Urban Transects Revisited

“I argue that planned and unplanned horizontal conditions around vertical urban centers are intrinsically neither bad nor good, but instead natural results of industrial growth, results that require new conceptualizations and considered attention, and that these must be in hand before potential solutions to any problem discovered can be effectively addressed or devised” -Alan Berger from Drosscape

Two urban transects compared:

The image above and the two below are from Alan Berger’s Drosscape.  The top image shows the horizontal spread of Atlanta, GA from 1990 (dark grey) to 2000 (light grey).  The image below (what Berger calls a dispersal graph) is a study of four radial transects of the city (the magenta, blue, yellow and orange lines) from the center to the edge of Atlanta.  The four transects are measures of density (persons per square mile) for a radius of 70 miles (!) from the city center.  The spikes reveal the lack of a consistent decreasing density gradient in correlation with distance from the city center, thus demonstrating extensive sprawl.

Th image below is a spindle chart showing the change (orange) growth  (red) and decline (yellow) of manufacturing relative to distance from Atlanta’s center.

Compare these transect studies to the idealized transects as proposed by the new urbanist Center for Applied Transect Studies:

“To systemize the analysis and coding of traditional patterns, a prototypical American rural-to-urban transect has been divided into six Transect Zones, or T-zones, for application on zoning maps…As a shorthand, New Urbanist practitioners refer to the framework of the rural-to-urban transect used in this way simply as “the Transect.””

These zones are keyed into a pattern language-esque smartcode to encourage urban form to move towards this ideal.

Berger’s and the new urbanist (NU) transects are about as different as they can be, and serve oppositional agendas.  Berger’s transect attempts to diagram the data of what exists, albeit for one of the most sprawling/ least dense cities in the US (1,370 people/sq. mile).  The NU version is a nostalgic and proactive ideal; a prescription for what may be achieved in opposition to what Berger has observed.  Personally I can’t say I agree with the presumptions behind either example.  As revelatory as Berger’s graphics are of contemporary cities, his claim that Drosscape is a “natural” component of every evolving city is problematic for me, both in terms of how vague a descriptor “natural” is when invoked in this context, and the subtler implications that American cities built by 50+ years of exploitive world empire and late capitalism is “natural” (again only my personal take here).

For the NU transect, I find the premise stuck in notions of old world centralized cities, somehow forgetting that we now live in  polycentric metropolises.  It’s an ideal we will never achieve for a variety of reasons.  Additionally even cities based on new urbanism such as Portland OR have multiple centers that contradict the idealized gradient of the transect.   I also find it interesting that the NU version has become “the transect“, both from the NU perspective, as well as in popular thought.

Comparative city shapes image from MetaCity Datatown

What is the value of the urban transect for the contemporary ink scatter-splot metropolis?  Density, in built structures and/or numbers of people, is the predominant factor for both of the transects described above.  I’m interested in what other design phenomena can and have been mapped in urban transects, such as….

– the spatial experience of moving from center to periphery  (the examples above sort of get at this, but from a distant aerial point of view)  What’s it like on the ground?

– Infrastructure (above and below ground)

– Grid erosion (a la Albert Pope’s Ladders)

– Others?

What other urban transects are out there?  What other methods of representation?



  1. Economic transects.

    I’ve been interested in these since I did an architectural/ethnographic study of Lancaster Ave in West Philadelphia way back in high school (interestingly enough, Lancaster is RT30 which winds its way across the country and through Portland). It was a poor neighborhood with a powerfully strong community and certainly a lot of fascinating vernacular interventions amidst the warehouses and row-houses. However Lancaster continued beyond the city boundary and became the spine of one of the most affluent suburbs in the country, the Main Line. the break between wealth and poverty was distinct and clear, much like the UGB in Portland, and lay directly on the Cities boundary at City Line Ave. It is a line which belies of the serious problems of economic and political inequality between the City of Philadelphia and the State of it’s residence.

    It should be noted that Lancaster Ave. is one of those fantastic grid breaking diagonal boulevards which create such distinct lines of transit and urban conditions. I’ve been fascinated with them for a while, especially as while they seem to cut across a diversity of conditions in the fabric, they simultaneously create their own unique identities. Interestingly enough I believe RT30 ends up in Portland and become Sandy Blvd for a time, one of the great angled boulevards of Portland.

