Give it Another Century and We’ll See How it Goes

40 thoughts on “Give it Another Century and We’ll See How it Goes”

  1. problem is material, wood versus stone
    in Europe is used stone for century, in USA is used wood for 20 years and after this is destroyed

    1. Yes and no.

      These California buildings are made of synthetic spray on pre-tinted stucco over foam with just a little bit of low quality timber – usually the “engineered” kind made of compressed dust. They will not last a century. If they were built in Ukraine or Norway they won’t last until Tuesday. But we don’t have winter here.

      On the other hand, Japanese buildings are designed to only last for twenty or thirty years and then are demolished. Japanese people like everything to be new. Historically small light weight buildings were better in Japan because of all the earthquakes. California has the same problem. Wood and rice paper bend and don’t kill you as easily as falling stones. Of course wood burns, so choose your devil…

    2. Biases, biases …. in California, building with stone is stupid (I live in a stone (granite cobblestone) house, but on the east coast of the USA, nowhere near the Pacific “ring of Fire”

      As someone who has done a lot of renovations, I can tell ALL of you that, unless there is a problem, most all materials are JUST FINE 50 years later, like not even 1 yr. old-looking, if they have been kept away from moisture, termites, settling, etc.

      I like cool, stronger-than-they-need-to-be materials too, and many stick built homes feel almost “underbuilt” — but that doesn’t mean they are going to revert to sawdust.

      Meanwhile, I have repointed a lot of brick bonds because of rain, freeze-thaw, etc….

  2. I think we need to put the housing affordability crisis in SF and places like that in perspective: in these winner-takes-all times it is about the only brake left on the runaway growth of the superstar cities (as Aaron Renn calls them) that is sucking the life from the rest of the country (also in Europe). Without that the second tier cities would be even more at risk of failing, never mind those below. Thus if we look at the big picture we should want the problems of these superstar clusters to become more acute, not less.

  3. Love this article- I grew up in neighborhoods in SF and Northern Cali exactly like those- older, well loved, gardens in alleys and side yards, many had businesses ‘upfront’ or down stairs. Now I work with rural communities and am seeing many of them begin to embrace the big city band wagon of building on the fringe and limiting everything. And 2.9 cars?? Our state demands that. Why 2.9? call it three. And what’s wrong with on street parking? we lived through it.

  4. Love the scale; very human-sized and convivial. Imagine if you could squeeze even a little mom and pop store into one of those Pomona gated (or anytown, usa) neighborhoods you show? It’d provide a focal point for the community and maybe you’d even meet your neighbors. Here in my part of S. Portland, Maine the town has mandated that businesses may only be on one side of the main street through town, with residential on the other. Being a busy street, it’s a royal PITA to get across to do some errands or even get a six pack.

    Other examples of the living arrangements you describe may be seen in the Beijing hutong neighborhoods and, my personal favorite, the fishing villages in Fife, Scotland: Ansthruther, Crail and Pittenweem. Take a google earth streetview “tour” and you’ll see what I mean.

    J. H. Crawford lays out a lot of this, with some pretty grand plans, in is book “Car Free Cities”.

    Thanks for the interesting posts!

    1. Yes, I do love narrow streets like Elfreth’s Alley and Pontocho. But I had never heard of Nathan Lewis before. I just Googled him. Okay. Sure. But my primary concern is the flexibility (or lack thereof) of the permitted uses of buildings.

      1. Nathan Lewis, in terms of his ideas, isn’t that different from Charles Marohn over on Strong Towns, but is more radical. Lewis would consider the late 19th Century style of development that Marohn calls “traditional” as part of the “suburban experiment” (Though he uses a different term: “The Hypertrophic City”). In fact Nathan Lewis sees the start of the suburban experiment as being during the 18th century, with the Enlightenment and advances in Engineering being the enabling factor for Suburbanization.

        I don’t necessarily agree with all of Lewis says (particularly in regards to medicine), but I see his stuff on urbanism as being spot on. In fact, there are times where I think he does a better job than Marohn is explaining the idea of Strong Towns. Of course, he had the same problem of trying to get those ideas put into real world practice, problems you know all too well.

  5. I think this may be the best thing I’ve read on this site yet. And it’s a great cite. You really have encapsulated a lot of what you’ve been saying for a couple of years. I love the examples from pre-car towns from around the world. Most Americans are imprisoned in the suburban paradigm and throw up all kinds of shade when people propose alternatives. This essay is a good illustration that vastly superior alternatives are readily available if people widen their scope just a little.

  6. Horticulture, even on a small scale, is key to the success of community revitalization.The second step is often the gay community.

    1. Please stop beating a dead horse. We get it. The Kumars are tiny small minded people who are trying to stop progress for their own petty needs. Enough already. Big picture here. Big picture.

      1. I am sorry to be Debbie Downer, but housing on the West Coast was needed yesterday:

        Big picture? Here’s some:

        Frankly I’d love to see a 20-story apartment tower with retail below put there. Something, anything. But it would cast a shadow (and might be built by outsiders, shh!)

        I’d love to recreate 1800s Philadelphia too, and maybe that can be done in Downtown Pomona where there is space available like this:,-117.7507115,3a,75y,252.24h,82.38t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1s5isB5quesgezYAvDK3PibA!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656

        But you know what is sitting a mile away from the corner of 3rd and South?


        1. @Erik I don’t understand what you are driving at. Your first Google Maps link is to Pomona, CA, the second one to Camden, NJ, a lot farther away than one mile: in fact a whole continent away!

