An interview on the Congress for New Urbanism's Public Square examines the concept of incremental development—how it can benefit communities all over the country and how it improves on a century of large-scale development.
The premise of the article, on the value of incremental development, is that "great places are built in small increments." On the other side of that coin is sprawl, which in the United States "grew hand-in-hand with the supersizing of the development industry." In the contemporary era, according to Steuteville, "Small urban developers can succeed by understanding that 'the project is the neighborhood'—and even a tiny development can build value and contribute to community. In doing so, small developers can be the craft beer to big developers' Budweiser."1
In celebration of the upcoming CNU 25.Seattle, Public Square is running the series 25 Great Ideas of the New Urbanism. These ideas have been shaped by new urbanists and continue to influence cities, towns, and suburbs. The series is meant to inspire and challenge those working toward complete communities in the next quarter century.
The incremental development movement grew out of the observation that great places are built in small increments. Savannah and Philadelphia may have benefited from big plans at the start, but no master developer was involved. The sprawling of America grew hand-in-hand with the supersizing of the development industry. While the industry has economies of scale, it does a poor job of creating the kind of holistic neighborhoods in demand today. Small urban developers can succeed by understanding that "the project is the neighborhood"—and even a tiny development can build value and contribute to community. In doing so, small developers can be the craft beer to big developers' Budweiser.
Public Square editor Robert Steuteville interviewed John Anderson, principal of Anderson-Kim Architecture & Urban Design, small developer, and one of the founders of the Incremental Development Alliance, and Eric Kronberg, principal of Kronberg Wall Architecture, a firm that specializes in rebuilding cities and neighborhoods through design and construction, on the subject of incremental development and becoming a small developer.
Can you explain the concept of incremental development, and why it’s important for walkable urban places?
Anderson: New urbanists are really good at looking at evidence on the ground and coming up with a pragmatic way to retrofit stuff that doesn't work. We love the places that have been built in small increments, the Brooklyn Heights, Back Bay, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans. Any great neighborhood, any great part of the city is usually built in small pieces. And when the new urbanists engaged modern development practice, we bought forward the idea that things need to be done with an economy of scale in order to build a version of urbanism that’s a noticeable improvement on big lumpy projects.
Kronberg: I work in urban redevelopment, fixing places that have been beaten down and need help. In this context, incremental development is a much better way to keep people in place. It helps lift up communities with what's there, as opposed to wholesale clearing of a site in order to replace it with a big lumpy project. One of my historic beefs in my younger days of New Urbanism involved infrastructure. If you have to build all the infrastructure from scratch, you have to sell your product at a premium price because it costs so much to build it all. But if you can help provide great urbanism in places where the infrastructure exists, you've got a much better shot at an inclusive community.
Anderson: The incremental development model is based on the idea that we're not interested in reforming large-scale developers. We broke our pick on that hole quite a few times. We're looking at a parallel system that operates outside their realm because we're working on smaller sites. This scale provides a competitive advantage to small local operators because they have a chance to demonstrate good faith with the neighborhoods they work within. They have a chance to learn their lessons, then rinse and repeat. Furthermore, they have a chance to get into the development business at a lower barrier to entry. Outside of incremental development, small developers are completely overwhelmed with the realities of economy of need. They only have so much financial and social capital to work with. But incremental development allows them to complete suburban retrofit or even greenfields better because they don’t need to absorb the large cost of infrastructure in order to be able to do anything.
Kronberg: In New Orleans, Atlanta, and throughout the southeast of the country, there are bunches of 1900s and 1920s neighborhoods. These are the first original suburbs, just outside of main downtown, that have good grid and bones. A lot of them are on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, but have great proximity, and can be fixed incrementally. This is one of the few ways to bring the benefits of urbanism to the folks that live there and hopefully limit displacement to a reasonable degree.
Where does the principles of New Urbanism fit into your incremental development? Because we don't need more small builders putting up single-family houses in the exurbs, do we?
Kronberg: We need to build everything except the single-family home. From Missing Middle, to small commercial, even guest houses and ADUs (accessory dwelling units), these are the things people need help with in terms of small-scale development. In the traditional neighborhoods that we deal with, all that stuff's been zoned out or made illegal, so it's a matter of working with zoning and entitlements to legalize again traditional neighborhood development.
Anderson: According to Chris Nelson's big-picture demographics, 75 percent of the market demand over the next 13 years will be for rental units. I like the idea of helping to train, cultivate, and connect small developers who address this market. Developers who build single-family homes don't need help. The ideal candidate to become involved in incremental development is someone that stares at a shuttered muffler shop or a gravel parking lot in their neighborhood and says, "You know, somebody ought to be doing something about this." They recognize they have to do it themselves in their town and in their place and they need to acquire the skills to fix it.
Do you think of this as being analogous to the craft brewing industry? Thirty years ago, we had a handful of brewers in America. It was hard to find a good beer. Now, we have thousands. Is that a model for better development?
Anderson: It’s a direct analogy.