September 08, 2006

The three property models that are key to a great city

Ownership type
Outcome Public ‘Large’ private ‘Small’ private
Iconic/landmark buildings 1 0 0
Technological innovation 1 0 0
Ample amenities/infrastructure1 1 0
Internal unity of design 1 1 0
Highly maintained urban space 0 1 1
Care f/overall viability/popularity 0 1 1
Engage w/ surr. urban fabric 0 0 1
Accessibility by general public 1 0 1
Adapts to tenancy trends/needs 0 1 1
Respect for preceding owners 0 1 1
Accept diversity in tenants 0 0 1

While the potential combinations of real property ownership/ usufruct may be infinite, three main modes in modern advanced societies tend to account for most urban property: public-sector, large single-owner (or condominial) private ownership and small/ fragmented, private ownership. The degree to which the optimal mode of ownership has been discussed actively has varied in time and, at present, all three seem to coexist in most cities and towns.

It is striking, however, to what extent this specific aspect of urban ‘planning’ or urban form policy has been glossed over in discussion of urban form effects or outcomes, as opposed to causal factors. That isn’t the case where, for instance, transportation is concerned. Any urban policy commentator will be aware of the implications of transportation infrastructure choices on urban form and the urban experience. Maybe ownership form is so basic an aspect of urban form that it is sort of taken for granted.

To arrive at some sort of policy conclusion, I examine each of the three main types of urban property holding in terms of positive urban form characteristics they are likely to foster. From that matrix, I derive a discussion of strengths and weaknesses for each property type and how these can be maximized and minimized, respectively.

Probability of desirable outcomes by property type

The key word that qualifies the matrix of outcomes/property types is ‘probability’. For each outcome, one can certainly provide many examples that contradict what the matrix postulates. A ‘1’ mark merely signifies that a given outcome is ‘likely’, given some form of property, while a ‘0’ signifies that it is ‘unlikely’.

I infer these greater/lower probabilities, which are then reduced in binary form (sort of like a probit function and the latent underlying) from observation of many locales, internationally, over many years. For instance, some of the best-maintained places I’ve seen were public buildings. On average, though, private owners maintain more assiduously. That’s an observation that any reasonable person would substantiate.

Also, there are many desirable urban form outcomes that are not included in this specific matrix simply because the probability of their attainment does not seem to depend on property type, but rather other cross-owner factors like geography, cultural mores, etc.

Public ownership

· Strengths – Public owners are more likely to provide iconic/landmark buildings and to take the risk of technological innovation (environmental, etc.) than either type of private owner. Public ownership also ensures public accessibility to large developments, which private developers may limit or bar.

· Weaknesses – Public owners are more likely to allow dereliction and underinvestment. They also have a tendency to be rigid in their intended use, be less responsive to lack of viability/popularity, tend to exercise eminent domain and other ‘bullying’ rights over preceding/neighboring owners. Furthermore, public owners are likely to develop large, unified complexes that do not engage well with the existing urban fabric.

· Policy – most of the weaknesses expounded above can be limited or even eliminated by restricting public ownership to a small percentage of major, municipally iconic buildings, preferably non-contiguous to each other.

Large-scale private development

· Strengths – Large private developers have many of the abilities of public owners, like internalizing benefits of amenities and infrastructure and achieving design unity but without the rigidity, tendency toward depreciation and detachment from viability/popularity problems of the public sector.

· Weaknesses – Large developers have many of the positive proactive characteristics of all private owners but will probably result in reduced accessibility by general public (especially of residential or mixed areas) alienation from the existing urban fabric and conformist in the types of tenants accepted.

· Policy – Large-scale private ownership can provide much of the day-to-day excellence of urban form but risks becoming excessively detatched and controlling. It is also less likely to be innovative or iconic. The access/engagement issues can be tackled two-fold: by repression of crime and anti-social behaviour resulting in a reduced wish/need for isolation or through statutory measures. Tech innovation or major buildings can be incentivized, though that may prove difficult in practice.

Small-scale private ownership

· Strengths – The single-building, small private owner cannot help but be engaged with the surrounding urban fabric and diversity is guaranteed (every building has a different potential owner/use/tenant). Single-building owners cannot deny neighbourhood accessibility or easily trample the right of surrounding owners. They have the same private attachment to maintenance, viability and popularity as large private developers but greater flexibility and adaptability to new tenancy trends.

· Weaknesses – Small owners do not have the resources and the externality internalization capabilities to provide infrastructure and amenities, let alone iconic landmarks. They are unlikely to be technologically innovative or create design unity.

· Policy – Small, diffuse ownership is the connective tissue of a town. It is the growth matrix. The diversity, accessibility and connectivity of small ownership along public streets is necessary both as an incubator of smaller development/enterprises beneath the notice of a major private developer or the grandiose public plans. Nonetheless, some aspects of the built environment can only be provided by bigger players, where both private and public sector have specific strengths.

The end result that emerges from this meta-analysis, is that a successful and satisfying urban form has the highest probability of being achieved in a context where the default ownership is small, private but where substantial areas may be completely or largely controlled by large private developers and a small but significant and ‘representative’ number of key locations are publicly controlled.

It is worth noting that, in the absence of large private landlords, public intervention is necessary to make certain infrastructure and amenities possible. Too much public ownership, however, is likely to lead to maintenance problems and rigidity of uses / planning, not to mention excessive disregard for viability and popularity of development as well as excessive exercise of eminent domain.

In the absence of some public ownership, a town is likely to be somewhat corporate and nondescript, lacking many amenities and with some or all ‘key’ non-retail areas closed to some portion of the public.

It is difficult to even conceive of a town where there is no or very little diffuse private ownership but if we care to look at what examples exist, the alienation / anomie is clearly a major issue (think very large public housing projects or large purely commercial developments like La Defense).

P.S. A particualr example of large-scale private ownership is the London estates system. You can read more about it here.

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