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I went to see Teddy Cruz speak at the Center for Architecture in New York last night, and as always, he presented research and ideas about planning that were not only socially and politically valuable, but also rooted in a very common sense approach to development. His talk hinged on the premise that as cities in general grew into “privileged sites of consumption” in recent decades, some neighborhoods have picked up the slack and evolved into sites of production—places of economic, as well as cultural, social, and political enterprise.

San Diego-based Cruz held up neighborhoods populated predominantly by immigrants from points south as models for a new kind of density. With their informal mix of ad hoc retail spaces, residential buildings with illegally built granny apartments, and other modifications that flout zoning to meet residents’ needs, these neighborhoods, said Cruz, provide templates for undoing disconnected forms of sprawling suburban living. We should be thinking in terms of “not buildings per acre,” said Cruz, “but economic, social, and cultural transactions per acre.”

He went on to speak about work that he is doing with local nonprofits—organizations that he sees as de facto town halls for many neighborhoods—to design developments that put these observations into practice on a planning level, creating more hospitable neighborhoods and eventually better land use across whole regions.

Listening to Cruz, it was easy see how eliminating zoning constraints that foster suburbia but strangle ad hoc development could allow a neighborhood to flourish. And basing planning strategies on how people actually use space is not a new idea. On the other hand, incorporating informal densities into proactive planning schemes that could then be scaled up to redevelop entire regions seems like a much more difficult undertaking.

While planners such as the New Urbanists have long looked to and emulated historical models of density, Cruz’s work attempts to derive scalable development models from living, dynamic, and necessarily inconsistent ways of using neighborhoods. As a responsive approach to planning, any template would also need to be extremely adaptable to changing uses of space, particularly as immigration assures an ongoing flux of residents. But taking on that problem is what makes Cruz’s work so ambitious and so compelling.

I left the talk thinking about places where this responsive style of planning has created models that really function well. If you have any good examples, leave them in the comments.