Lean Urbanism

What is the “minimum viable product” for urban renewal?

Through an interesting confluence, I recently came across three different instances of the same question: what is the “minimum viable product” for urban renewal? Last Monday, I visited the O’Reilly Media office in the old Pfizer building in Brooklyn, and was struck by how unfinished space was side by side with finished, how the remnants of the old laboratory had not been removed but rather just incorporated into the existing space. It is a kind of urban office-steading, pioneering a gritty frontier, as opposed to a more standard style of development in which the building is stripped, upgraded, and then opened to tenants, perhaps with a bit more character than an all-new building but with substantially the same sanitized promise. I posted photos and some reflections on Google+.

The next day, I sat in on a webinar with Carol Coletta of the Knight Foundation and Andres Duany of  the Project for Lean Urbanism. Duany’s idea is for “pink zones,” where, for purposes of exploratory redevelopment, red tape might be thinned out. The goal is to find what regulations really matter — and which don’t — and to start fresh to see if we can achieve urban renewal at lower cost.

When I told Jen Pahlka about the webinar, she pointed me to a TEDx talk by Jason Roberts on “tactical urbanism.” While Duany is engaged in trying to work with cities to create lighter weight regulatory regimes for redevelopment, Jason and his compatriots just do it. They flout regulations and then invite city officials in to see the difference it makes. The whole talk is great, but if it’s too long, watch from about seven minutes in, for an account of how Jason and crew reconstructed a block with popup shops, plants, and outdoor seating, to show what it could become. Particularly striking is the schedule of fees the city of Dallas charges for improvements that, if anything, the city should be paying to people who are willing to improve the neighborhood.

The exploration of what the startup community has come to call “lean” is critical for our rethinking of government as well. It breaks the stalemate between “government is too big and intrusive” and “but look at how many market failures there are — government must intervene,” and instead asks both government and citizens to perform experiments, to learn what works, and to make it easier to do the things that do work for us as a society.

I’d love to see “Lean Urbanism” spread in the same way as Lean Startup has spread!

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  • Patrick McDonnell

    We’ve been doin lean in Dallas for a while. Welcome to the convo!

  • dlldk8j

    I suppose red tape is part of it, but the big cities that are booming are the ones that have cut their real estate taxes. Why invest in a building in a city that taxes it at 2X percent when you can build the same building near by in a town that charges X percent or even X/2 percent.

    SF boomed after proposition 13. Boston boomed after it cut its taxes. If Detroit and Baltimore want to boom, they should cut the taxes.

    The red tape, while significant, is a one-time cost to redevelopment. Taxes are a gift that keeps on giving.

  • Bruce F. Donnelly

    I’m in the Lean Urbanism, and I can probably answer most questions.

    Basically, you can think of the Lean Urbanism and Tactical Urbanism as being in two carefully separated tracks. The Lean Urbanism is meant to be in the “Lean Seam,” which is more of a middle scale, and meant for the boomer generation. Tactical Urbanism is more at the smaller scale. Lean Urbanism is more software — getting rid of impediments — while Tactical Urbanism is more hardware: actual physical interventions. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s more or less right.

    The two will both be discussed at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo New York. (Search for CNU22.)

    I think there’s a lot of scope for thinking about these things together. I’ve been mentioning the whole Government-as-a-platform thing for a while now, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. Baffles me.