Thursday, December 9, 2021

How to Build a Small Town in Texas

Part I: The Place.

Of all the questions I get on Twitter the most common is this: “How do you build a town?” We know well how it used to be done, but these last one or two centuries we have forgotten how to do it (with only a handful of notable exceptions during the last century1). The other day I was asked again, but this time with a set of premises that made the question a little easier to approach. I have anonymized all the details but the general idea remains: four guys (friends) with money have bought a suitably large piece of land in Texas and now want to create a car-free human-scaled town2 of the kind that I am always writing about.

In this text I intend to set out the most bare-bone basic premises for how to start a good town, what is needed to build something anti-fragile3 and sustainable4 under the above mentioned scenario. I will go back to this text and edit it, add points, or discuss certain aspects deeper in future texts, especially those points that stimulate questions or controversy.

This is my first published long form. It is my general idea to write as little as possible while still getting the point across. I might delete this first attempt.

  1. Size and borders: “You can’t have a garden without fences.”

To create a human scaled town we first establish what is a good size, and this is simply one third of a square kilometer, or 82 acres, or 0.13 square miles. 80 acres was the upper limit for a good family farm in medieval England, and it is still the size at which the most flexible and efficient farms run, both modern and more old fashioned Amish family farms. It allows a town where no point can’t be reached on foot in 15 minutes, and it allows comfortable living for a population of 3000, which was considered the ideal size in medieval Europe: the upper limit of efficiency and comfort, productivity and harmony: more and you get crowded, less and you risk being without some important trades and activities. Even though the premise talks about a town of 600, we plan three centuries ahead for a maximum population of ca. 3000.

A good town (the urban) is clearly defined and set apart from the countryside (the rural). The suburban has no place here. Hence the town needs to be as clearly marked out and defined as the individual family lots will be: to here, but no further. For this purpose we will mark out land to be used as a wall, raised embankment, hedge, fence, moat, canal, etc. Some sort of edge which is not routinely nor distractedly crossed.

As for shape, I recommend a somewhat irregularly oval shape, near round in one extreme, or rice grain shaped in the other extreme, for the simple reason that the best towns and cities seems to be oval to some degree5. As far as possible the existing topography should be kept or even enhanced. Perfectly flat land is only popular with boring developers. So: no bulldozing allowed. Existing trees should be left and existing paths should be left in place (even when slightly inconvenient). New paths and streets should follow the contours of the land. Anything historic (an old campsite, an ancient grave or remains of an old farmstead) should be kept and protected and venerated. History is in short supply in new developments, and interesting stories can be woven around something as mundane as an abandoned old cart or well.

The oval (left) and the (Japanese) grain of rice. Good basic shapes for a town.
  1. Water, energy, food and connections: the needs hierarchy of towns.

Since the premise is Texas, and undeveloped land, I am imagining land that is more or less parched, but with short and intense annual rains that risk flooding the entire area. The town will be in a perpetual state of drought and need to be prepared for flash floods6. Hence cisterns, reservoirs, water harvesting will be vital, and whatever gets built, roofs will harvest water into private cisterns or ponds, and all streets will direct stormwater to overflow-proofed cisterns. An area the size of two or three football pitches outside the town will be devoted to flood protection and temporary storage of water. During most the year this land will be dry and a perfect spot for sports, barbecues, festivals, playgrounds, fairs and markets.

This arrangement should make the town self-sustainable in household water at least. Pumping groundwater should not be an option, it is simply not sustainable in an arid/semi-desert environment and Texans already know how to build and manage water harvesting infrastructure. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and spend tons of resources on piping in distant water.

There will be an urge to build each home optimized for air conditioning. Don’t. All buildings must be useful and livable even with the power cut. Hence, natural ventilation, strategically designed windows that open, etc. is necessary. Obviously you can add AC (Air conditioner) on top of that, but in no way should the town be dependent on AC. I don’t think a town can casually produce the energy it needs by itself (for that a far more serious effort would be needed), but even if the grid is cut, it should have enough to power food storage, basic lights and communications (WiFi etc.). This can be achieved with limited private and public PV (photo voltaic or solar power). For hot water, solar heaters are useful even in a Texan winter, and all homes will be equipped with fireplaces, wood stoves and chimneys.

Once you remove the need for heating, cooling and transport from a town’s energy needs, you are left with something that will easily run on limited solar (and the attached batteries) in case of a grid failure. This will also save the town and its people large amounts of money even in the near future.

For food, the town should not spare any effort to be self-sustainable. Food items are also a prime export product, especially high-end refined items (exporting raw materials/food isn’t a good use of resources). It provides jobs and income and is a sure way to draw tourists. For this purpose there will be no lawns, but plenty of gardens, orchards, street side herbs, roof top apiaries and flowers to feed the bees that inhabit them. The rural area (the “market garden zone”) surrounding the town out to a radius of one mile should be devoted more or less entirely to food production in some form, and it should be farmed primarily by the people living in town on a professional or hobby level (either one is fine: create the best allotment system in Texas!). The second belt, is the farm zone. Here I would recommend, if not enough farmers could be found, to offer the land at good prices to Amish families to farm. 800 acres is enough for 10 farms. They also have the expertise to run a farm in any sort of energy crises. The rule of thumb is that only people who live directly off the land should live in the rural area (the “farm zone”).

