Classic Planning — More Bang for the Urban Buck

by Mar 24, 2014Smart Cities

Nir Buras

Nir Buras is a seasoned architect with extensive design and construction experience in the fields of architecture, strategic planning and urban design, program and cost control, and environmental sustainability of a multitude of significant and complex projects including Transit, Aviation, Historic Restoration, Commercial, institutional and Civic. He has worked in North America and the Middle East, including on Grand Central Terminal, New York; International Terminal D, Dallas-Fort-Worth; the Washington DC Metro Silver Line extension to Dulles Airport; the Tel-Aviv Metro; and the US Capitol, the Senate and House Office Buildings in Washington. Professional and community contributions include leading the visionary Anacostia River Plan, organizing the Washington Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Arts and founding the internet startup QTECT. Dr. Buras holds an MArch degree from UCLA and a PhD from the Technion. "The way we make cities is broken and needs constant innovation to fix it," he says. "Common sense is my compass and Reason my North Star."

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Since World War Two, urban planning and architecture has destroyed more good, urban fabric than the war itself.  Architects, planners, artists, and cultural leaders wholeheartedly believed in “Less Is More”, “Form Follows Function”, “Architecture of Our Times”, and “Progressive Urbanism” as Truth. The world to them was a tabula rasa. They denied the idea of directly applying something that had worked in the past.

Order and cancer; Key Bridge and Whitehurst Freeway in Washington DC.

Order and cancer; Key Bridge and Whitehurst Freeway in Washington DC.

Where’s the Baby?

Modern architects and planners insist that developing modern cities and buildings is nothing like what came before. They speak of “FAR” and “density,” of “neighborhoods,” “walkability,” and of “sustainability,” of “Transit Oriented Design,” and lots of bicycles. But even when done to the highest level, none creates as fine an urban experience as what came before.

Purging the profession of previous modes of planning, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The drops remaining in the tub were entrusted to urban morticians, a.k.a. “preservationists.”

Modern brutalism and townhouses, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

Modern brutalism and townhouses, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

Self Protection

Nearly all modern plans have failed[1], are currently failing, or will do so in our lifetime. It is clear that modern planning has a fatal flaw.

In an attempt to protect itself from more decimated cities and sprawl, society put in place Zoning, Regulations and Laws of unprecedented volume and complexity. Newer Urbanisms and Leadership programs offer even more codes, and more complexity. The machine now drives itself. Washington DC enacted a new code without the benefit of having designed a plan for it. New Urbanism adds to the code shelf a 600-page “From Based Code”. For substantial additional costs and largely unproven benefit, you can do a Green project.

Amnesia in the Service of Progress

Having, in the name of “progress,” eradicated from the profession the knowledge base of those who came before, planners do not have at their disposal the urban literacy that had evolved over the last 5,000 years. Out of thin air they created solutions to problems that for millennia had been resolved and in doing so created new problems. Where planning failed, the myth of expertise expanded – and the fields of expertise grew increasingly narrow and disjointed.

Gerash, Jordan, Piazza Navona plan and perspective

Gerash, Jordan, Piazza Navona plan and perspective
Sir Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi

Today, the greatest team of specialists cannot create as magical an environment as an Italian hilltown or an 18th century downtown. Indeed, specialist segregation of information makes interdisciplinary work difficult if not impossible.

Naval Basin, Anacostia River, Washington DC

Naval Basin, Anacostia River, Washington DC

Why Reinvent the Wheel?

For purposes of definition, the classical approach includes all traditional styles of the west and most non-western styles. All emanate fundamentally from classical-type principles.

Like writing and musical notes, classic planning is simple enough to be taught to a child. But without an orchestra knowing to read notes, we would never hear Beethoven.

Gateway, Las Vegas, 385 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC, Las Vegas City Hall, City Center Hotel, Washington DC

Gateway, Las Vegas, 385 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC, Las Vegas City Hall, City Center Hotel, Washington DC

The simplicity of Classic Planning and design is stunning. The full range of its principles can be easily mastered by anyone with a high school physics education. It is based on the universal, intuitive sense of place, a survival tool, and stands on three simple notions:

  • Use an utterly simple plan
  • Apply traditional architectural styles at least 85% of the time
  • Build it right

Zocalo, Baja Pacifico, Mexico.

Zocalo, Baja Pacifico, Mexico.