  2. I should really re-read Berger before saying this, but I would’ve said not that Berger is arguing that drosscape is good (natural in the sense of moral valuation), but rather that it is the end-product of a series of processes which have it as their natural (expected, predictable, logical) result — that if industry is structured in the way that it was in the latter half of the 20th century, then you get a city that looks like this. Which is really an argument against the second transect you mention, as Berger (I imagine/project) would say that one cannot force an urban form onto a system without altering the underlying processes which produced that form.

    The difference in the two transects is shocking, when you put them side-by-side. One interacts with the city as it is; the other projects a nostalgic vision onto the city. While I definitely understand the appeal of the nostalgic vision (and appreciate some of the things New Urbanists do, despite my broader philosophical disagreement with the movement), I think it lacks power to really transform the city because of that failure to approach the city as it is.

  3. This post shows a lack of understanding of the New Urbanist transect despite your link to our website. Please take the time to read the SmartCode before describing the methodology. (You’ll find the latest Transect diagrams and numerous Transect-based plans on the site, too.) Here’s the thing: a transect can be any scale – it is simply a cut or path through the environment used for analysis. The transects shown around Atlanta are a very large scale. The NU Transect is much smaller – it is a framework for zoning within a community unit, i.e., a neighborhood of diverse habitats planned on the pedestrian shed of approximately 1/4 mile radius. (Or many of them, as occur in a city of neighborhoods like Philadelphia, where I live.) Of course it is used for analysis as well as vision. Where do you think the DNA for the SmartCode comes from? It gets calibrated for each place it is used, according to the local rural-to-urban transect at the community scale. We get out and measure; we take samples of the urban pattern just as ecologists sample the natural environment. The basic pattern observed and codified by DPZ exists all over America, but has been melting into sprawl around *every* hamlet, village, town, and city for the past 60+ years. Of course the methodology can be used for the polycentric region, but you don’t stretch those fine-grained zones out across 70 miles.
    I’m glad the first commenter mentioned Lancaster Avenue. In addition to illuminating economic disparities, it illuminates similarities in urban form in a traditional big city neighborhood and a small suburban rail town. In West Philadelphia, Lancaster Ave is a T5 corridor (mixed-use main street) surrounded by T4 urban fabric (rowhouses and twins, mostly residential with corner stores). As you get out toward the city limit there’s some T3 within some of the ped sheds of the T5 areas. It’s spotty and needs infill, but it needs a protective transect-based code because the basic pattern is excellent. OK, then as you drive or take the train out the Main Line, each train stop occurs at a compact, walkable town or village, like Narberth, Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, and Wayne. Within each of those original TODs you’ll find that same urban transect of T3-4-5. Local analysis helps you calibrate that Transect up or down in intensity, and the proportion of T4 to T3 changes, but the basic pattern may be observed.
    Finally, to those who think this kind of analysis is “nostalgic,” did you know the City of Miami just adopted transect-based zoning derived from the SmartCode to entirely replace its old auto-centric ordinance? The mapping was done city-wide based on what is there, what is desired by the residents, and what walkable, transit-connected patterns can be strengthened and completed. Can someone explain how a progressive zoning code that serves all the people, even those who do not or cannot drive (the elderly, the children, the poor, and the disabled), is “nostalgic?”

  4. Hi Nico. The Lancaster Ave. transect sounds interesting. Of similar interest Jason King recently introduced me to the Equity Atlas that maps income and access to resources for residents of Portland, which can be easily translated into transects. They have a variety of mapped data you can download on their site.

    I share your interest in the uniqueness of Sandy Blvd. I took it all the way out to the airport yesterday.

  5. Hi Sandy. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Please allow me to try to clarify….
    I think I understand how your version of the transect works as it is applied to the SmartCode (and you are correct–I know the ins and outs of smartcode, but I’m no expert). My intent in writing this post was to (1) critique the representation of the transect itself and (2) show your transect as a counterpoint to those depicted in Alan Berger’s Drosscape, both to demonstrate the breadth of current perceptions of cities and the diverse application of the urban transect.

    Comparative counterpoint: I think if you read Drosscape (if you haven’t already) you will see how your response to this post is consistent with the polarized duality of Drosscape’s and New Urbanism’s stances toward contemporary urbanism (really–I’m not trying to be sardonic here–this was the point of the post in the first place). Berger calls into question the entire critical dialogue surrounding sprawl, asking is it really bad? why? This is not my viewpoint–its Berger’s. My understanding is that new urbanism and its proposed transects have a very different view on sprawl–one that is proactively anti-sprawl and for a lot of reasons that I agree with. In my post I don’t mean to imply either stance is right (as I don’t claim to know) nor did I intend to critique the design method of either philosophy. However, I did speak about the presumptions I see behind both viewpoints, which I still stand by.

