What a Small Texas Town Can Teach African New City Developments
Bastrop, Texas is bringing back the grid to urban planning. New cities in Africa should follow suit.
Bastrop, Texas, a town of 9,000 in the suburbs of Austin, is not the first place one might think to look for ways to improve urban planning for new city developments in Africa. But Bastrop is unique— it's one of just a few cities in the United States returning to a grid- and block-based model of development that was unfortunately abandoned by most of the country decades ago. New York's grid, based on the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, is the most well-known and successful large-scale implementation of this approach to planning.
Since the mid-20th century, most new development in the United States has revolved around the car. Suburban residential subdivisions feature long and winding roads, cul-de-sacs, limited entry and exit points, and other features that make it more difficult to get from Point A to Point B. The end result of this development approach is worse traffic, limited walkability, and nonexistent transit, all of which limit the benefits of urban agglomeration, like knowledge spillovers and increased productivity.
Not only are these communities less functional than a grid-based community—they come with the added benefit of higher service and infrastructure costs. By one estimate, it costs over twice as much in an arterial community to provide nearly every service, from roads and sidewalks to fire services to parks.
The problems associated with sprawling subdivisions certainly apply to Bastrop. An analysis of the city based on revenue generated per acre and productivity levels found that only downtown Bastrop, laid out on small, gridded blocks, would be fiscally sustainable in the wake of an expected population boom.
In response to these findings, the city adopted the Bastrop Building Block (B3) code. The B3 code requires that all future development be created in a small grid pattern. However, the B3 code goes far beyond just laying out a grid-pattern development plan.
The plan regulates land use by nuisance rather than by prohibition, which in practice allows for any land use that does not generate a nuisance that could be feasibly brought to court, allowing for a greater variety of development. The code also does not include minimum lot sizes or parking requirements, both of which contribute to higher housing costs and a host of other disamenities. The B3 code also allows for accessory dwelling units and eliminates single family zoning, allowing up to three housing units per lot. Combined, these measures will do a great deal to create neighborhoods that are not only functional and enjoyable to live in, but are also financially accessible to more people.
This more compact and grid-based development also allows Bastrop to tackle its infrastructure challenges in a more cost-effective manner. The area around Bastrop struggles to deal with stormwater runoff. To combat this, all of the B3 code pre-designed blocks that developers may choose to build already account for the block's drainage needs. This ensures that as the city grows, its infrastructure costs do not become unmanageable.
This rendering of a Bastrop Block shows how various types of housing and land uses can be incorporated into a sustainable development plan. Houses and low-rise apartments blend together well into a single walkable neighborhood with shared public green spaces. At the same time, there can be a seamless transition into mixed-use development that begins to introduce retail and other commercial space. The image below shows how a variety of such block plans can be created for developers to follow, all of which can fit together to allow for outward growth that continues to be sustainable.
The Bastrop Block model also strikes an important balance between overplanning and a total lack of planning. At CCI, we've repeatedly stressed the need for new city developers to avoid trying to plan every detail of their cities. Cities should set a grid, create lots, delineate public and private spaces, and largely allow the market to do the rest. New city developments must start to look more like Manhattan, as mentioned above, and less like Brasilia. A B3-style code allows for predictability in areas like infrastructure buildout, building styles, and density, while still allowing for market choice by individuals and developers to fill in the details.
So what do Bastrop Blocks have to do with new urban development in Africa? Throughout much of the developing world, including Africa, new urban development is following the 20th century American model of development—car-centric planning, cul-de-sacs, disconnected streets, and large block sizes. At the same time, Africa is facing a massive wave of urbanization without the capacity to provide adequate infrastructure.
Cities like Lagos risk making the same mistakes American cities have made with respect to what new urban development is taking place. While slum areas like Makoko clearly do not follow a grid, even recently developed areas like Ikate Elegushi look closer to an American subdivision than Bastrop. Long blocks and dead end streets can be seen throughout the area.
To some extent, African housing development that looks like an American suburb is understandable. As Yomi Ademola of Rendeavour, Africa's largest urban real estate developer, recently stated on the Charter Cities Podcast:
"When you have that resulting congestion and infrastructure, you see the traffic, it’s hard to go in and fix and maintain existing infrastructure, there is a lot of desire and demand for clean, aesthetically pleasing, organized, orderly, predictable environments in terms of what happens on your plot, what happens on the next plot, in terms of security, even access to land that is supported by services, some serviced land."
Developers like Rendeavour do seem to be taking lessons learned about the importance of a grid-based urban plan seriously, as seen below in an overhead view of the plan for Alaro City, a mixed-use development in the Lekki Free Zone. Although it is somewhat unclear from this image just how large the blocks and land plots in Alaro City will be, it represents a substantial improvement over nearly all other development in the Lagos area.
New city developers like Rendeavour should be looking to Bastrop when planning their cities. The Bastrop Block model provides an easily replicable, aesthetically pleasing, and highly functional urban development plan. Given the rising tide of urbanization throughout Africa, new city developers will need to plan for the expansion of their cities, including adequate infrastructure. A B3-style code will allow a city to grow as its population grows, limiting the proliferation of informal housing, traffic, and other problems that currently beset cities throughout the continent. Bastrop provides a manageable solution to future infrastructure challenges that will also be enjoyable and affordable for future residents, and African city developers should take notice.
The Bastrop Building Block (B3) Code, B3 Technical Manual, and Bastrop Design Pattern Book are available for download here. Thank you to Nolan Gray at the Mercatus Center for bringing the case of Bastrop to my attention.