Inside the town basic facilities for food processing should be found. From feed and dairy refinement to meat processing. People should be encouraged to plant espaliered fruit trees on every suitable south facing wall. Poultry, pigs and rabbits should be kept, not only for meat, eggs, but also to produce high quality fertilizer for the poor soil in the area. And this goes for humanure7 as well. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers should be completely banned from the start. Water should be treated organically and as low-tech as possible, on site.

A good “code-hack” for any small town was developed in Seaside, Florida: “one 14x14 feet area of a lot has no height limitation”8. This will spur people to build towers and spires, which are useful for housing bats and pigeons which will help in pest control (pigeons are also an unbeatable supply of food). Some space in the town itself should be reserved for food production: dovecotes, commons for grazing, etc. A small town like this needs no parks, so instead institute seed gardens (small gardens used only for producing seeds) of vegetables and herbs. Encourage people to keep flowers (to help honey production): consider instituting a program where each square foot of flower pot space gives you a certain weight of honey from the public or private apiary.

Ideally you want to build a new town in a region where there are already people present, near larger cities or along a “necklace” of small towns. This makes it easier to attract citizens, and it also makes the town less isolated, more easily connected to outside markets, tourism etc. but in this scenario the land is marginal and a bit far from towns and airports. Hence, save space for a convenient and scenic (you can’t do fast at this scale) rail or canal or river ferry connection to the nearest larger town. It will raise the value of the town land itself and everything it produces will have a better access to a market (especially perishables). It is also a great way to bring tourism into the city without having to provide parking.

It is possible to build isolated cities but the chances of succeeding is so slim I would not recommend it. Decide from the beginning where you want a possible rail station, by the gate? Inside the town? Through the town? It is easy to prepare the ground now, rather than wait until it is all developed and built up.

  1. Materials and harmony.

All materials used, as far as possible, should be of local origin. In Texas that means the town will be built from rammed earth, adobe bricks, some fired bricks or stone. No concrete, vinyl sidings, clapboard (not ideal in an arid town environment anyway), plastic etc. Before anything gets built, a pattern book9 for the town must be developed that should have a few very basic buildings types for new residents to easily build and that fits in anywhere in town. A color pattern will be developed using locally accessible earth tones and pigments (if the local geology provides some odd hue of green or yellow here’s a chance to make the town stand out from the beginning). Official or public buildings should be set in a specific color to create a coherent pattern for the town. I recommend bright yellow and white trimmings for this purpose.

  1. The problem of undeveloped and vacant lots.

In the beginning, especially in a town planned for 3000 but only housing 100-600, there will be plenty of empty lots. These should still be managed and walled or fenced, with the understanding that they will, sooner or later, be built upon. These “gaps” can be filled with low walls and contain gardens and playgrounds until they are sold or developed. Fast growing trees can be grown on empty land and used as energy or raw material.

Tournai in modern Belgium. Look at all the green spaces, imagine the fresh air, the invigorating call of roosters in the morning, the scent of herbs and flowering orchards in the early summer breeze!
  1. Who will live there?

Obviously the town will need to generate a working income, so lots will be sold to the highest bidder, but you will also want to reserve lots for the people who matter to the town itself. I.e., you need things like a parish house, a dentist (save an excellent spot in the town center to offer at low cost to whomever decides to practice dentistry there), a schoolmaster, a clinic, a grocery store (at least) etc. Your first and most obvious potential clientele will be the builders, plasterers, masons, well drillers, cistern makers, ditch diggers, hod carriers, carpenters, plumbers, glaziers, electricians, wifi technicians, who are actually building the town, so you will want to offer them a chance to live there, affordable, within their means. Let the people who contribute and have skin in the game have a first go at acquiring land. The surveyor who surveys his own home will work twice as accurately, the carpenter who builds for himself will work twice as hard.

You also want craftsmen and small business owners to relocate to the town and they will need workers. All buildings must be owner occupied. You do not want a town of renters or absent landlords. Set lots aside to develop “guest houses”, inns, small hotels or rentable properties for short or long-term visitors and guests. Reserve the most valuable street front lots to people who want to run stores, eateries and other businesses.

Without motor vehicles and endless power flowing through the socket, this will be a remarkably quiet town. The loudest noise you will hear on a typical day will be children playing or a conversation between neighbors in the street. And so it should be.

  1. Build to the edge of the lot

Keep the lots small, and all buildings aligned right to the edge of the lot facing the street, leaving backyards and courtyards, common or private, and walled gardens on unused space.

All buildings in this water color of an Italian town are built to the edge of the lot and we can only see the front elevation (and one of the sides of the building on the far left). This saves us money because we only need to consider the decoration of one side, or maybe two, in the case of smaller humbler town houses. If we want to add to the house later, it is easy to add more rooms on the back, taking some space from the often ample courtyard or backyard.
  1. Personality, neighborhoods, and character.

