The Rise and Fall and Rise of Urban Infill

12 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Urban Infill”

  1. Yep, in San Francisco (at least in the northeast quadrant) all the space-wasting car infrastructure is going away–surface parking lots, gas stations, auto dealers, carwashes and drive-through anything. Next will be all the various muffler, auto repair and autobody repair places. As you say, car infrastructure and cars themselves work against effective cities by spreading housing and businesses out beyond walking distance and making biking and walking hazardous. I don’t think it’ll be more than five years before autonomous cabs, transit, walking and biking will replace most private car use in successful cities. (City denizens may still use private cars for trips outside the cities.) Cities that resist this transition, that resist urban infill, that insist buildings remain two stories and lower are pretty much dooming themselves to a very rough stretch ahead–likely economic strangulation near term, followed by helter-skelter catch up, substandard infill when they are flooded with refugees as the far suburbs empty out for good.

    The big problem is ultra-cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve is nearing an end. Once this happens, the massive misallocations of capital will cease, but even smart development projects will become more difficult to finance. We may end up with entire families living in 450 square feet studios designed for urban hipsters. Inner suburbs that have some kind of central core and access to some kind of rail transit will also get mobbed.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Phoenix and Las Vegas. Since they are doomed due to water and extreme heat issues, it’s not worth spending a lot of money there. Better to rebuild the cities with good bones that have potential, such as the decaying rust belt cities you often feature.

    1. Oh sister, you and I are on the same page. Personally I think the McMansions out on the fringe are the most likely repository of future extended family and/or multi-family cheap housing. People with cash on hand will drive up the cost of walkable mixed use neighborhoods near civilization.

      On the other hand, there will also be certain suburban locations that will successfully ruralize and get back to the business of productive agriculture and primary production. That’s the other model of adaptation that could not only work economically, but culturally and environmentally. I’m not holding my breath for Henderson, Nevada or Scottsdale, Arizona. They’re toast in the long run. But many fair-to-middling suburbs could reinvent themselves based on family, community, and agricultural productivity rather than densification and urbanization. That could appeal to both Tea Party types and the Hippy dippy crowd. I’ll do some posts on the subject soon.

      1. Scottsdale, Arizona has a density of 1100 persons per square mile, compared to 4300 in Tempe. Except for the infill incentive district, the city is very walkable and bikable, and the streets with wide bike lanes and sidewalks in the northern part of town. Henderson, NV is denser, but not nearly as dense as Las Vegas. Portions of Henderson are very bikable, and there’s a 50+ mile trail into Lake Meade National Recreation Area, along with the world famous mountain bike park in Boulder City, NV. 42% of Scottsdale will be open space in the next general plan for 2040, which is even higher than 33% in Thousand Oaks, California.

        1. Worse, Scottsdale is *openly hostile* to urbanization. Much to my surprise, most of Phoenix and Tempe and Mesa have been gung ho in favor of the light rail system and have been building tall buildings near it. I still don’t see how they deal with the water problem, but, well, they want to have a city. Scottsdale is trying to avoid having light rail and trying to keep buildings short. Well…. OK then. I think it’s going to end up as a sufficiently unattractive location that it’ll turn into a slum and then depopulate, but it’s up to them.

  2. Now that city living is back in vogue, tearing down a car wash for a mixed user in San Francisco is an economic no brainer. But what about the vast majority of America that doesn’t live in the inner city? I see several tiers:

    1. Older, inner ring “streetcar” suburbs can easily be retrofitted to be more human friendly and undo some mistakes. Tear down those shabby strip malls pronto.
    2. Middling neighborhoods with a mix of pre-War and auto scale development will be harder. In those areas, it’s best to concentrate on making the relatively dense nodes and boulevards walkable instead of trying to insert density out of context. Inevitably, traffic will increase and the ped environment won’t be perfect, but it’s better than the status quo.
    3. Pure auto suburbs should probably remain so. The die is cast. It’s a waste of money and energy to try and densify these areas and no one will be satisfied. That being said, there should still be a Main Street type place – probably the largest shopping mall – where people can get out and stretch their legs. I cringe, but I think more “Town Centre” and “Shoppes at Westpointe” type developments can be considered a win.

  3. I’m glad you’ve written on this topic. I’ve observed the same phenomenon here in Los Angeles (not surprisingly).

    1302 N. Sweeter, “El Mirador” in West Hollywood was built in the 1920s and is about six or seven stories tall. Surrounding it are lower buildings. I often have driven by here thinking that if NIMBYs were active 90 years ago, “El Mirador” would have provoked intense community opposition.

    The buildings we “urbanists” should oppose are those that do not respect or enhance the street. And many of our cities are too low, too one and two story, which encourages sprawl, and deadens walkable places.

  4. If there was a height ordinance of two stories, than many of us who oppose smart growth and favor low density, sunshine, and distant views, would not have a problem with infill housing. For example, the height limits in Ojai, Pismo Beach, Cave Creek, and Sedona are all approx. two stories or less. However, Arizona has one of the most pro-developer smart growth laws in the country. The law allows infill incentive districts, which means that the City Council can just designate regions of downtown for infill condos, reaching towards the sky. Scottsdale, Tempe, and Phoenix have all done this, and the end result is horrible traffic, bike accidents, and diminished walkability, since there are too many cars.

    1. A height restriction of “two stories or less”? Really? Have you been to Rome or Paris? The great cities of the world aren’t two stories tall. Nor are they all necessarily all skyscrapers either. My sweet spot is a city composed of predominantly walk-up buildings. Three, four, five, or six stories. After the seventh story it’s pretty much diminishing returns as far as I’m concerned.

      The problem with Arizona’s cities isn’t that the buildings are too tall. It’s that the basic street grid is grossly over sized for humans. The streets are all eight lanes wide. The blocks are endlessly long. You can’t reasonably walk or bike anywhere in Phoenix or Scottsdale because of the scale of the city. It’s just too damned spread out for humans. Adding more buildings does add more cars and more traffic. But having fewer buildings on that massively expensive infrastructure is a recipe for municipal bankruptcy.

    2. The problem with low density suburbs, etc. is that you don’t really get a rural experience like a farm or meadow, you get a sort of poorly simulated one which in the end just becomes a never-ending landscape maintenance project.

      > Scottsdale, Tempe, and Phoenix have all done this, and the end result is horrible traffic, bike accidents, and diminished walkability, since there are too many cars.

      Are they literally infilling with JUST housing?! Doing nonsense like that isn’t infill, its just business-as-usual development by developers and for their own benefit, not the people who do/will live there.

    3. The problem is that buildings are low rise. That is the cause of congestion, because it increases the need for surface travel. The idea that 6 story buildings cause congestion is mostly false.

      Also walkability is a function of sidewalk and street design, not building design.

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