The Purpose of Urbanism is to Design a Legacy of Beautiful Places

We experience beauty individually, non-intellectually, in a direct linked to individual well-being. Regardless of race, a beautiful individual is beautiful to all. Being universal, the experience of beauty is neither subjective nor dependent on culture.

When unpenalized, people choose beautiful places over others. Beautiful places are therefore functional and economical. People maintain them for generations, which makes them fundamentally sustainable.

Beautiful spaces are beautiful regardless of their date of construction. That we build ugly buildings and spaces expressing “our time” means simply that we consider our time ugly and harsh.

Moreover, users of beautiful places seem generally less prone to aggression and less easy to victimize.[2] This makes such places safer and calming. The well-being they engender encourages tolerance and respect among individuals.

Plaza Maritima, Baja Pacifico, Mexico

Plaza Maritima, Baja Pacifico, Mexico

Principles are Values

Being based on the stability of humanistic values, Classic Planning takes, minimally, the 100 year perspective, 500 for infrastructure.

Every place has its spirit and precedents. In Washington DC the Urban DNA is the L’Enfant Plan and the McMillan Commission’s proposals and interpretation of that Plan provide continued guidance to the development of the City.

To withstand the test of time, design at any scale is judged on:

    • Firmness — refers to — longevity and sustainability.
    • Commodity — refers to — functional flexibility, easy adaptation and regional appropriateness.
    • Delight — refers to — timelessness and beauty.

Simple Method

1. Intention.

Decide upon a plan’s motif, theme, or driving design feature. With the least acrobatics go full-tilt on the “main event.” Be consistent thereafter.

2. Invention.

Invention is not creating something from nothing, but rather the application of a precedent from one context to another. By applying a precedent you attain all its inherent holistic values including those that were the motivation for it in the first place. If a precedent works, use it, copy, imitate.

1790s, L’Enfant Plan, Washington DC

1790s, L’Enfant Plan, Washington DC

For an urban plan, a precedent operates like a score or script. The notes are the same but a difference in values will create different tones and results.

3. Execution.

Now elevate and detail the fabric in appropriate styles. Adjust the design to the right beauty scale. Use modified traditional infrastructure engineering and construction techniques. Use common sense to judge results. Every aspect must be judged on Firmness, Commodity, Delight. When in doubt, return to the beauty scale.

Urban Design Goals

Every location has its challenges. Goals defined for the Anacostia project in Washington DC included:

  1. Not to displace a single citizen
  2. Create socio-economic opportunity
  3. Fund the project from the development itself
  4. Create the types of places that make DC unique
  5. Create center-city resources on a scale hitherto unimaginable
  6. Be viable from a sustainable, smart, green point of view

Anacostia River Plan, Washington DC

Anacostia River Plan, Washington DC

Capture the Sense of Place

When it comes to human settlement there aren’t that many choices with regard to its boundaries and approaches. Defining and limiting towns creates “place”.

  1. Consider land, air and water resources
  2. Maintain park and agricultural spaces between communities
  3. Relate to approaches to a place preceding the settlement established there
  4. Define gateways

Las Vegas Civic Center

Las Vegas Civic Center

Use a Grid

Classic Planning relies on Common-Sense. Cities are the most complex systems but if a plan is overly complex, it won’t work. It is easiest to divide land by using right angles.

  • Right-angle construction and planning, matrimony and farming happened roughly at the same time.
  • Since 3,000 BC city builders in ancient China, the Indus Valley, Egypt, Greece and Rome; Spanish Colonials and American city builders, Pre-Columbian and Post, all used grids.
  • Specific precedents abound for temperate climates. For projects in the Latin context use the Law of the Indies.
  • Use principles of City Beautiful and Garden City for tertiary and quaternary quarters.

Civic Center masterplan, Forest Hill, Texas.The diagonal was a pre-existing easement

Civic Center masterplan, Forest Hill, Texas.The diagonal was a pre-existing easement

Roads and Streets

Avoidance of “formality” will not produce the “natural”.

  • Remember that orientation and driving are right side of the brain activities
  • The brain corrects all intersections for 90 degrees
  • Avoid wiggles, angles and meanders

Howard Road Extension, Washington DC

Howard Road Extension, Washington DC

  1. Plan first for walking, not cars, horses or bicycles
  2. For roads and blocks a grid is best.
  3. Lay out reasonable sized blocks
  4. Reduce street widths to the possible minimum
  5. Use boulevards for periodic high levels of traffic
Big box store and parking plaza, Forest Hill, Texas

Big box store and parking plaza, Forest Hill, Texas

  1. Parking is shared space
  2. Eliminate all but directional signage
  3. Plant lots of trees
  4. Plant lots of trees
  5. Plant lots of trees

I think you get the drift.


