Property Lines and Permanence

Land use patterns, such as property lines, are some of the most persistent marks that humans make on the planet. The gridded streets and small lots of Roman cities from 2,000 years ago can often still be seen in the cities that have persisted hr the same location, even after the original structures are long gone. Similarly, the original property lines carved out by the Spaniards in New Mexico, using Tong lot’ development which sliced up all the land along important waterways into skinny holdings perpendicular to a river or creek, still persist in property lures today. They can be clearly seen from the air and are beautifully illustrated in the massive mapping project Every Building in America published by the New York Times.3 Likewise, the layout of the original Dutch colony of New Amsterdam persists in the narrow winding streets of Manhattan’s financial district, a.k.a. Wall Street, 400 years later.

Not only property lines, but also the corresponding street layoirts, have enormous influence on building size and orientation, and thus ultimately the availability of daylight and views inside of buildings. Traditional settlements often have small blocks or irregularly shaped properties, while some cities follow strict grids with precise orientations. For example, all the streets of Boise, Idaho follow a grid at 45 degrees to the cardinal directions, such that every building facade in the city faces NE, SE, SW, or NW, with nothing in between. Salt Lake City, originally laid out by Mormon settlers for family- based agricultur e, has the largest city block sizes in the United States, 660 feet square, and some of the widest streets, 130 feet wide. City blocks hr Portland, Oregon, in comparison, are only 200 feet square. As a consequence, new daylit buildings may be easier to achieve hr Portland, with its smaller block sizes, than in Salt Lake City, where a shrgle building filling up a city block could be over ten times as large. Thus, the initial act of laying out new streets or dr awing property lines may impact daylight availability for hundreds or thousands of years.

Modem real estate developers are often keen to amass adjacent properties that can be combined into a larger property, which will then support a bigger, deeper, taller building. The transformation of many downtown areas, from older ownership patterns of small lots, to consolidated ownership enabling bigger, taller buildings follows this pattern. There may be many justifications for this trend, including reduced building costs, greater design flexibility, or improved energy efficiency. But as building volume increases relative to exterior skin surface area (e.g. the surface to volume ratio), a clear consequence is correspondingly fewer opportunities for daylight, view, and natural ventilation per unit of floor area.

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