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Strong Towns: Strengths of Fine Grained Towns
Andrew Price | November 29, 2017

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Granularity

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/10/21/granularity

Granularity is a hard word to explain. The word 'granular' is used to describe something that is made up of smaller elements, and 'granularity' is how small or large those elements are. If the elements are small, we call it 'fine-grained', and if the elements are large we call it 'coarse-grained'. It is a term we use in economics, computer science, geology, and likely many other fields. For example, in computer science, an algorithm is fine-grained if it is divided into many small steps, and coarse-grained if it is divided into few large steps.

The pattern in the rocks are described as coarse-grained on the left, and fine-grained on the right.

When talking about cities, I use the term granularity to talk about how the ownership of a city is divided up, particularly in the size of the lots that city blocks are divided into. Here are some examples; 

Fine-grained blocks in Hoboken, NJ, averaging around 40 lots per block.

Fine-grained blocks in Hoboken, NJ, averaging around 40 lots per block.

Coarse-grained blocks recently developed in another side of town, averaging around 1 lot per block.

Coarse-grained blocks recently developed in another side of town, averaging around 1 lot per block.

We can also talk about the granularity of an economy - an economy can be fine-grained if it is made up of many small businesses, coarse-grained if it is made up of few large businesses, and anywhere 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 our built environment that we physically see and interact with, and the underlying economics that built it. 

Editors Notes: If you are interested in knowing more, think about membership in Strong Towns. This article encapsulates much of what I have been talking about in Main Streets as Old Growth Forest
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