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Big People. Little Cars. Tiny Houses. The Scale of our Neighbourhoods

It was an odd conversation over the July Fourth barbeque.  One side started talking about the increasing waistlines of various people.  The other side was talking about my Mini, and their new-found interest in Microcars.  Then – like a flyswatter hitting a mosquito – the two groups found out about each other.  A sort of reverse serendipity in a way.

For some years, I’ve been promoting the virtues of smaller houses, and expounding on my theory of how we’ve designed our neighbourhoods around cars, and that the size of our cars has directly influenced the size of our houses. 

A building with people, built to the scale of jetliners
A building with people, built to the scale of jetliners

Think of an airport terminal, and how gates need to be spaced far enough apart to allow adequate space between airplanes, and enough internal space to accommodate  enplaning and deplaning passengers and supporting areas.  Same kind of idea. 

1957 Chrysler 300
1957 Chrysler 300

There is fresh, new interest in smaller houses, as I predicted in “The Rise and fall of the McMansion and other Midwestern Housing Trends”.  The most notable example of interest in market driven, small houses – like the line of Katrina Cottages marketed by Lowe’s Home Centers. 

1972 Fiat 500L
1972 Fiat 500L

While this change was driven for reasons other than our taste in automobiles, it’s ironic that this is just in time for Chrysler – formerly known for very large cars – to become part of Fiat – known for very small cars. 

Land uses and traffic along the Chicago River
Land uses and traffic along the Chicago River

During the age of canal building, substantial monetary capital was invested into building canals.  Land along the canals – a manmade feature – became very valuable because of the uses one could put beside this new transportation artery.  This concept was magnified with the advent of railroads and became known as “frontage”.  Build the largest building possible on the smallest of frontage, for economy and efficiency’s sake.  This concept was extended to a hierarchy of roadways, and gave rise to “skyscrapers”.  Not every land use wants to be in a neighbourhood of tall, closely built buildings.  Dwellings – where people live – need sunlight, and a connection to land. 

The type of transportation used between places defines the physical area covered by a neighbourhood of places. 

A "mews" or backstreet, in London
A “mews” or backstreet, in London

Walking between places usually led to places located within a half mile or a kilometer of each other.  These neighbourhoods are more apt to have a variety of services on a smaller scale, built closer together.  Think of how many groceries one could carry while walking – this may define how many grocery stores one could find within the radius, while that radius area needs a certain population density to support these stores. At one point in history, to support a walkable economy, grocery type items were sold in “general stores” – increasing product lines to allow financial viability.  And likewise, to maintain this density, dwellings were closer together.  In Chicago, we have “bookend” neighbourhoods – blocks of single family houses that are terminated with walk up flats.

An unknown regional mall in an unknown city
An unknown regional mall in an unknown city

Personal, mechanized transportation – the automobile – exaggerated this notion to an extreme; in doing so, this scale of neighbourhood – the scale of the automobile – dedicated the most amount of land necessary for transportation uses while increasing the area of our neighbourhoods.  One won’t bat an eyebrow to travel more than a mile to shop at a store where one could purchase an entire week’s worth of groceries.  In dispersing the apparent neighbourhood so sparsely over such a great area, the social fabric unwinds.  People become anonymous.  Driving everywhere cuts down on exercise opportunities, just as a loose urban fabric doesn’t seem to care as much about physical appearances – like obesity.

Light rail transit on sodded trackbeds in Grenoble, France
Light rail transit on sodded trackbeds in Grenoble, France

The perfect compromise seems to be public transit – capable of carrying large numbers of people varying distances.

The coming of smaller cars to North America may create denser, closer knit neighbourhoods.  Anyone who has spent any amount of distance in my Mini will attest to its lack of comfort, one shies away from travelling far. One would tend ot patronize closer services, or use transit.  The smaller dimensions may give way to smaller streets.  Chicago neighbourhoods were a mass of two way streets until cars came to be so large that only one drive aisle – not two – could fit on a roadway.  Yet, one still needs streets to allow travel between places.  Movement between places is an important concept in this era. 

The small house movement is an interesting one. A sustainable community needs a critical mass – a density that will allow a certain number of people to be within a certain distance of employment, cultural and shopping services to support the same.  A hallmark of land planning since the industrial age has been the importance of movement between places, manifesting itself in transportation.

Federal Hill, Baltimore.  These houses measure sixteen feet (about five metres) wide
Federal Hill, Baltimore. These houses measure sixteen feet (about five metres) wide

And certainly, smaller houses with smaller footprints could use far less land than McMansions.  Smaller houses could be placed together in relatively dense groupings and achieve the same sort of – whatever openess – one may achieve in low density, large footprint dwelling configuration.

An interesting study could be the ratio of transportation right of way area per capita of a post war suburb vs. a pre war neighbourhood to find efficient and effective land use.  Further, my gut feeling is that some of the more effective land uses may be more livable neighbourhoods.

Posted in Architecture, Automobile Design, History, Pop Culture, Real Estate Development, Transit, Urban Planning.