    The transect: I do think the new urbanist transect, as a graphic representation (i.e. the paired aerial perspective over the section a have in the post), is a bit misleading, largely in terms of scale, which you have discussed. As you mention “The NU Transect is much smaller – it is a framework for zoning within a community unit, i.e., a neighborhood of diverse habitats planned on the pedestrian shed of approximately 1/4 mile radius.” If so, than how can the transect be urban to rural at that scale, meaning how do you go from urban to rural (city center to wilderness) in a quarter mile in an American city, per the representation of the transect? Its that scale element that I find misleading, which brought me to the discussion of how I think its “nostalgic” because cities I know don’t look like that image (i.e. Portland with its multiple centers occurring along the rural to urban transect). Its a reading of the graphics rather than a stab at the ideology. And by “nostalgic” (I probably could find a better word), I never meant to imply that new urbanism is a fringe or non-engaged discipline. Quite the contrary. New Urbanism is a dominant force in contemporary urbanism and design (no question here) and thus worthy of healthy criticism.

    That said (and if you are still reading) I am very interested in what you mentioned in your response about measuring and classifying the urban landscape–how you record and classify the cities you work with…the DNA leading to the smart code. Do you have more detailed information about how you go about that kind of fieldwork? Examples from specific cities? This is what I was hoping to generate with the post–different methods and examples for constructing urban transects.

  6. Berger doesn’t seem to use the word “good” as much as he says that the whole good-bad sprawl debate is, in his own words, obsolete because it is a “natural” byproduct. The opening page of the book states: “Dross is understood as a natural component of every dynamically evolving city. As such it is an indicator of healthy urban growth.” So right then I wished he had defined “natural” and “healthy”. Really–what do they mean? The word natural is as vague a descriptor in landscape as sustainable. He comes back to the word natural again and again, never defining it. When he does speak of it specifically (see CODA: Urban Landscape is a Natural Thing to Waste, p. 44-45) he makes comparative references to evolution, contemporary physics, indeterminacy theory (The End of Certainty by Illya Prigogine) and refers to the city as an organism (another natural metaphor) rather than calling attention to the last 50+ of peculiar (or atleast culturally unique) years of urban history.
    I agree with all of Berger’s other analysis and I do think its a definitive book on Sprawl at the moment. I just think he unnecessarily confounded the issue by “naturalizing” it, but maybe that’s the point. I like your word choices…predictable, logical, etc. Any of those would have been fine.

  7. Brett:

    Thanks for the clarification. I think maybe I should have stopped with “I should really re-read Berger”, as it sounds like I remembered him how I wanted to.


    Since I also used the term ‘nostalgic’, I’ll defend it as an accurate characterization of New Urbanism. You can’t show, as you attempted to, that something is not ‘nostalgic’ by demonstrating that has positive consequences (while I’m not convinced that zoning codes are really the best instrument for controlling the evolution of cities, I don’t doubt that Miami’s new code is an improvement over its old code), as nostalgic does not mean ‘bad’. Nostalgia is, to quote a random online dictionary, “a yearning for the happiness of a former place or time”. Insofar as New Urbanism (and the Transect with a capital T) attempts to codify an earlier urban form (roughly turn of the century North American) based upon the belief that that urban form produces social good and greater happiness, it’s very hard for me to see how that doesn’t fit the definition of nostalgia.

    Whether that is problematic or not is a separate question; myself, I think it is helpful in some ways (I’ve arranged my life and work for the past ten years so that I wouldn’t have to drive on a daily basis, so I assure you that I appreciate the benefits of walkable communities) and unfortunately blind in others. It’d take a couple of essays to explain the latter well, but one of the biggest problems is that New Urbanism approaches urban form as something which is to be codified and produced through regulation (ironically, this is also the heart of the modernist approach to urban planning, which is — rightly — regarded by New Urbanists as so destructive). The late 19th century densities and arrangements which provide the model for the Transect, though, were less planned and more the product of processes and technologies: if the primary mode of transportation in a society is the streetcar, you get one kind of (very pleasant) suburb, and if it is the private automobile, you get another. I’m pretty convinced that attempting to alter the former — codes, zoning, regulations, even planning process — without accounting for the latter — economic processes and technology — will fail. The Kentlands are an excellent example of such failure.

