Radical Urbanism
Urban and Economic Development
Radical Urbanism

Radical Urbanism is an alternative approach to urban planning and economic development. It confronts widely accepted, ostensibly enlightened methods of urban placemaking, which are unable to produce an urbanism as rich, genuine, human-scaled, and economically diverse that found in our beloved old urban districts. This is because the top-down mechanisms they rely onmaster plans, historic district protectives, developer-friendly tax breaks, aesthetic codes, and the like—are artificial replacements for the authentic bottom-up processes that created urban places decades and centuries ago.

Radical Urbanism returns to the originating point of mixed-use urbanism: the home-based business. Nearly all our great mixed-use urban districts were born through an organic process of ordinary citizens opening street-visible businesses in their homes. By turning dining rooms into cafes, living rooms into hair salons, garages into machine shops, spare bedrooms into second-hand stores, and basements into repair facilities, we created mixed-use streets, central business districts, and even downtowns. The resulting urbanism was authentically intertwined with local culture. It was one in which citizens were personally invested, in which businesses were owned by familiar faces, and in which buildings had genuine, not cosmetic, human scale.

Over the past century, government regulation (zoning codes, building codes, heath codes, child labor laws, and others) has made it illegal to open most types of businesses in the home. This has robbed American urbanism of its natural source of sustenance, and compelled us to substitute top-down, government-led, developer-centric methods of development. It has placed the entrepreneurial aspirations of many citizens beyond their reach, and caused national-scale economic harm. Indeed, the dominance of large corporations in America today can be traced directly to our having constrained small urban business development for decades.

More on Radical Urbanism will be coming soon. For now,
you might want to start with this early post. You can also read "Bringing Urbanism Home" in Architect magazine by clicking here, and "Radical Urbanism" in Architecture Boston magazine by clicking here.


elemental, essential, root-based

the dense arrangement of residences and commerce 

Radical Urbanism:
urban environments created through the proliferation of home-based businesses
"The word 'radical' comes from the Latin radix, meaning 'root'.... The proper radical is one who tries to get to the root of things, to not be distracted by superficials, to see the woods for the trees. It is good to be a radical. Anyone who thinks deeply will be one."

  – M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum

The "Emptyway": Boston's lifeless Kennedy Greenway 
originally posted October 2, 2009

In today's Boston Globe, Andrew Ryan laments the lack of activity on Boston's Kennedy Greenway, an enormous public park built over the depressed central artery, a.k.a., the Big Dig, a.k.a., the most expensive public works project in U.S. history.

There are many reasons the Greenway is underused and will forever be that way, including some pervasive misunderstandings as to what makes cities and city parks active and interesting. Here is a big part of what went wrong: The tunnel was originally designed and constructed to support a fairly continuous fabric of five story development. In other words, you could build the Back Bay on top of it without having to engage additional engineering measures. And fittingly, if you look at the active, interesting neighborhoods around America—Back Bay, the North End, Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Mission District, etc.—they’re all around this height (or even a little lower). Had the city been willing to follow through with the kind of development that should have happened over the highway, we would be watching an active new neighborhood arising today instead of wondering why the area is empty and boring.

For reasons they don't care to examine, city administrations today think almost exclusively in terms of bigness. They seek big developers to build big buildings on big, consolidated parcels, ignoring the obvious evidence that the best streets everywhere are dense agglomerations of smallness. This focus on the big shots to the expense of the little guy contributes (along with other factors, too numerous to mention here) to a sense in the zeitgeist that designing big open spaces are an appropriate urban planning counterstrategy, one that “gives something back” to the ordinary citizens denied a meaningful role in shaping their city.

Cities used to arise through predominantly bottom-up forces. The city districts we most love today came from Mom and Pop, not city hall; and from the agglomeration of many small, incremental gestures rather than grand, once-and-for-all gestures. And yet we pursue only bigness and top-downness today, somehow thinking it necessary (“times have changed,” we tell ourselves), while ignoring the obvious evidence that this method has never produced a city district half as interesting as those that used to emerge on their own, bottom-up. And need I mention that they arose without the expense of master plans, feasibility studies, developer tax breaks, and the like that take tax money out of your pocket and mine?

Sure, there are a number of things the city administration may do to help activate the Greenway. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino suggests holding more concerts there. But genuinely interesting public spaces aren’t active because of special events; they’re active when nothing at all is scheduled to occur. Look at the Ramblas in Barcelona: it’s perpetually busy and fascinating because it’s part of the everyday life of the neighborhoods it runs thorough. If we had allowed an everyday neighborhood to be built over the Big Dig... well, you know the rest.

Obamanomics and top-downism...
originally posted February 25, 2009 

Let's see, now... where was I?

