The Balance of Common Law Urbanism

One topic I’ve addressed here several times is the more participatory development process that shaped the urban fabric of the pre-Euclid era.  For lack of a better term, this process could be described as organic urbanism– but such a description would ignore the role of specific legal devices from the English tradition that helped to shape the process.  So common-law urbanism might be a more accurate term.  The point is two-fold: First, to describe a specific phenomenon– the slow and broad-based process by which towns and cities grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And, second, to distinguish that phenomenon from the ultra-planned New Urbanism of today.  I venture to say that one of the essentials of common-law urbanism was the centrality of a simple paradox: regular, large-scale patterns, filled in by the very individualized use of parcels.  Here’s a graphic that illustrates:

Brooklyn Hts. Map: Google.

The setting is a few square blocks in Brooklyn Heights– as good an example as any of a well-loved city neighborhood.  Some of the blocks were laid out centuries ago, but most of the buildings date from the mid-19th century.  Note that the blocks, themselves (outlined in blue), are near perfect rectangles.  Yet the building footprints (outlined in violet) show countless variations.  Each structure has a different shape.  Setbacks are varied.  Depths are varied.  Heights, too.  The presence of bounding alleys and courtyards has clearly been decided on some kind of ad hoc basis.  Side-by-side lots are combined to accommodate larger buildings.  The larger pattern holds together neatly because it circumscribes the prerogatives of each of the subordinate individual participants.  At the same time, the individual contributions are as rich and varied as those who built them, giving the neighborhood a granular variety that tempers the severity of its overriding geometric order.

The common-law approach to urban land use did not arise in a vacuum: It reflected a larger legal approach that predominated in the common-law era of the English-speaking world: Individuals were given a good amount of latitude, up to a well-known threshold at which the law spoke with a certain clanging finality.  In a world with fewer people, fewer still autonomous people, and far fewer methods of omnipresent social control, this balance was probably a necessary element of legitimate rule-making.