The Sky Method was developed in hopes of fixing the broken American development system, which requires developers to invest millions in infrastructure before a single lot is sold. This happens because developers have lost the trust of the American public because of the countless downward trades they have forced upon us. For almost all of human history, if a building or neighborhood was demolished, it was replaced with something better. But not now. Since the end of World War II in general and the destruction of New York City’s Penn Station in particular, new development has been greeted by something between skepticism and virulent hostility. And with good reason; developers have lost the trust of the public that they will replace the old with something better. Now, municipalities say “show me the end before you even begin.” And humans are famously bad at seeing the end from the beginning.
The Sky Method is the old way of building, where a cluster of family farms in the landscape are transformed over time into thriving hamlets, villages, towns, and eventually cities. At every point in this process, the place is complete because it grows in an organic way. Children, for example, don’t sprout arms at 8 months old and legs at 18 months; they grow by cells subdividing into more cells, just like the family farms subdivide into sub-urban homes and then more urban homes.
The Sky Method lays out land by the block instead of the lot. People can buy whatever proportion of a block they choose. Land is sold on a per-square-foot basis based on the Transect zone with which the parcel will comply. Higher Transect zones cost more per square foot than lower ones because they have higher development potential.
Block frontage is coded, but not the interior of the block, because the internal property lines are unknown until the block is fully built out. The interior of a block may be upgraded to the highest zone with which it is contiguous.
Because the land has already been approved by the municipality for development to the climax zone, upgrading takes place solely between the owner & administering authority. This is often the Town Founder in the initial years, but must be turned over to a perpetual authority at some point. The owner must upgrade their entire parcel, except where part of the parcel is coded for a higher climax zone than the rest of the parcel. In this case, the owner may upgrade the higher permitted portion of the parcel to its climax zone, leaving the other portion not upgraded.
When someone wants to subdivide their land, or otherwise improve their land so that it no longer meets the requirements of their current Transect zone, they must purchase an upgrade from the administering authority. The upgrade is the difference between the price per square foot of their current Transect zone and the new zone. The upgrade rates are set when the land is originally purchased, and escalate over time by an established index, such as a proportion of the CPI.
The administering authority installs infrastructure based on the highest Transect zone of all the lots on the thoroughfare. This means that in the early years, the infrastructure will be very light. Specifically, at Sky (the case study) T2 thoroughfares are sand roads, sanitary sewage may be handled onsite, water mains are very small, and electrical requirements may be nonexistent since Sky is considering going entirely solar in T2.
The Sky Method was developed for a portion of Sky in the Florida panhandle. Sky was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). This portion of the plan was small and located at the corner of the development, so it was not large enough to support a mix of uses in the foreseeable future, nor was it within walking distance of the neighboring town center. It therefore could not be conceived at the present time as anything more intense than large lots which could be characterized either as small T2 mini-farms or very large T3 lots. Here’s the original plan:
Stripping the Lots
Because the Sky Method incorporates design by the block rather than by the lot, we stripped out all of the internal lot lines. We maintained all rear lane and passage entries to the blocks so that DPZ’s design intent would be fully honored.
Coding the Blocks
We then coded the Transect zones of all block frontage. We based this not on the realities of today’s market, but on the ideal urban form at some unforeseen point in the future when the market was much stronger than it is today. It is of utmost importance to focus on the ideal urban form for this street network without the burden of current market conditions, because the market conditions that are unforeseen today will persist much longer than what can currently be foreseen.
Beginning the Plan
The plan begins with the blocks. For the most part, we will insert very little commentary so that you can scroll through the following images and get a better feel for the growth of the town. It is enormously important to note that each design for each lot was done without trying to foresee future designs. The intent was that the design exercise approximate as closely as possible the ideal of sequential decisions guided simply by the Transect and by the owners’ best interest. The first move illustrated is the purchase of three of the blocks for family farms. Several subsequent steps involve the purchase of more family farms.
Note that the property owner in the lower left block has elected to only build a barn, not a house, at the present time. Because her property is T2, this is perfectly fine.
The First Upgrade
The property owner in the central block has decided to subdivide their land. They go to the administering authority and pay for the upgrade. Next, they create three lots and a rear lane, since rear lanes are strongly encouraged in Sky T3. Knowing that they will be required in Sky T4 and T5, for which the land is coded, they install the rear lanes. For Sky T3, rear lanes can be nothing more than sandy lanes so the cost is minimal.
The First Post-T2 Purchase
Note that since momentum has now picked up in the hamlet, the half-block at the lower left is now purchased originally at T3 instead of T2. Land purchasers can purchase at whatever level of intensity they choose, up to the climax zone. But in the early years, it is likely most of the purchases will be for the lower zones.
This is the first step when people simply subdivide more land compliant with zones for which they’ve already been approved, so there are no upgrades on this step.
The First T4
This is the first step where T4 upgrades occur. At this point, the administering authority must upgrade streets upon which T4 occurs from the rural type to the more urban type. Notice how in this and all subsequent steps, the current snapshot of the place as it grows from a loose collection of family farms to a village is of a whole and complete place at any stage in time. In other words, it stands on its own as what it is at every point, never looking incomplete. But then it grows to the next stage, and becomes another complete thing then, too.
The First Rear Cottages
This is the first step where rear cottages occur. Because the top of the bottom-center block is T4, the center of the block can go to T4, which at Sky allows for rear cottages. These inner-block addresses should be more affordable than street addresses. Note how the barn in the same block is the first to convert to a carriage house. Others will follow in future steps.
The First T5
T5 shops begin humbly at first. The shop in the upper block is a simple gable-front structure attached to the front of a house and built to the front corner of the lot. In the case of the lower block, two homeowners go together to turn their property into T5, resulting in a somewhat more robust eave-front shop at the front property line.
Upgrading the Street
Customers can park on the street in embryonic T5, but the administering authority has incentive to upgrade the streets once a substantial amount of T5 exists because the administering authority’s investment in diagonal parking lanes will encourage more property owners to upgrade to T5, resulting in more upgrade fees. Notice how the property owner in the left center block is holding out? Maybe they like their family farm. Whatever the case, the only pressure to upgrade is financial, and great old towns all over the world have this condition occasionally, where legacy farms occur on Main Street or High Street.
Upgrading the Hold-Outs
But guess what happens to the T5 hold-outs? Eventually, they die... and their children realize how valuable their property could be. Because the upgrade price escalator has not increased in value nearly so much as the value of the upgraded land (even counting the original investment, long ago paid off) it’s a no-brainer to develop this property as a proper Main Street building type... and complete the village. The children even choose to vacate the front of their property to allow for diagonal parking to attract more customers to the shops, making them more valuable.
Organic Growth Benefits
There are only a handful of planners today who can do even a competent job of an organic village layout. But medieval townspeople didn’t call up the Disney Imagineers to design their town. Instead, they built it themselves in a series of small, common-sense, incremental steps. The Sky Method allows just this sort of organic incremental growth, because it also is the result of many individual decisions made by many people over time. The process of creating these drawings compressed the organic town-building process by designing one house at a time. I’m not good enough to have done this plan from scratch.
Financial Stability Benefits
Because the Town Founder need not make huge infrastructure investments before landowners upgrade their property, the process is inherently more financially stable than the conventional development model. In the case study project at Sky, it is likely that the income from selling off the first blocks as T2 would have paid off the note on the entire 600 +/- acre property. In short, under certain conditions, the Sky Method may make conventional financing unnecessary!
For a more detailed animated view of the Sky Method, check out this page.