Oh yes, our economy is going into the toilet. And so far, the Obama administration, despite all that is genuinely new and inspiring about it, has framed the problems of our economy (and the solutions) in the same top-down terms as every preceding administration, Democratic and Republican. Handing or loaning money to Wall Street or Detroit, regardless of caveats attached to the incomes and bonuses of the recipients, is old-fashioned, unimaginative top-downism. It preserves and reinforces the old, failing order.

If we want to really repair the nation's economy, we will start bottom-up. Forget about General Motors and AIG; instead, let's find ways to create as many new businesses as possible in the ways most immediately available to the largest number of citizens. How can a government program encourage this? Actually, it doesn't have to do much at all. Mostly, it needs to get out of the way. It simply (OK, not "simply" when you consider the political obstacles) needs to remove the legal impediments to home-based businesses. Remove the unnecessarily strict zoning, health, and building codes that make it difficult or impossible for Mildred to open a donut shop and Manny to open a paint store in their living rooms, and watch the economy take off. (Yes, I know, such removals would require a combination of federal, state, and local efforts, many of which would be beyond the President's formal power. But the inspirational power required for such an effort most surely does reside with him.)

What?! Leave it to Mom and Pop to save the American economy? Replace the economic power of GM and AIG with some piddling neighborhood businesses?

Well, where do you think America's big businesses came from in the first place? Has our understanding of economic development become so static that we've forgotten that every large company was once a medium sized company, and before that was a small company? Have we forgotten that every business, at one time and
somewhere in its lineage, was nothing more than Mom and Pop sitting at the breakfast table trying to figure out how to make a living? Do we not recognize that when you cut this process off at the root, you eventually end up with an economy constructed of overlarge, aging businesses lacking imagination and flexibility? Do we not recognize that this is the true crisis of the American economy today, brought about by decades of discrimination against Mom and Pop?

Indeed, the central problem of American industry is not that GM and Chrysler will collapse without government assistance; it's that for many decades we have not been cultivating new small businesses that would have been growing into larger businesses. Had we been doing so, it wouldn't be so upsetting today to lose a GM (motto: "boring old men making boring cars for other boring old men"); we would simply be turning to the up-and-coming auto-makers ready to step into GM's shoes with more innovative products.

What's that, you say--you don't want new businesses in your peaceful residential neighborhood? You don't want your next-door neighbor opening a donut shop or paint store or DVD repair service? 

Fine, then. Just be sure to count yourself among those voting for more giantism, more top-downism, and less personal liberty for everyone else. And while you're at it, you pay for the bailout and keep your hands out of the pockets of those who prefer to live in a human-scaled, genuinely entrepreneurial society.

The financial crisis...
originally posted October 6, 2008

It is impossible to ignore the US's current financial crisis, regardless what one is blogging about. What is at stake from the standpoint of Radical Urbanism? Does Radical Urbanism say we should have a federal bailout, or should the free market be left to its own devices?

Radical Urbanism indeed posits the superiority of the free market
, but specifically one that is human-scaled. It promotes a society made up of innumerable, small-scale Mom and Pop entities located on Main Streets (and Elm Streets and Crabapple Lanes) across the country, not a few mega-entities on the suburban strip and downtown and on Wall Street. Radical Urbanism is about building life incrementally through many little steps rather than through heroic ones. It is about seeking meaning and purpose through the local and the familiar. It is about pursuing a rich life, and not necessarily about being rich.

Our financial crisis has been driven by the antithesis of these values. For many decades, we have been building a society of a few mega-sized economic entities rather than many small Mom and Pops. The now-obvious danger in this is that when one of our mega-entities fails, it can take down with it an inordinately large portion of the economy. Because zoning laws systematically hamper self enterprise, we don't build our lives and our economic stability incrementally. We instead endorse heroicism and giantism. We believe we can -- and deserve to -- get rich now. For too many Americans, this means seeing one's house not as a "home" -- as a place one loves and finds meaning and purpose in, but fundamentally as an monetary investment. From there it is a short step to using one's home as a cash machine by tapping into its current equity rather than waiting until it is sold. And it has been one more short step from there to the mortgage debacle which catalyzed our current financial crisis.

This has been an incredibly stupid thing for Americans to do -- although on another level it is entirely understandable: When zoning laws and NIMBYism and our own fear of seeing our neighborhoods change prevent us from building our lives incrementally within our homes and upon things we find inherently meaningful -- we end up substituting the satisfaction of pure material riches. We pursue lives not of meaning, but of material reward, because that is how it seems life has to happen.

Wake up, America. This is not at all how life has to happen. Allow real home-based businesses. Allow your neighbor to open a repair shop in her living room. Allow the neighbor on the other side to open a bookstore or a bakery. And as for you: figure out what you can contribute directly to your neighborhood and do that, rather than waiting for your stock portfolio, your mortgage refinancing, or the federal bailout to make things OK.

