How NOT to Build a Town

The Newsletter of Newsletters, Volume 7.

Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.

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1. Wrath of Gnon

So there’s this anonymous guy on Twitter, Wrath of Gnon, who’s super into urban planning and he’s set up a newsletter. Totally honest: I can’t vouch for the newsletter. But this one essay on how to build a town is fascinating.

It all starts with this Real Life Sim City set up: “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 town.”

So what should they do?

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. . . .

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 degree. 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. . . .

A good “code-hack” for any small town was developed in Seaside, Florida: “one 14x14 feet area of a lot has no height limitation”. 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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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. . . .

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?

Fascinating, yes?

But also kind of crazy. I don’t mean to criticize: The essay is a useful exercise in thinking about urbanism and why urban spaces develop in the way they do. Just so long as you don’t take it seriously as instructions for, you know, actually building a town.

The central tension is that the plan requires Will Wright-levels of central control in order to create a modern facsimile of the types of urban organisms that evolved in natural and messy ways over decades and centuries.

And the big flaw is that it considers urbanism totally separate from economics.

There’s a Galt’s Gulch sensibility to this plan, where the ditch diggers and the dentist are all able to live within walking distance of each other because they’re exchanging goods and services at a level which keeps everyone at roughly the same economic level.

Maybe that works if the dentist is just a glorified barber. But if we’re talking about modern dentistry, your dentist has to be able to purchase an x-ray machine, and have fillings made, and carry malpractice insurance.

The urban planner’s dream is to live in a world where development drives economics. And that can work in limited situations! But as a rule, it’s the other way around.

Still, the piece is super interesting and worth reading.


2. The Why-Axis

A really interesting newsletter from Christopher Ingraham looking at data. And some of it is kind of weird. For instance, people are now going crazy in airplanes:

[P]re-pandemic, the FAA undertook an average of 182 investigations into “unruly passenger” behavior annually. These are incidents where passengers — often, but not always, drunk ones — interfere with the duties of the flight crew. This could include fighting flight attendants, or biting them, or trying to open the cabin door in flight, or just generally being an belligerent asshole in a way that puts the crew and all the other passengers in danger.

In 2021 so far — a year that’s just a hair over halfway done — the FAA’s had to investigate 555 such incidents. That puts us on pace to hit well over 1,000 unruly passenger cases by the end of the year. The implication is that American flyers in 2021 are five times more unruly than usual — a 400% increase in unruliness!

What is going on? Let’s take a look at the most recent batch of civil fines issued by the FAA in these investigations, which include helpful narrative descriptions of the offending behavior. See if you detect any similarities:

  • A Frontier Airlines passenger got drunk, refused to wear a mask, and began fighting with the flight attendant and other nearby passengers.

  • A Republic Airlines passenger refused to wear a mask and, when being escorted off the plane, punched the passenger in front of her in the back of the head.

  • A Frontier Airlines passenger refused to wear a mask and wandered about the cabin during the final descent.

  • A Frontier Airlines passenger got drunk and repeatedly removed her facemask and refused to wear it properly when it was on.

The FAA report goes on and on like this. So, yeah: it’s the masks (also now that I’ve written it all out, it looks like this stuff is disproportionately happening on budget airlines? Sounds like potential fodder for a future piece, I’ll get back to you guys on that). People are so worked up over basic public health measures that they’re throwing tantrums on airplanes and getting booted off of them, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in fines in the process. The FAA says that a whopping 75 percent of unruly passenger reports this year are linked to masks.

It’s worth noting that the data in the chart above likely understate the magnitude of the problem. If a person is being a jerk on a plane, a member of the flight crew can submit a report to the FAA. Reports that show signs of a clear violation of federal regulations result in the investigations that are plotted above. The 555 investigations this year are just a subset of the more than 3,400 reports submitted to authorities.

Read and subscribe.


3. The 4-Day Work Week

I signed up for Ann Helen Petersen for the Peloton talk, but this essay on the four-day work week is pretty cool:

If you’re a “full-time” employee, your work week is likely five days (if not more), and spans 40 hours (if not more). You might be paid by the hour, or you might be on salary, but you probably have two days “officially” off every week (although work might slide into those days) and they probably land on Saturday and Sunday.

Now imagine that your salary and benefits stayed the same, your responsibilities at work stayed the same, but everyone at your company only worked four days a week. Think about your current life, and the current make-up of your week, and what you usually have to smush into the weekend. What would you do with extra day off, every week of the year, for the rest of your working life?  . . .

The specifics of implementation vary from company to company, but the basics are the same: you get paid the same amount as you did before, only you work less. And this isn’t some start-up, millennial-focused startup fringe benefit: pre-pandemic, one of the most public implementations of the four-day week is at Perpetual Guardian, a very staid, very old-fashioned company that manages trusts in New Zealand.

Some Perpetual Guardian workers took off Mondays, some Fridays, others loved a day off in the middle of the work week, but everyone took it, from the newest hires to the most senior managers. The effect was startling: at the end of a two-month trial, productivity had risen 20% — and “work-life” balance scores rose from 54% to 78%. After making the change permanent, overall revenue went up 6% — and profitability went up 12.5%.

Other experiments have yielded similarly astounding results: at Microsoft Japan, productivity went up 40%. A 2019 study of 250 British companies with four-day weeks found that companies had saved an estimated £92 million — and 62% of companies reported that employees took fewer sick and personal days.  . . .

And then there’s the very good news coming out of Iceland, which just released the results of a sprawling four year study of more than 2500 employees in different fields whose work weeks were reduced from 40 hours to 35-36. I strongly recommend reading the report in full, because it lays out why this scenario is not a case of “socialistic European nation does something that the United States never would.” But if you don’t have time for an 82-page report, the highlights are as follows: Iceland has a strong social safety net, with low income inequality, significant parental leave, and a robust universal health care. But the country lags far behind other Nordic countries in productivity — even though Icelanders work significantly more hours a week. For its survey of hours devoted to leisure and personal care, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Iceland 34th out of 38 countries.

Icelanders’ work-life balance was shit — and for seemingly no reason. As the report puts it:

Worn down by long hours spent at work, the Icelandic workforce is often fatigued, which takes a toll on its productivity. In a vicious circle, this lower productivity ends up necessitating longer working days to ‘make up’ the lost output, lowering ‘per-hour productivity’ even further.

This is the principle at the heart of the four day week: working less can actually mean working betterThat idea is particularly difficult for Americans, who fetishize long hours for many ideologically tangled reasons, to understand. It’s true in knowledge work, it’s true in medical fields, it’s true in construction. You’re just a better worker — a safer worker, a more creative worker, a more astute and alert worker — when you’re not exhausted.

Here is my truth: I don’t want to work less. I really like what I do. I wake up every morning basically like Dicky Fox.

My own personal challenge is the opposite: Trying to find enough time to do the work I want to do while also being the husband/dad I want to be.

So for me, personally, I don’t want a four-day work week. I want a time turner.

But most people are not me! And I suspect that the world might be a better place if we experimented with four-day work weeks in various businesses to see if it makes sense for them.

Anyway, just another great piece from Ann Helen Petersen.


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