          1. The first Google Maps Streetview Link shows downtown Pomona, which has plenty of capacity to be what Johnny wants based on the photos he shows above, such as the ones from Philadelphia. Dense, with plenty of potential.

            The second Google Maps Link is, yes, in Camden, NJ, and is exactly the same distance (about 1 mile) from 3rd and South in Philadelphia (location of the store called “Image on South”) as the project that Johnny is criticizing in this and the previous entry on Granola Shotgun.

    1. I love Detroit. I’ve written about it on this blog before. Detroit isn’t an anomaly. It’s a harbinger. And because it failed first it will reinvent itself sooner than other places. That’s already happening.

      I could use any number of dead white suburbs as examples of places that grew, peaked, then crashed. But how many people have ever heard of Colerain Township, Ohio? Detroit is a place everyone is familiar with.

  7. Thank you for the post. You’ve talked about the mismatch of “institutional” investment and how there is no way this urban environment can be supported by the money that’s available. The degree to which the deck is stacked against creating these beautiful places is astounding. As you have mentioned, the bureaucratic hurdles are designed to cater to the institutional investor. In reality, any place that beats the odds and begins to become attractive through micro-developments and micro-investments will quickly become overwhelmed by machine of modern development.

    All the while, the innate attractiveness of the places you highlighted in the post will remain the most desirable (and expensive) and impossible to recreate. Perhaps that’s the point. The average household doesn’t have the means (financial, physical, political emotional, etc) to create an economically productive household in these areas…let alone anywhere else.

    1. What I see everywhere I go are people who quietly find sub rosa ways of creating household economies and productivity under the radar. Lots of folks do run small businesses out of their homes. They just do things that aren’t readily visible from the outside. Single family homes are de facto multi family with room mates and borders. Growing a suburban garden for food and keeping a few hens, rabbits, and bees in the back yard is a genuine step towards family resilience. It’s all illegal, but it’s being done anyway.

        1. It depends on the particular location. HOA subdivisions and condo complexes are the most restrictive – right down to the color of your drapes. Pre-1980s tract home neighborhoods are usually pretty good. Older downtown neighborhoods are tricky. The great historic bones have almost all been compromised with suburban style overlay zoning and administrative policies that really limit what you can do. Pick your battles and choose wisely Grasshopper.

          1. Pomona code enforcement has gotten a lot of pushback recently for being aggressive, plus revenues aren’t there to support them, so they are only complaint driven. There are tons of cottage businesses since the cops are busy chasing murderers and car thieves and have little interest in mediating disputes.

  8. Good points. And we may not need to wait another century. This one is right up your alley, too.

    People have been paid less and sold into a lifestyle that costs more, and they don’t want change. Those coming after will have to adapt.

    “Decades of suburban life have conditioned everyone to demand certain characteristics. Renters are a transient and unsavory element that destroys the value, safety, and respectability of the community. Therefore only owner occupied single family units are permitted. Anything too small or too inexpensive will attract the poor and undesirable. So let’s only build homes large enough for middle class families to filter out the riffraff.”

    The key here is state and local government. The retired are sucking up more and more money, and public services are going to collapse. What’s going to happen to places with those kinds of attitudes when the big commercial tax ratable shuts down, the kids more away, and the pensions that haven’t been paid for for the large number of public workers hired to serve the boomers come due?

  9. Nailed it again. Great photos. I love the idea that 3-story walkable neighborhoods are somehow inherently… human. Our natural environment as a species.

    I do have a hard time getting across this concept to my younger colleagues; Even though they’re paying out the !!! to live in the inner Bay Area, where they don’t need a car, they’re somehow still obsessed with flying cars, autonomous cars, Boost Boards, Teslas, Hyperloops.. oh my! At the end of the day, it’s just point A to point B. Why not bring A to B?

  10. I couldn’t agree more. Some enlightened city governments will make fine-grained urbanism easier by allowing lot subdivision (as mine has) and reducing red tape to make it easier to build ADUs etc. (as mine is working on), but most of this country has to fail a lot more before it’s willing to try something other than doubling down on cars and the Ponzi schemes of big development projects.

    I think in your final paragraph you’re making a binary distinction in order to emphasize your point, which is fair. Of course in reality we’ll get an vast range of outcomes, many of which we probably can’t imagine now. There will be things worse than Detroit, and many gradations along the way between Detroit and Kyoto – and then there will be a spectrum of rural landscapes as well, from bucolic to hellish. And some areas will probably just be depopulated due to a lack of water and scorching temperatures, or due to being frequently underwater, or possibly the site of armed conflict.

    Next time you’re in Western Massachusetts, shoot me an email.

    1. I was in Springfield Mass a few months ago. My brother-in-law lives in Boston so I’ll be back in the area on a regular basis. Let me know if you’re ever in San Francisco and we can chat.

    2. You just barely touched the likely flashpoint: there isn’t enough water for everyone and everything in California and the desert southwest now…but the region still operates on the “If you build it, they will come” magic.

      1. Not just CA and the desert states – check out the Ogallala Aquifer. Even without population growth, agriculture in that area faces a serious problem, with national implications.

  11. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in this essay.

    Underlying all of this are social, political and economic choices we have made as a nation.

    I cannot state it any better or lay out the case than you have.

    1. High praise. But you know we aren’t going to do any of the things I’ve outlined here. And you know Pomona et al is going to crash and burn right? So be it…

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