There goes the neighborhood
originally posted September 30, 2008

Last week I was invited by Elizabeth Padjen of Architecture Boston Magazine to participate with a number of other local urbanists in a brainstorming session on neighborhoods, the subject of an upcoming issue. Architecture Boston is probably my favorite architectural publication, and Elizabeth cranks out an thoughtful issue every two months with comparatively limited resources.

Among other things, we discussed a problem facing nearly all city neighborhoods today: the imposition of large-scale development -- condos, hotels, colleges and hospital expansions, chain stores, and similar -- on older, human-scaled neighborhoods of two- and three-family houses, small apartment buildings, and Mom and Pop stores. It is more than a physical problem; it is one that concerns the subverting of the social fabric. For no matter how much brick or how many bay windows adorn that new 241-unit condo block, the fact is that a building that large will never really be part of the neighborhood in which it sits. It will be its own entity with its own rules of governance, its own largely isolated social systems. Its internal corridors, unlike the streets and alleys that weave through a typical neighborhood, will be off-limits to the larger public. Its residents lives will not be delicately interwoven with the lives of their more "ordinary" neighbors; instead, the condo residents will park in the basement of their building, work out in the building's private gym, and send their kids to private schools -- if they don't move out altogether when their kids approach school age.

Radical Urbanism is fundamentally concerned with the problem of scale, because it promotes incremental rather than cataclysmic change. When neighborhoods
change incrementally, growth is accommodated with lots of small-scale buildings and additions which become integrated into the physical and social fabric one by one. Instead of a neighborhood lying dormant for 30 years until the day a 241-unit building is proposed, the local residents grow their neighborhood on an ongoing basis -- someone adds a third floor to his house to accommodate a new family, another converts a garage into an in-law apartment, and an empty nester converts a large single family home into a multi-unit,  single-room occupancy hotel.

The point is that growth and change are unavoidable, and have to be accommodated. So make your choice: Either allow new buildings and businesses to be created continually and incrementally
within your neighborhood by those who live there, or sit on your hands and wait for a mammoth project to be sprung on you by a complete stranger who will never care about your neighborhood as much as you do. The simple truth is that if Americans were willing to allow organic development, the needs of our cities would be met through numerous smaller, more agreeable projects rather than through fewer, disruptively large ones.

Photo of One Charles Boston, above, from www.bushari.com

Gallery Exhibit: "Practice of Encroachment"
originally posted September 21, 2008

In New York City last week, I came across an exhibit of the work of Teddy Cruz, a San Diego architect and planner. I wish I had discovered the exhibit sooner (it closes in October), but I recommend it to anyone interested in organic urbanism. The exhibit brilliantly illuminates issues surrounding building development in border zones, such as the US-Mexico border at San Diego-Tijuana.

Mexicans and Americans default toward very different ways of creating and evolving built settlements. San Diego is characterized by the usual American
brand of suburbanization -- residential-only neighborhoods, segregated commercial uses, and sprawl. The Tijuana side tends toward a make-do brand of mixed-use development stemming largely from home-based enterprise. Thus, while most Americans keep their houses separate from everything else, a Mexican home is inextricably tied to economic and cultural growth. A Tijuana living room might be used one day for the family TV space, but the next day it could become a hair salon. Blink hard and you could miss a front yard being turned into a flea market, a garage becoming a taqueria, or a side porch being converted into a repair shop.

Differing values on either side of the border lead to some interesting dynamics when the cultures interact. Mexicans immigrants moving into the residential neighborhoods in and around San Diego frequently open illegal businesses, daycare centers, and churches in their new American homes. Established San Diegans, accustomed to homogeneity and predictability, typically erect legal obstacles (or more often, enforce existing obstacles) to home-based enterprise. The confrontations can become quite contentious. Sometimes, however, the cultural interface leads to benefits, such as when a wealthy American seeks to replace a modest post-war house with a larger "McMansion." Instead of the modest Levittown-like bungalow being discarded, it is often transported across the border to Tijuana. There, it might be placed atop a steel frame where it becomes part of an ad-hoc, mixed use urbanism of ground floor businesses and upper floor housing.

Ugly? In the eyes of most Americans and perhaps Mexicans as well, yes. But ugliness, if that's what it is, is necessary to living creatively. Indeed, nearly all the world's beloved towns and cities once went through very similar stages of ugliness before growing into more cohesive and beautiful places
over many decades and centuries. The question that urbanists and Americans need to ask today is why we let our fear of ugliness and unpredictablity rule our city building. Indeed, that which passes for "enlightened" urban design today consists almost wholly of regurgitated, top-down methods of place making. But when we outlaw urban ugliness, we also outlaw the possibility of a far more beautiful urbanism down the road -- an urbanism which is far more inclusive, democratic, and interesting than has been or ever will be produced by the New Urbanists, the historic preservationists, the contextualists, the city hall master planners, and all the rest of the enlightened crowd.

