Soft Planning + Subdivision Science

This post will begin to outline a research trajectory I am currently exploring, and hope to develop much further in the coming year. It takes the residential subdivision as a key point of intervention in the American metropolis, and seeks opportunities to introduce new forms of creativity, adaptability, and resilience into this ubiquitous form of (sub)urban development. Looking both to the rich history of innovation and experimentation in the history of housing development, as well as to emerging mapping, modeling, and simulation tools, this research will explore the possibility of reclaiming the innate flexibility and adaptability of the stud frame house and subdivision development as a path towards revitalizing the American residential landscape in the face of ongoing transformations of the city.

In the 1920’s, the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), spearheaded by Clarence Stein, Benton MacKaye, Lewis Mumford, Alexander Bing, and Henry Wright, forwarded a series of demonstration projects for a new kind of residential development. These now famous prototype developments, including Sunnyside Gardens, Queens (1924) and Rayburn, New Jersey (1928), offered alternative spatial configurations from the 19th century gridded neighborhood. These projects sought to forge more explicit relationships between the various elements and networks of the modern city, and introduced a host of new spatial products to the American residential development: neighborhood units, superblocks, cul de sac, and greenbelts. These elements were understood within a set of “interlocking functions” that governed and negotiated relationships across the various scales of the growing city, linking individual houses to pedestrian and vehicular networks, schools, green areas, and local and regional infrastructure (Keller Easterling, Organizational Space, 1999). These plans, building on Ebenzeer Howard’s diagrammatic language for urban planning, envisioned a dynamic and adaptive kind of residential development, responding to the specific, measurable condition of the site. Neighborhood plats were laid out in response to the topography of the site, organized in relation to walkable distance radii to schools and greenbelts, with elements like the cul de sacs conceived as an interface between extensive pedestrian and vehicular networks, rather than insulating dead-ends.


The ambitions of these projects was to institute what Keller Easterling calls a “subdivision science”, establishing spatial protocols, development strategies, and zoning frameworks that allow for a rational program of site specific residential development. And while both of these neighborhoods stand as a point of reference for innovative residential spatial organization, the also serve as a cautionary tale for the economic capture of spatial products. The rationalization of these systems set us down a forked path: on the one hand, this rationalization allows far more flexibility, variability, specificity, and ultimately marketability; on the other hand, it was precisely these terms which opened the residential landscape up wholesale capture by market forces which would ultimately shape it in response to abstract economic imperatives rather than the physical, material, experiential textures of the site.

This begs a tricky question: to what extent does flexibility and rationalization of urban plans open up opportunities for creativity and adaptability, and to what extend do they simply allow for further penetration of these forces, and a general realignment of the urban fabric from performance to profitability? Or perhaps, more to the point, what kinds of flexibility and rationalization of the urban plan are productive in unlocking creative development? In trying to conceive of new models for “soft planning” in the American residential landscape in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse, boom/bust dynamic of the housing market, and the persistent inequalities in the American city, how do we position and organized this “softness” to ensure that it strikes the balance between profit and performance, creativity and scalability, variability and cohesion? Clearly this is a complex problem, requiring a working understanding of the web of physical, social, and environmental, financial, regulatory conditions, the politics of NIMBYism, gentrification, and so on.

This project will attempt to revitalize the diagrammatic approach of the RPAA plans and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, drawing on the history of housing development over the past century, as well as emerging computational tools and urban data. The goal will be to develop platforms for generating and evaluating site specific, adaptable urban plans for new and existing residential areas. This project rejects comprehensively recent calls to eliminate urban planning codes to be replaced by a “hegeomonic parametricism.” Rather, this projects seeks to explore the ways these codes and institutions can be augmented through the use of computational tools, building on the intelligence embedded within these systems while attempting to overcome unnecessary rigidity or friction and strike the delicate the balance between structure and freedom in any organizing system.

A key part of this research includes an investigation of four neighborhoods, representing the full arc in the evolution of the subdivision neighborhood over the past 100 years, all in or around New York:

  1. Rayburn, New Jersey (1928) – pre-industrialized subdivision
  2. Levittown, New York (1947) – early industrialized subdivision
  3. 1980’s Subdivision TBD – mature industrialized subdivision
  4. Pre-2008 Subdvision TBD – speculative subdivision

Places Journal and The Atlantic’s Citylab publications, among many others, provide rich sources for the ongoing debates and analysis of the current state and deep history of the American residential landscape. I will try to aggregate relevant articles on this topic below:

Housing Construction Links

Detroit Recover + Housing Links:

Spatial Inequalities

NIMBYism + Gentrification

Economics of the American housing crisis:



Ossification + Speculation

I’ve been digging into the history of American housing and subdivisions, trying to flush out my research proposal. Very strange and interesting and at times scary history. In particular, I am looking for drivers of the ossification of the material system of the balloon frame and the spatial system of the subdivision. Not surprisingly, there are a plethora great articles taking these issues on over the past couple years, including Beyond Foreclosure by Aron Chang and Ossified Dwelling by Renee Chau in the fantastic Places Journal.

Also, some interesting observations from from Robert Schiller’s book Irrational Exuberance that I am trying to get my head around, including this graph:

Inline image 2

Quite interesting to look at home prices in this graph, and the distinct phases the market has gone through, from unregulated market before 1929, to the collapse of the market in the depression itself, to the long period of (enforced) stability from 1945-1974, to the boom-bust cycles since the deregulation of the 1980’s. It becomes apparent that 2008 crash was just the biggest of 3 cycles so far, and the data seems to suggest we are on our way to a fourth. Further deregulation by Trump and the Republican Congress will no doubt feed the fire.

Schiller argues that housing price are decoupled from building cost, and that on average housing price remains at its 1890 level, corrected for inflation. I’m no economist, but it does seem like, since the 1980’s, housing speculation is driving prices up, and this bears out in the experience of young people trying to buy houses these days (especially in places like SF and PDX). I have been wondering (as suggested by Renee Chau in the above article) if the important relation is not price to construction cost, but rather the ratio of land cost to construction cost. As land cost continue to increase relative to construction costs, this drives developers to build larger houses on smaller lots, pushing the median cost of the house higher and higher. This was of course exacerbated by the housing crisis, as people took on more and more debit to buy bigger and bigger houses, as they considered not only their family’s needs but also the “curb appeal” of the house and its potential to be resold at a profit.

Just cracking the surface, but it seems like there is an interesting architecture/urban planning project in here, targeting both the “ossification” of existing subdivisions and the uncontrolled growth of new developments, driven by unhinged speculation and profiteering.