Even a small town needs neighborhoods, and neighborhoods need a character and “color” or personality of their own. Since there are four guys building this town, assign a quarter each for their personal whims and quirks. One guy might have a thing for public wall mounted fountains, so he asks all the builders there to install them. Another might have a thing for the color purple, so he asks all buildings to use the color in some way for doors or trimmings and flower pots etc. This sounds whimsical but it is vital: most people love the quirky and detest the bland.

  1. The Story, the founding Myth.

Any town needs a story or a founding myth, and if it does not, let’s make one up10. The easiest way to make a new development, town or building fit in is to make it look like it has always been there. The newest building on the block should look like the oldest. In the case of Texas, this means the town will be built to a Mission, Spanish-colonial, or German-colonial style (or a mixture of these). It should look like it was founded and laid down in 1667 or 1746, not 2022. People will call pastiche or Disneyland on this, but don’t listen to them: if you use genuine materials and colors it will only take a few years to mellow in and look like it has always been here.

  1. Build the least valuable lots first.

Don’t develop the best lots and the best locations first. Save them for later. In the meantime, “pop-up” stores and light movable homes and buildings, simple stick frames place holders, can be placed on the prime lots, to be replaced by more permanent constructions as needs and wishes becomes apparent. Here’s a chance to build the funky saloons, the charming post office, the rows and rows of shops and cafes that makes a town a fun place to visit without committing for entire generations. If they do great, make them permanent, if not, move them out, replace them, experiment.

The same thing applies for street furniture: fountains, benches, water troughs, hitching posts etc. Build fast and simple place holders, and see which ones are used and loved: make them permanent. The ones that no one cares about, remove or change or replace. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Also remember the golden rule of place making: when building anything, build on the least attractive part and improve it while keeping the views of the more beautiful parts intact.

  1. Public space.

Texas is hot and sunny so streets should be relatively narrow and main streets should have covered walkways or porticoes (look at Bologna for a famous example, or old Havana with its tarpaulins shading the streets, or old Singapore with its covered merchant sidewalks). Useful street trees should of course be planted, as many as possibly under the limitations of water and rainfall, with a good mixture of flowering trees, shade trees, evergreens and fruit trees, both male and female, with an emphasis on useful native trees. Give each neighborhood its own square and make the entrances gated or arched, and the streets offset (i.e. no street intersects another). Each neighborhood or even set of homes should have a pocket square11 adjacent. The town itself should have a central square12 (even if it does not have to be in the center of the town itself: it can also be in front of one of the main gates or up on the hill or down in the hollow), with some sort of trees and water feature if possible. Water should be available in the form of fountains and faucets, water troughs and wall mounted fountains as far as possible almost everywhere.

  1. A grand entrance.

Just like the front door is the most important part of a home or building in how it interacts with its neighbors and the street itself, so should the town have a dignified entrance. A gate or portal or archway or flanked street or special pavement etc., something that tells the visitor “this is our town, we live here, and we are proud of it!” You really can’t go over the top here. The gate can be lockable if wished, or open at all times. It can be freestanding or built into homes or a building in itself

By the City Gate by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928)
  1. How to live without cars.

The most common response when I claim we should keep cars out of cities is “what about emergency services?” Having a single ambulance in town is no problem, and hopefully it will be rare to even see it on the streets. Same with firefighters. Long hoses and mobile pumps and ladders are good enough for a town with no buildings over two or three floors. Still, a small ladder engine can be kept in town if deemed necessary.

A town without cars is more accessible for everyone, including the handicapped, wheelchairs, etc., especially for the two large groups of people who can not drive even under the best of circumstances: the elderly and the young.

There are many ways to move goods and materials, pianos and washing machines, that do not include moving vans and trucks (even though obviously exceptions can be made for these purposes), cargo bicycles, wheelbarrows, hand powered cargo rail etc. For residents who are temporarily unable to leave their homes a human-scaled walkable town is the perfect setting for quick and local delivery services, or just plain charitable spirits and “helping each other out.”

But where will people keep their cars? Outside the city boundaries somewhere.

  1. To grid or not to grid.

I have this pet theory that you can tell how free a city is by how irregular its street pattern is. Grids are great for managing traffic, and nothing else really. A town with an irregular street pattern is far more charming. If you think of a town as a home, the streets in a gridded town are corridors, not useful for much anything, but in a town with an irregular street pattern they become rooms, or real places. If you have a grand building, let it stop a street (in urbanism this is sometimes called a “terminating view” or a “focused street”). If you have several beautiful elevations in a row, curve the street to properly show them to the pedestrian (it can be hard to take in a building if you are next to it on a straight street or lot line). Consider also if streets are always necessary. Sometimes it can be better to divide buildings and blocks be series of interconnecting pocket squares or little plazas.

Consider what a street can be good for apart from just foot traffic. Is the street narrow enough to shelter from the sun? Can the south side be covered to provide a place for shops or outdoor seating for a cafe? Is there a convenient corner to stop and fix a flat tire or water a thirsty mule? And what about when you enter a new street, is the “scene” well set? Does every turn and every corner fulfill its potential to present a charming or attractive scene?