Bravo, Teddy Cruz.

"Practice of Encroachment: From the global border to the border neighborhood"
PARC Foundation Gallery, 29 Bleecker Street, New York City

Urbanism begins at home
originally posted September 10, 2008

This blog takes aim at a hypocrisy underlying current methods of urban placemaking in America: the processes that once gave rise to the human-scaled, mixed-use urban districts that most urban aficionados claim to most love today have been illegal for several decades. Rather than allow organic, bottom- up forces to shape our cities as they once did, we use top-down controls -- ambitious master plans, historic district designations, developer tax breaks, architectural review boards, New Urban codes, and more -- to promote and manage the re-urbanization of America's cities. Such tactics are at best annoyingly anal-retentive; at worst, they are racist, elitist, totalitarian, economically backward, and culturally suffocating. And what they produce might not be urbanism at all.

I believe that urbanism properly begins not at city hall or in an architect's vision but at home. It begins when someone turns a dining room into a cafe, a living room into a nail salon, a garage into a machine shop, a spare bedroom into a second-hand bookstore or clothing store, a basement into an electronics repair shop. When a lot of people do this, a mixed-use urban district results, one in which the businesses are uniquely attuned to and intertwined with the local culture. It is an urbanism in which citizens are personally invested, in which the businesses and buildings are human scaled and owned by familiar faces. This is how Justin's Snacker Corner (above) or whatever predated it at this location in Philadelphia first came into being; no planner at city hall thought of it or could have thought of it first.

In the middle to latter part of the twentieth century, zoning laws began to disallow the organic, home-based creation of urbanism. Today, there are few businesses that can be legally initiated in an American home. One can be an architect, accountant, literary agent, software consultant, or some other type of clean-hands, paper-based professional. But if you want to sell, repair, or actually make something, you are out of luck.

America has not begun to consider what this means for our culture, our economy, and our collective psychology, even though we face its negative effects nearly every day. Indeed, if you are among the many who complain about the relentless giantism and
corporate predictability of Starbucks, WalMart, and The Gap, you are facing the reality of our having made it difficult for Mom and Pop to start new, unique alternatives. The reality is that when the law makes it hard for you and your neighbors to open a coffee shop in your own homes, your neighborhood is less likely to have a coffee shop. You and your neighbors are therefore more likely to have to get your morning coffee at a more distant shop. Where will that more distant shop be? In the next neighborhood? No, because that neighborhood also makes it difficult for new coffee shops to be opened. With new enterprise thus hampered, existing businesses like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts grow larger to provide goods and services to a passive populace. Thus has America, the Land of Opportunity, disempowered her citizens and cut her culture off at the knees for the past forty or more years.

The racial implications of illegalizing home-based enterprise are particularly disturbing. When white citizens abandoned America's cities in droves in the mid 1900s, they left behind
not only a disadvantaged, predominantly minority populace, but a set of zoning laws that effectively prohibited minorities from natural paths to economic opportunity and cultural expression -- the very paths that white Americans once used to achieve prosperity. These zoning laws have allowed white Americans to effectively ensure that economic growth in America over the ensuing decades would occur primarily through the expansion of existing -- i.e., predominantly white-owned -- businesses rather than through the proliferation of new minority businesses.

Top-down reurbanization, practiced in American cities from coast to coast, is the product of a desire for a white-controlled culture and economy. It is the product of white Americans having found themselves bored with suburban life; and now that they are moving back into the cities, controlling the agenda of how and by whom they get rebuilt.

Photo of Justin's Snacker Corner in Philadelphia (above) from malcomxpark.org

Radical urbanism:
allows an unusually wide range of home-based business start-ups, including retail, restaurant, services, and light assembly
promotes development by Mom and Pop, not just “developers”
fosters sustainable, bottom-up economic growth by and for all, from the skilled to the unskilled 
fosters incrementally evolving cityscapes that reflect the natural evolution of life 
is built on localized culture and democratic investment 
allows freedom of architectural expression
produces human-scaled buildings as a product of human-scaled culture

Radical Urbanism is not:
a free-for-all that allows a slaughterhouse next to a school
New Urbanism
"just like what we're already doing"
contrived to look old fashioned
subject to the feast-famine cycles of developer-based urbanism
reliant on government programs, tax breaks, or other top-down mechanisms

Matthew Frederick is an architect, urban designer, and author
of the best selling 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Hudson, NY: 518.697.7557
Cambridge, MA: 617.512.3669

428 Union Street
Hudson, NY 12534


See also:

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Residential Architecture 

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Hudson Urbanism


Matthew Frederick is an architect, urban designer, and author
of the best selling 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Mailing address:
428 Union Street
Hudson, NY 12534

Hudson, NY: 518.697.7557
Cambridge, MA: 617.512.3669


Copyright 2010 by Matthew Frederick. All rights reserved.