On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Retail that breaks all the rules: Lessons for a post-Perry neighborhood unit

In Portland there is a remarkable grocery store in mid-block, in the middle of Eastmoreland, a single family residential (“T-3”) neighborhood.  As you can see from the photos (below), it is a quiet local street, not an arterial.  And the site has no parking, surviving on on-street parking, and other traffic by walking and bike.  

They have a deli and sit-down eating.  It has been in continuous operation for 90 years.

I sent this to my friend Andres Duany, who sent it on to our mutual friends Paul Murrain and Chip Kaufman.  Andres wanted to make the point that this breaks the rules of Hillier’s “movement economy.”  Paul wrote back that this may be the case as an aberration, but that as a justification for use of a variant of the 1929 “Perry Diagram” of the so-called neighborhood unit (see diagram below), it is specious.

Ah, the Perry Diagram!  How it does persist, in newer forms. It is in Doug Farr’s book Sustainable Urbanism, and in the manual for LEED-ND, and in Andres’ Smart Code Manual.  And elsewhere.  I agree with Paul, this is a problem.  (Though Andres argues that it has bee updated – but Paul responds that he key problems still have not been addressed.)
The lesson I take from the mid-block grocery is this:  it is not simply management, but a whole host of factors — in this case primarily the creation of a destination.  But this is no mean feat.  It’s equally design, and emergence.
And a further lesson: Paul and Andres are both right, up to a point.  The movement economy must be respected.  It is as empirically observable as anything.  (And Perry is not at all empirically derived – it’s as ex cathedra as it gets, from a moral theory of the good society.)
But we must also respect, and allow for, the oddities that pop up — like a grocery store in mid-block on a local street, with no parking (in the US, mind you), or a pub in the middle of a hidden London Mews, or a successful barbecue restaurant at the back end of Prospect, etc etc.  And these oddities are not aberrations, but the grit in the oyster that can make a great place.  I take it this is what Andres is saying.  Fair enough.
Nonetheless, there is still a deep flaw of the Perry Diagram: it remains cellular, and segregated, allowing itself to become a fragmented piece of urbanism, severed by arterials and freeways form adjacent urbanism.  I’ll come back to that. But there is also a larger danger with any diagram.  

Douglas put it well when we had our session on the needed revisions to the Perry Diagram at the CNU conference in Denver last year.  He said that the danger with diagrams is that they get built.  As Chris Alexander pointed out back in ’64, in “A City is Not A Tree,” they then (if we’re not very careful) take on the top-down structure of mathematical trees, not the structure of real cities, which contain overlap and complexity.  And overlap and complexity is what the mid-block grocery, and the mews pub, and all the rest, exhibit.  

This is not just an exception that proves the rule, or an aberration.  It’s an essential property of complexity and indeed of life.  We really need to get it, I am convinced, if we are to crack the real challenge of lifelessness.  But if it can’t be reduced to a formula, then how the heck do we get it?

This is where I think it has more to do with how we use the model or the diagram.  If we use it as a loose armature on which things can evolve and emerge, and if we have a methodology to encourage the emergence of things we want, then we are getting close to it, I think.
Jacobs is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities,  but didn’t consider that her best book.  I think her two on economics – The Economy of Cities, and The Nature of Economies – might well be more important and enduring.  This is because economics is all about complexity and emergence.  You can get nowhere with the field if you don’t recognize and adapt to those phenomena.  (But you can get lots of shibboleths and ideological pronouncements — which is what has riddled the discipline for generations.  Sound familiar?)   
And this is the revolution in our understanding of nature, and in the needed transformation of our methods, as she hinted in the wonderful last chapter of Death and Life.  (Must reading for every urbanist.)
I recently heard a very nice term, “economic gardening.” It refers to a conscious strategy of capacity-building, cultural planning (in the sense of planning FOR culture, not planning OF culture) and re-structuring of feedback cycles to achieve planning goals – rather than (or I should say, supplementary to) the usual physical strategies.  That strikes me as very close to Jacobs’ view on all this.
Within THIS context, the potential usefulness of a neighborhood diagram takes on a different hue – a kind of trellis for the garden, as it were.  Or a kind of generator whose output is then adapted to the local quirks.  The oyster grit that makes urban pearls.
The same is true for codes – which of course, generally include diagrams. (There is a close analogue to DNA, in fact.) But how this generation occurs is now obviously a critical piece of the puzzle.  And also, of course, what is in the diagram.
Back to the centers and thoroughfares, and the needed diagram, and what it needs to have.  How does all this apply, then?  May I propose the following principle:
That is, the arterial never wins.  The freeway never wins.  Sprawl never wins.  We insist that urbanism ALWAYS wins.  (We insist that urban herbicides stay out of our garden.)
If the freeway is inevitable, then it needs to drop down below a continuous 400m street grid, as it does with, say, I405 in Portland, and some parts of I84.  The urbanism needs to remain intact.  No bypasses for sprawling freeway strip malls and auto-dependent industrial.  No Moses-style slicing of urban fabric into untenable, lifeless slivers. If you must have it, integrate it, and put the railroad tracks and other multi-modal transit right along it (as with I84 around Sandy Boulevard in Portland). 
But in far more cases, a multi-way boulevard is sufficient.  We engage this boulevard, and put urbanism right up against it.  WE NEVER TURN OUR BACKS.  WE NEVER SURRENDER.
This will mean that we do not create isolated pods, severed by arterials.  We create a continuous urban trellis on which the patterns of neighborhoods can emerge…
Can we agree to this principle?  I suggest that all else will follow….
– Michael Mehaffy

p.s. there is a paper on this topic in Urban Design International, with Yodan Rofe’, Sergio Porta, Nikos Salingaros and myself, where we propose something along these lines, called the “emergent neighborhoods model.”  See 

“Urban nuclei and the geometry of streets: The `emergent neighborhoods’ model.”

Authors: Mehaffy, Michael1; Porta, Sergio2; Rofè, Yodan3; Salingaros, Nikos4

Source: Urban Design International, Volume 15, Number 1, 2010 , pp. 22-46(25)

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan




One comment on “Retail that breaks all the rules: Lessons for a post-Perry neighborhood unit

  1. David Sucher
    January 30, 2011

    Lovely post. Seattle has a number (though no longer a great number) walk-to grocery stores.One of the common denominators is plentiful on-street parking. It looks to me as if there are a dozen spaces within a 100′ radius and since the store is in a single family neighborhood, there is little competition (for parking spaces.)

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