  8. I’m sorry, I don’t have time to address all the points in this thread, so I’ll pick a couple of them. The diagram you posted is out of date, maybe 5 years old. The names of the zones have changed since then. However, the newer ones are similar in scale. If you insist on taking the diagram literally (it’s an abstraction), then look more carefully at it – the four urban zones (T3-T6) are within a few blocks of each other. Only the T2 Rural Zone and T1 Natural Zone spread out beyond a ped shed. Read what I wrote, and you’ll see I didn’t say the ped shed encompasses the entire NU Transect. We plan using the Transect and the ped shed. Look at some transect-based regulating plans (zoning maps) in our Image Library http://www.transect.org/regulating_img.html Look for the ones with circles – those are the ped sheds used to help allocate the Transect Zones and Civic Zones so that each neighborhood has a balance of urban and sub-urban habitats.
    Regarding the word “nostalgia,” sure, it really means “longing for home” and what’s wrong with that? But we all know it’s usually meant as a slur. If you meant something positive, great. For another view, here’s a quote from John Burroughs: “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”
    For more information on how we analyze the local DNA to calibrate the SmartCode template, see the page on the Synoptic Survey here:
    There’s more on calibration in the Manual available here
    It would be great if we didn’t need regulation to allow walkable, mixed-use, diverse development patterns – but we do. A code must be more than toothless “design guidelines,” because the default is so strong in the direction of separated use zoning and autocentric corridors. The code must be regulatory, until such time as the culture regains the wisdom to build compactly again.

  9. Regarding the word “nostalgia,” sure, it really means “longing for home” and what’s wrong with that? But we all know it’s usually meant as a slur. If you meant something positive, great.

    I didn’t mean that there’s never anything problematic about nostalgia — there certainly can be, and I think there are places where New Urbanism is problematically nostalgic — but that you can’t say that something isn’t nostalgic because it has positive consequences, as that only works as an argument if nostalgia means ‘bad’, and that’s neither what it means nor what I meant by it.

    I think it’s quite possible to express disagreement with something (or portions of something) without ‘slurring’ it, and I hope that’s what I’ve done.

    It would be great if we didn’t need regulation to allow walkable, mixed-use, diverse development patterns – but we do. A code must be more than toothless “design guidelines,” because the default is so strong in the direction of separated use zoning and autocentric corridors. The code must be regulatory, until such time as the culture regains the wisdom to build compactly again.

    This is an excellent illustration of what I was trying to get at, in a way. I’ll freely admit that I don’t have any way to really prove this to anyone — though I can point to examples, such as Kentlands, and think it’s supported by historical patterns — but I don’t think you can successfully alter an urban system over time and at a large scale without interacting with the “default”. The “default” isn’t the default solely because of the bad decisions of naughty planners influenced by visions of Radiant and Broadacre cities (though there really were bad decisions and naughty planners, and I don’t want to live in the Radiant city). There are underlying structural causes in the economic and technological organization of society which produce defaults and influence naughty planners to make bad decisions. It’s not just about changing ideologies, it’s about networks of transportation and supply chains and the delivery of services and social preferences and the cultural valuation of the individual home on a half-acre of land. Trying to impose a new order onto these systems from above is asking for that order to be fractured by pressure from below. Which is why the Kentlands looks like a village in plan but functions much more like a modern suburb than a pre-automobile town.

    And let me repeat myself: none of this is to say that there’s nothing valuable or helpful about New Urbanism. I’d rather live in the Kentlands than on the other side of Darnestown Road. But I don’t see it (and I know, two decades have passed between the Kentlands and the arrival of the Transect) as a whole or final solution, so I offer critique where I see it.

    (Someone also might ask: what does interacting with those systems look like, if not New Urbanism? Lots of different things, of course, but one great pair of examples that comes to mind from an article I read recently would be the work of William Morrish at MIT and the introduction of car-sharing services like ZipCar. Please avoid reading this suggestion as a dichotomy.)

  10. interesting post Brett, especially the part wondering if there are other “transects” out there. It strikes me that the three examples you give are spatial (mvrdv, berger, nu). Could we use them to study non-spatial phenomena? They are also linear (and roughly concentric in plan).

    I would argue that it is a valid way for understanding, interpreting, and building specific aspects of the modern city, but it should always be used in conjunction with other methods if at all. I think of K. Hill’s essay Shifting Sites when she argues that the human experience of embodiment has been the main paradigm for human understanding of the world (we are a body, a city is delineated and mapped, the Earth is a coherent globe/celestial body, everything is a bounded entity in proximity to other entities). She also then talks about how this is changing- humans are a superorganism, the world is a city, celestial bodies are always losing and gaining energy and matter to space and each other and everything is mostly empty anyways.

