Sandbox Urbanism
September 9, 2013

There is a recent blog post on Strong Towns that I recommend you read: Sandbox Brainerd

The city of Brainerd, MN is establishing a committee to present a comprehensive pedestrian and cyclist plan to the city by 2016. The idea sounds good, so what is the problem?

The article touches upon a lot of different topics - first of all, 2016 is a long time to wait for a plan. Add an extra 2 years or so for them to actually begin implementing the plan, and we are talking about waiting out half a decade of our life to see any physical changes. By that time, the people passionate about the project may no longer be in power, let alone living in Brainard. Those that still remain would have lost most their motivation over the years, and the plan is just going to sit on the shelf to rot.

A Compromised Plan

I enjoyed Chuck's critism of drawing out a 'comprehensive' plan. Cities, even in smallest towns, are such complex organisms - to draw out a comprehensive plan would require predicting the needs and wants of the community, both now, and 5 years into the future once the plan is in progress - it's virtually impossible. Not only is it impossible to predict, but our needs and wants are not static - they evolve as the population and the economy evolves. They will change once we see the plan implemented, once we see what works and what does not work in our local community. The plan will be obsolete by the time it is implement. However, it will be very difficult to adapt to their future needs and wants, because the response of the city council will be: "We must follow the plan."

Of course, they can always form another committee to come up with another comprehensive plan, but it will be the same story all over again, and they will always be trailing half a decade behind the actual needs and wants of the community - and risking a lot of money investing in something that may not even be what the community wants.

A comprehensive plan can hardly satisify everyone. We can survey and interview all we want, but we will not actually know how well it will be received until we implement it. Because the plan must be 'comprehensive' - and you cannot satisfy everyone - it will end up being a plan full of compromises to make everyone happy - without actually being efficient at anything. After all, we cannot tell what works, and what does not work, until we have implemented it - which is half a decade in the future. By that time, we may see our mistakes, but the plan is already set in stone, and we cannot change it.

As a result, we have a plan that is lagging half a decade behind the needs and wants of the community, detached from the implementation, and very few people are happy. The result may be orderly, it may be comprehensive, but it is dumb.

Sandbox Approach

I really took from the article how Chuck described an alternative sandbox approach that the city could take instead. In the sandbox approach, there is no comprehensive plan, but instead we undergo incremental trial and error. In the sandbox approach, they would take a single arterial road, where they assume demand is the strongest (it does not have to be perfect, you do not need to form a committee to determine which road it is, because this only a trial), and paint on a bicycle lane;

Come back in 12 months, and see if the number of cyclists using that road has increased, or if there has been a change in surrounding property values. Chuck predicts that this would cost the city less than $5,000 to test - which is a pittance to any city council. You could even run multiple trials - arterial roads in multiple neighbourhoods (one denser than the other) or even a commercial street. Compared to the comprehensive plan, we will have something we can try out from day one, to see if it works or not. There would be no waiting around for 5 years for the committee and council to approve a plan full of compromises.

The sandbox approach is an incremental approach. We will have bicycle lanes that people can use tomorrow. We will get instant feedback, both from the community and through statistics, to see if it works or not, without having to gamble our money and faith on a comprehensive plan that was drawn up many years ago. Where demand is the strongest, we can incrementally add new bike lanes. It may be chaotic, but it will be smart.

The sandbox approach has inspired me to write this article, because it presents an entirely different way of governing our cities to the conventional "let's form a committee and fund a study" mindset.

Sandbox Urbanism

It is no secret that I am an opponent of conventional use-base zoning. It is far too restrictive.

When a city opens up new land for residential development, most of it is automatically zoned something along the lines of R1 - which in most jurisdictions means a single-family dettached home, making it virtually impossible to build anything other than this;

You may think that this is okay if you want to live in an house, but like the comprehensive bicycle plan, we are trying to lay down a comprehensive plan for land use. Do you wish that there were shops within walking distance of your home? Well, too bad, because the the land zoned as 'commercial' is on the otherside of the highway. Who decided that we wanted to drive to the shop, rather than walk? The city and/or the subdivision developers in their comprehensive neighbourhood plan.

What if I wanted to build terrace housing?

I'm sorry, our small city doesn't have a zone for that.

I own a large house, and there is huge demand to live in this neighbourhood. Can I rent out the spare rooms in my house to boarders?

I'm sorry, the best we can zone your house is R2, which permits duplexes of up to two families.

What if we want to build something radically different?

Those are just some of the reasons I am a large opponent of zoning. But, I do not know if repealing all zoning regulations would create great places - however, with trial and error we can at least try.

Several months ago, I proposed creating 'special urban zones' for experimenting with urbanism. The sandbox approach gives us a great platform to try it out.

Take a street. It can be a dying commercial street;

And simply 'dezone' it. Let the owner of each plot build anything that want on it. There are no parking requirements, no setback requirements, no restrictions on density or its use. This is how all American towns and cities were built before modern zoning came in, and it worked pretty well;

Will it turn into a row of townhouses, mixed-use shophouses, an office building, a strip mall, or a parking lot? I do not know. That is why we are experimenting on a small-scale first, and then we can see if any of our fears of our towns being overrun with factories come true.


The sandbox approach gives us a powerful platform to incrementally experiement. I am highly critical, both of static so-called 'comprehensive' plans, and of modern zoning. With sandbox urbanism, we can rebuild our towns and cities from the ground up, incrementally - through trial and error without risking a lot of time or money, as we have done throughout history - because we cannot always predict what will happen;