the workplace reliably, and able to transport a product – by rail, by digital means, or other mode of movement. Employers and the economies of which they are part also rely on relationships that form networks around industries, innovations, or particular skill areas. Success or failure in each of these areas is all about how our cities are designed and how intensely infrastructure is used.

It's relatively simple to evaluate job creation initiatives if direct public expenditures and jobs ("full time equivalents") are the only terms examined. As I suggested a few months ago, Steven Johnson and Ed Glaeser illustrate this would miss a substantial part of the essence of why and where jobs are created. The last few days' eruption of interest in Avent's message indicates we're headed for a more nuanced, comprehensive view of how urban design and productivity are linked. That's a very good thing.

*Postscript: Thanks to Ryan Avent for including this short post in his list of commentary pieces on the Gated City. See the others here.

Strong Towns Releases Vulnerable Cities Report

The Cents of Place, since its inception in 2007, has addressed issues of public finance on levels ranging from specific projects to macro-level economic and policy issues. On the latter, I have been immersed since January in two efforts. In the first, I am managing the Brookings Metropolitan Business Plan initiative for partners assembled in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region; I introduced this project here in January, and will be posting draft business plan content for your review and comment within the next few weeks.

In the second, I co-founded Strong Towns, an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization calling for big change in American land use, last fall with Chuck Marohn and Ben Oleson of the Community Growth Institute. We’ve been producing research, building relationships and growing networks on Facebook and Twitter over the last six months. Our message – that current land use patterns are financially unsustainable and are eroding our ability to invest in our people and places – has been attracting attention of late. See us on the newswire at Planetizen and at the Switchboard at NRDC blog, and join us in developing these ideas by following us at Facebook and Twitter.

MN-most-vulnerable  Today, we have released a report titled “Minnesota’s Most Vulnerable Cities,” which addresses the following question: If federal and state aids disappeared tomorrow, and citizens wished to maintain existing services, how large a property tax increase would be required? How sensitive are our cities to the risk (and very likely eventuality) that state and federal aids fall?

View the report here. Make comments, throw darts, suggest solutions – help us develop tools to build Strong Towns.

Donjek Project: Management of Brookings’ Twin Cities Metropolitan Business Plan Initiative

Early this year, Donjek was retained by an innovative coalition of partners to provide project management for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Business Plan Initiative. Working in conjunction with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., the project involves a dynamic core group from the Twin Cities region:

The focus of this process is to integrate several years of knowledge gathering and consensus building on regional development issues, and assemble an improved approach to spur and support innovation and entrepreneurialism in the Twin Cities region. There are numerous complementary efforts underway, and momentum in the public and private sectors has been building for several years. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with these national and regional partners, and to advocate for a prosperous future in this region.

The prosperity of metropolitan areas has been a core interest of mine since the early 1990s. In this space, I have written repeatedly about the need to think and act deliberately about investing in metropolitan areas at a level sufficient to make the most of their tremendous economic, social and cultural powers:

  • In this April 2008 post, I remarked on the important findings of the Retooling for Growth effort by the American Assembly, which dovetailed with an ongoing effort called the Blueprint for American Prosperity.
  • In a July 2009 post, I expressed a hope that the geographic location of stimulus projects would reflect the modern reality of the U.S. economy, and focus primarily on metropolitan areas and their core cities.
  • Most recently, I announced my involvement in Strong Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to make American places viable through improved land use. Since our launch in November, we have been successful in building relationships to spread a message about making investments in our infrastructure and people in part by reducing our subsidization of a costly, inefficient approach to land use.

The Initiative kicks off in Washington, D.C. today, where I and three members of the Twin Cities' steering committee are attending a workshop with representatives from the Brookings Institution and the two other metro areas selected to participate in the program: Seattle and Cleveland. I look forward to providing updates after our trip to Washington, and over the course of undertaking this exciting work this year.

Announcing Strong Towns

Over the last two years, I have been privilegedStrong-Towns-header to work with Chuck Marohn and Ben Oleson of the Community Growth Institute (CGI) on a number of projects, including planning and analysis of the prospective realignment of State Highway 371 in central Minnesota. This week, Chuck, Ben and I are pleased to announce the launch of Strong Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to make American places viable through improved land use. My role with Strong Towns will be independent of my management of current and future Donjek projects.

Here's how we at Strong Towns describe what's wrong in short (and ironic) form:

Our desire for independence has made us dependent. On automobiles. On cheap energy. On transfer payments between governments. On debt.

Our expectation of plenty, and our expectation to pay only a portion of the full cost of growth, has led to a scarcity of resources. Our approach to land use now constrains us, growing our financial commitments at an alarming rate. It threatens real American prosperity with long-term economic stagnation and decline.

We can do better.

My experience in core cities and suburban areas, and the years of collective experience Chuck and Ben bring from outstate Minnesota, have led us to strikingly similar conclusions. Much real estate in small towns, big cities and suburbs has been developed in a form reflecting fading realities: Exclusive reliance on large cars for transportation; cheap energy; relatively free access to public and private debt. Today, forces ranging from climate change to fiscal stress and an aging population call for us to think harder about how to build durable, successful places.

In the coming months, we will be working to further our vision of giving individuals tools to make their places Strong Towns, by changing the way we approach development and redevelopment, land use and policy. I hope you'll chime in with your ideas by commenting on the Strong Towns Blog and on Facebook, following Strong Towns on Twitter, or by calling Strong Towns at (888) 454-5226.

In the meantime, count on continued Donjek projects and regular posts at the Cents of Place.