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New Worlds: Urban Housing

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If you grew up in suburbia like I did, your default image of a “house in the city” is probably a very odd one.

It’s always been common for rural dwellings to stand separate — well, allowing for the possibility that you have some kind of shelter for livestock tacked onto the side of it. The prevalence of single-family detached houses in American cities, however, is a historical oddity, partly born of the huge amounts of land available to settlers (once the indigenous inhabitants had been killed or driven off). It also owes a lot to motor transport, which was around to play a role by the time many of our cities got built out, whereas in other parts of the world the general shape of things was set long before that.

As for what shape that took, there are three broad patterns I see cropping up in multiple parts of the world.

The first we’ll call the courtyard model. Here, the exterior wall of the house or the retaining wall surrounding the house presents a mostly blank face to the outside world; everything is oriented inward, around a courtyard (or multiple courtyards) where much of daily life goes on. This approach optimizes two things: air circulation and privacy.

Air circulation is particularly important in warm areas, as we covered back in Year Five, since it helps to cool off the house interior. I suspect this is why you see it a lot in regions like the Mediterranean and Middle East. It’s not exclusive to such areas, though; many styles of domestic architecture in China and Japan follow this model, even in more northerly regions where it’s maybe not as ideal come winter.

But the courtyard isn’t only for temperature control. It’s also where much of the daily business of the household tends to be conducted, and so this style of architecture also lends itself to setups where that household is a fairly self-contained unit. Laundry, bathing, food preparation, clothing production, and more can be handled literally in-house, with many members of the family spending most if not all of their time there, and outsiders ignorant of what goes on behind that wall. Its size also means this is well-suited to housing an extended family, with multiple generations and maybe some cousins or even tenants renting out part of the space.

The second approach is the townhouse, which also goes by many other names: row house, terrace, brownstone, machiya (. . . wait, that’s literally just the Japanese for “townhouse”). This style of construction treats street frontage as a valuable resource, and so builds long, thin houses sandwiched side-by-side to form whole city blocks of residences.

Because of that sandwiching, these places can be warmer than courtyard houses, with the neighbors serving as insulation. (This remains somewhat true even if there’s a narrow gap between them.) The flip side is that lack of air circulation can make them quite musty if not properly maintained. They also lose out on natural light, since a narrow side gap — should you be so lucky as to have one — will admit little to no sun, leaving you with only the windows at at the narrow front and back ends. And without the distance and soundproofing offered by the courtyard model, the odds that you overhear your neighbors’ business are high.

In exchange, though, you get a lot more housing for the footprint — especially as these may go up two, three, maybe an ambitious four stories, possibly with different families living on each floor as the neighborhood becomes poorer. In Europe, some builders would increase the available space even more via “jettying,” extending the upper floors out over the street . . . and if you think that sounds structurally dubious, you’re not wrong, especially as the years passed by and those cantilevered additions sagged more and more.

But all of this together allows for a much denser urban core, with more people placed within walking distance of each other. Since it’s also common for the front of the ground floor to be a shop of some kind (the other way of writing “machiya” replaces the “house” character with one that means “shop”), you get a nice mix of residential and retail uses — which is why this style of architecture is being discussed a lot as we consider how to make our car-oriented cities more walkable again.

If you really want density, though, look to apartment buildings. These aren’t a new invention; most non-elite residents of ancient Rome lived in insulae, apartment blocks that could rise five or more stories. That’s not a patch on what we build today, of course, but these still offered housing for many households within a single structure, usually with the poorest being relegated to the more inaccessible (and unsound) upper floors. In the days before modern soundproofing, these of course offered the least privacy of all, and the limitations on outside access meant they could become very noisome over time.

Other cultures regularly built contiguous structures, too, taking advantage of existing walls to incorporate them into the new addition; you see this among the Puebloans, in Teotihuacan, and all the way back to the Neolithic proto-city of Çatalhöyük, where access was by ladder through the roof rather than a door at ground level. That points to the other benefit of this approach, besides density and efficiency of construction: it can also be quite defensible. I believe the tulou of the Hakka people in Fujian (seen in the live-action version of Mulan) were built with this in mind, though their occupants tended to be clan groups rather than the unrelated strangers we associate with apartment buildings today.

While you might think courtyard or detached houses are inevitably the elite kind of urban housing, with wealth and status descending as you go through townhouses to apartment buildings, that’s not necessarily the case. Many of the oldest terraces in the U.K. were purpose-built for the wealthy, before changing conditions made those neighborhoods unfashionable or even slums, and I have a friend who used to live in a palatial (and inherited) Upper West Side apartment; when I stayed with them, I had to sign in with the liveried doorman and slept in what used to be the maid’s room.

So what’s considered desirable for city living isn’t just about the structure itself. It matters what’s new (and therefore possibly better-constructed), where it’s located (and therefore what’s convenient to access), and what the trends are for society overall. But unless the conditions are just right . . . very few people will be living in detached, single-family homes like the model of American suburbia.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Urban Housing”

  1. I grew up in a brownstone in Greenwich Village. The bottom two floors, which we occupied (the top three were apartments, and the rent covered the mortgage) had a relatively deep back yard–a relative rarity in NYC–it included a climbable tree, which was unheard of. At least on the ground and first floors, the street-facing windows were large, and the rooms very sunny during the day, and the garden-facing windows let in a fair bit of light. The center–an open office on the first floor, and the inner part of the living room downstairs–was always dark.

    One thing people who grew up in the suburbs or rural areas, to whom I’ve shown my old neighborhood, seem startled by is that it was a neighborhood, with a character distinct from all the other neighborhoods in town. This has held true in every city I’ve lived in, and it seems to startle non-urbanists. I don’t know why.

  2. Courtyard homes could also be mixed use; the wealthy roman domus often had small shops in the front wall, possibly rented out to outsiders.

    You can also have apartments arranged around a courtyard; Los Angeles has a bunch, built before zoning laws squished them, though I think those tend to be open on one side rather than walling off an interior.

    Actually that reminds me of an arrangement I’ve seen a lot on my travels, kind of townhouses but at a 90 degree angle. Narrow frontage, but with walkways, and townhouses or apartments arranged sideways, with windows facing the walkways or courtyard rather than the street.

    A block of townhouses can create a kind of block-wide private courtyard. I lived in one of SF’s “painted ladies” in the Inner Richmond. From the sidewalk you see an unbroken wall of houses, with maybe an inch between the walls. But the houses take 1/3 to 1/2 of their lots, with a long strip of dirt behind them, invisible from outside. Those were all fenced off from each other, but you can imagine other arrangements; some European cities might do that.

    Also of note: you can actually get pretty decent population density with single-family houses, as long as they’re not all squatting on a ton of land. The post-car US doesn’t just have tons of houses, it has houses on lot sizes of 3000, 5000 (1/8 acre), 10,000 square feet or even more — legally mandated by the local zoning laws. Where I lived in Osaka, a house might take up 600 square feet (so be 1200+ inside if 2-3 stories), on a lot size of 1000-1200 square feet.

    1/8 acre zoning I think gives a density that is “dense enough that cars get in each other’s way, not quite dense enough for good walkability or mass transit, great biking if you allot safe space for bikes”. But 4 times that density gets you a very walkable area, even though it’s still largely two story houses.

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