Coarse grain urban fabric is like burlap: rough, large-scale weaves that are functional, but not usually comfortable. Such places consist of one of two things. Large blocks, predominated by big box stores and other car contract retail and corporate centers, or multi-block mega project dropped on a city without integrating the surrounding city or community.
Not only do coarse grain fabrics NOT give many opportunities for interconnecting; the fabric itself is usually inhospitable to interaction. Instead of asserting control over the street, such places turn inward, fortifying themselves against the perceived dangers of the outside. This begets yet more undesirability.
In this regard, coarse grain acts as a barrier for all but those who are there for a specific purpose. Just as we are not comfortable wearing a burlap shirt, we are not comfortable spending more time necessary in coarse-grained places.
On the other hand, there is fine-grained urban fabric. Like high count Egyptian cotton; fine-grain urban fabric can feel luxurious make people want to linger in or around it. The fine-grain urban fabric consists of several small blocks close together.
Within each block are several buildings, most with narrow frontages, frequent storefronts, and minimal setbacks from the street. Streets and opportunities to turn corners are frequent, and as a result, so are storefronts. This offers many opportunities for discovery and exploration. There are almost no vacant lots or surface parking. Also, as there are more intersections, traffic is slower and safer.
The fine-grained urban fabric is not imposed on a community like its coarse cousin. Rather, it evolves over time; responding to what came before, and adapting to what came afterward. This evolutionary process creates a place that is not frozen in the era when they were built but is dynamic and reflective of a neighborhood’s changing needs.
This creates an urban fabric that can seamlessly evolve over time from lightly developed residential areas to mixed-use retail to the dense urban core if that’s what the community desires. In this way, there are far more resilient than the mega-projects mentioned above who, when they lose a single-tenant, often fail.
Granularity of Economy
We can also talk about the granularity of an economy; an economy is fine-grained if it is made up of many small businesses and coarse-grained if it is made up of a few large businesses. (Of course, most economies are somewhere in between.)
Having a fine-grained economy made up of many small businesses is generally preferable over a coarse-grained economy made up of fewer businesses because it implies a more resilient economy (if one of the businesses fail, less is the effect on the overall economy) and more distributed wealth (the profit and ownership of the businesses are divided among many, rather than in the hands of a few.)
Cities are the physical manifestation of the economy and our built environment speaks volumes about our economy. It is easier to see this in smaller towns where the economic model is simplified; you can easily spot the difference between a small town dominated by a few large stores and a small town dominated by many smaller stores.
There is often a correlation between the environment that we physically see and interact with, and the underlying economics that built it.
Granularity of Cities
Older urban areas are typically very fine-grained.
While newer urban areas tend to typically be very coarse-grained.
The Benefits of Fine-Grained Urbanism
Fine-grained urbanism is preferable because it implies:
Diverse ownership. Each individual lot typically has a different owner.
Lower cost of entry. If we ignore the underlying price of land (small lots, in general, should be cheaper because you are buying less land), it takes less money to build a shop or a home on a small narrow lot, than building an entire apartment complex.
More destinations within walking distance. An important part of good urbanism is fitting as much as possible within walking distance, so naturally, fitting more in gives you more choices to walk to.
Greater resistance to bad buildings. Bad buildings can make less of an impact when they are limited in size.
Urban development should not be expensive by itself. The high cost of entry brought on by coarse-grained urbanism is leading to economic polarization where only those who already have money can invest and create more wealth, and everyone else is a mere consumer.
If we consider each building a destination, fine-grained urban areas are naturally more walkable because we have more destinations within walking distance than coarse-grained urban areas in general.
In contrast, with coarse-grained urbanism, we have one or two destinations taking up an entire block.
Fine-grained development also limits the impact of bad buildings. A property owner that builds a dull or ugly building, allows their building to become run down, or abandons it, negatively affects the streetscape. However, we can minimize the overall impact on the streetscape if the ugly or derelict building is just one of many along the block.
A fine-grained environment is a health environment from an economic and urbanist perspective. Large buildings are not bad, and the best cities I have visited have a diverse mixture. We should do our best to make our urban environment fine-grained — with development using as little land as possible. However, on the occasions when we do need to build large, we should do our best to make the result faux-grained.
Treat land is if it is the most precious resource your city has. Never wasteland or street space. Build real parks over greenspace. Create a place that is enjoyable and interesting — one that encourages entrepreneurship, where you can mostly depend on your own two feet for daily errands. That is how you create a successful city.
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