Friday, October 4, 2013

Urbanism Needs “Not So Big” and Vice Versa

I have a theory.  I’ll call it the “multiple paths equals the truth theory”.

The theory argues that that if multiple needs, whether emotional, financial, physical, or other, lead to a similar course of action, then the action must be valid.

My primary example is urbanism.  Responding to climate change leads to urbanism.  Adjusting to peak oil leads to urbanism.  Moving our cities to a more financially sustainable basis leads to urbanism.  Strengthening our economy leads to urbanism.  The commonality of those paths can’t be coincidental.  Urbanism must be a profoundly pertinent answer for our time.

Nor must the paths flow in a single direction.  Sometimes two truths can have a symbiotic relationship, each needing the other to succeed.  If one is true, then the other must be equally true.

The “not so big” work of Sarah Susanka has that kind of a symbiotic relationship with urbanism.  Susanka argues that many of us desire more and more square feet in our homes, when what we really need is more quality in the square feet we can afford.  So she offers design elements and strategies to add that quality.  The quintessential Susanka house feels livable, comfortable, and bigger than it really is.

Although one can conceive of a “not so big” house on acreage, the “not so big” approach achieves full fruition in an urban setting.  The design of a “not so big” home encourages use of the outside common area, which is a stronger common area when urbanism is the adjoining land use.  Meanwhile, urbanism is most successful when people need less room to lead comfortable and fulfilling lives, with the greater density creating the demographics that will support walkable businesses.

“Not so big” needs urbanism.  Urbanism needs “not so big”.  Urbanism is a fundamental truth for the 21st century.  Therefore, “not so big” must also be a fundamental truth for the 21st century.  Perhaps that proof wouldn’t pass the test of a strict logician, but it works for me.

Susanka spoke at the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), bouncing comfortably between her life path and her philosophy.  I recommend listening to what she had to say.  The talk is audio only, unless you count the power point slides.  The video is 72 minutes long, so requires an extended stay at your computer.  But it offers a wealth of content for those with patience.  (If you must skip ahead, Susanka doesn’t begin speaking until about 16 minutes in.  However, the School Street project in Libertyville, Illinois, which is presented during her introduction, is also worth your attention.)

For those lacking a free hour, I’ll offer highlights.  Transplanted as a child from an English village to Palos Verde, near Los Angeles, Susanka learned early that not everyone could take a footpath to a village grocery where one could chat with neighbors.

Carrying that lesson into her profession, she became an architect who believed that architecture should be about preparing an environment for living.

She argues that we should be living better not bigger and that what we need are smaller, higher quality homes.   She suggests that we want our dwellings to give us a feeling of home, but we keep looking for that feeling by building bigger homes, which is the wrong place to look.

Susanka argues that we have a notion of how we live, but that the notion is often unrelated to the reality of our lives.  (I’ve suggested that suburbia is often driven by people buying homes suitable for elegant Christmas parties and happy backyard barbecues, when their day-to-day life is actually about helping with homework and doing laundry.  Indeed, many folks haven’t hosted a party in years.)

I’ve been a fan of Susanka for over a decade.  In fact, I’m disappointed that I haven’t yet mentioned her name in this blog.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to listen to her at CNU 21 and intend to begin incorporating her thoughts into this blog.  Until then, I suggest listening to her.  It’ll be worth your 72 minutes.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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