Waterfront development: River wall, Promenade, buildings and quays , Washington DC

Waterfront development: River wall, Promenade, buildings and quays , Washington DC

If boulevards are the city’s arteries and streets its blood vessels, transportation systems, water, power, sewer, and data are the city’s digestive and nervous systems. There is no civic life whatsoever if they don’t operate well and have capacity for radical change in the long run. Oversize everything and build it right. Repair local infrastructure including sewer and water lines for the next 100 years’ service.

Create Real Places

  • Consider institutions rather than functions
  • Commerce typically relies on its own place-making character to situate itself.

Southwest Waterfront, Washington DC

Southwest Waterfront, Washington DC

  • Locate buildings by their civic or community importance for scaled civic, educational, recreation, shopping, and religious institutions.

Las Vegas Boulevard as it is and as it will be

Las Vegas Boulevard as it is and as it will be

  • Scale centers and entire neighborhoods to sustain the settlement around them. Perception sets limits as to how large something can be before we feel discomfort.
  • Social spaces, recreation and entertainment facilities and elements serving special populations will organically emerge in their place.

Things could look humane. City Hall and plaza, Forest Hill, Texas

Things could look humane. City Hall and plaza, Forest Hill, Texas

Minimize Red Tape

Classic Planning focuses on the essence of place and design, based on a regulatory framework that supports opportunities for real place making. Minimize the planning office.  Minimize by-laws, zoning and regulations. Spend money on bricks, not bureaucrats.

  1. Aside from major (“landmark”) buildings, “use” is ephemeral and zoning is not required. A Classic Plan and Code is 1-2 pages long.
  2. Think before committing to Smart Codes, Form Based Codes, and LEED certification. They are too complex and not proven to be cost-effective in the long run.
Urban Plan, Baja Pacifico, Mexico

Urban Plan, Baja Pacifico, Mexico

Leverage Government and NGOs; Implement Change

  1. Study existing regulations and thoroughfare networks and government agencies, how they associate and the funding opportunities they provide
  2. Make alliances with the private sector, advocacy groups and not-for-profits
  3. Educate people so they will understand what they are doing.
  4. Use social marketing and involve people in the vision, maintaining their enthusiasm for execution.


  1. Build infrastructure for 500 years. Space for power, communication and data should be allocated for the next 100 years’ service to support flexibility in employment.
  2. Design buildings for 100 years minimum, houses for 50. Remember: density = sustainability
  3. Naturally, incorporate energy conservation and alternatives to scarce or expensive resources
Eisenhower Memorial, Washington DC

Eisenhower Memorial, Washington DC

Richness in Simplicity

Perception-based Classic Planning serves universal, common, instinctive, human experience. The available richness of forms is immense.

  • The creation of urban form is dependent on the architecture of the buildings.
  • There is no good urbanism without good architecture
  • Classical and traditional buildings are universally preferred as making the best streets and places
  • Human well-being requires that 80%-85% of buildings are in traditional styles.

Commercial street, warm climate, Latin heritage

Commercial street, warm climate, Latin heritage

Cost or Benefit?

You can be “cool” and accept glamorous, “high-tech” walls of sterile glass along barren, unused sidewalks. You can accept ridiculously wide roads and being dependent on cars as natural, inevitable even desirable. Or you can understand that the way humans feel and behave hasn’t changed much over time.

Do you want to make a difference in your community or do you want more bureaucracy, codes and failure? Classic Planning methods

  1. Enable functional flexibility and predicting use and experience outcomes within 10%.
  2. Reduce requirements for environmental and infrastructural systems
  3. Increase the utility and profit in buildings, plans and developments
  4. Enhance individual performance at work, business, or leisure
  5. Offer 100 to 500 year sustainability at costs equal to or less than conventional construction.

[1] See: Seeing like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed / James C. Scott , Yale University Press, 1999. Also: Urban Planning Dream or Nightmare?; Four Failed Modern Urban Planning Designs; Brasília And Chandigarh: Symbols Of Modernist Hope And Failure; Pruitt–Igoe; and Retro-Futurism: 13 Failed Urban Design Ideas & Concepts

[2] It was crime in modern housing projects, that led Oscar Newman to publish Defensible Space – Crime Prevention through Urban Design, Macmillan, New York, 1972.


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