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New urban planning buzzword: Lean Urbanism

The term “lean” is well known in technology and startup circles. Thanks to people like Eric Ries and Steve Blank, it’s become all about starting up lean and not investing a lot of time and money before you’ve really tested your business assumptions in the marketplace.

But keeping it lean isn’t unique to just tech companies. Its origins are actually in manufacturing—mostly from Toyota’s celebrated production system. Lately though, it has been starting to make its way into cities with a new buzzword called “Lean Urbanism.”

Championed by New Urbanist Andres Duany—who is actually in the midst of writing a book on the topic—the methodology seems to be gaining awareness in cities spanning from Detroit to San Diego. Here’s an article that a friend of mine (currently working in San Diego) sent me yesterday on the topic.

At first, the article gave me the impression that the movement was all about building as-of-right. That is, build what’s allowed and stop asking for special discretionary permissions, which is often how real estate development works.

But then I started to do a bit more research.

And it turns out that Lean Urbanism is about something much deeper. It’s about empowering incremental urban growth:

“Lean Urbanism…focuses on revitalizing cities by finding ways for people to participate in community-building — specifically, by enabling everyday people to get things done.”

What Lean Urbanism hopes to do is create tools and techniques that will help local communities avoid and workaround overly onerous regulations. It’s about removing the barriers to entry—whether that be a business permit or a building permit—so that more people can participate in shaping their own community.

What I like about it is that it’s building upon the renewal cycle that has traditionally always powered cities. It hopes to empower the proverbial artist that moves into a neighborhood like New York’s Soho and magically makes it cool—then spurring an onslaught of investment.

And so while the buzzword might be new, it’s a renewal cycle we’ve seen before. But, if it works, maybe not with so much frequency.

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