    I would say that the transect is a useful tool for formulating concepts for specific (important) purposes, but is irrelevant and outdated as a theoretical framework for building modern cities.

  11. Yes – I’m still looking for other examples of transects. If you know of any others that are worthwhile I would love to see them!

    I wouldn’t say urban transects are irrelevant or outdated because I do think they can tell us a lot, both in the forensic study of the presumptions and philosophies embedded in them (as I think this discussion has amply illustrated) and for what they can reveal about urban conditions. Until the globe is universally covered in urban fabric (which depending on how you define “urban” is not that far off) urban regions are still going to have this richly variable gradient of fall off from center to edge. There is undeniable phenomenological difference between city center and periphery and what happens in between. Cities vary so much in how this occurs and the relationships between center and edge, which explains why the transect is so locked into the sprawl debate. What makes Berger’s analysis so valuable is that he uses the transect to show how the city has morphed over the past 60 years: the hollowing out of the center to eventually be refilled by stadiums and entertainment centers, the movement of manufacturing and other industries to the periphery, etc.. He takes this information to speculate how as designers we might use it. Are there better tools for revealing this? Ideas?

    Rather than calling it a transect, I generally prefer to refer to it as a very large cross section. The value of the section as a form of drawing lies in its ability to reveal relationships, which (i think) makes it a critical tool for how we think about urban design and infrastructure. Its a question of how best to draw the section–what to chart and how to show it that could use some research and exploration.

    I agree with you about embodiment and how we physically understand landscape: Both examples are abstractions and neither of the two transects really gets at that experience, or the materiality of cutting through the city…something I would like to see.

    I’m pulling together other transect/urban sections I have come across and hope to post what I find shortly.

  12. Brett, in my last post please change “densify around transect” to “densify around transit.” Thanks.

  13. Intriguing post. If one looks at the children’s version of the city, or the story book version of the city, then you get the simplified “transect.” This is all the New Urbanist Transect is, a dumbed down version of what is actually going on in the city. They ignore the richness and complexity of the city, and chose not engage with that, saying the transect is the solution for everything.

    To have such a fixed viewpoint, when in reality the world is dynamic … and evolutionary – now the New Urbanist transect does not take that into account.

    Berger’s analysis is more in line with urban realities, the dystopian realities that cities face, where we have a democracy. Imperfect, yet it si how we are. Sorlien and Duany’s Transect seeks the utopian “picture perfect” storybook fairytale, that creates an artificial landscape, not responding to how the messiness of life is. Where as Berger perfectly recognises the messiness of life in its entirety.

    If one takes a genuine transect through the city, in the way that landscape ecologists originally envisaged the transect, you don’t get the NU Transect.

    There are many other representations of the city, many of them based around networks, which pick hierarchical places and their connections, and the generative formation of places according to their location. I heard a brilliant lecture on this in Europe many months back by an Australian Spatial Planner – Robertson? I told him he should write a book on the subject.

    He made the point that a transect, if used must be dynamic in its many dimensions. And if you actually look at transects of issues across a city – water, animal habitat, traffic, vegetation, human space, social space, economic space – they will all be different and take different rates across the landscape. He made the point that only when you look at the differential transects do you get a picture of the city as it really is. Tne New urbanist transect is a mono-transect, as it does not allow all issues to have their own relationships to space, but they must be subordinate to the transect as defined.

  14. To return to the original topic (sorry for going so far off course, Brett), a couple suggestions:

    1. At a much smaller scale, it can be quite interesting to think of the transect not just a drawing practice, but also as physical practice. One of my professors while I was in school, Laurel McSherry, was very interested in an archaeological practice called “line-walking” (she spent her time at the American Academy in Rome developing projects based on line-walking). A paragraph from an archaeological dictionary on field walking, which includes line-walking:

    There are two main ways of carrying out fieldwalking. The first is line walking, where linear transects are defined at fixed intervals and the fieldwalkers traverse each line collecting material that they see within their corridor of vision. Lines are usually divided into stints (often the stints are the same length as the gap between transects to make data processing easier) and the material recovered is bagged by line and stint. The second technique is grid walking, where the survey area is divided into squares and the walkers spend a fixed amount of time working in each square gathering everything they can see during the allotted search period. At the end of the allotted time the finds are bagged together and the team moves on to the next square. In both systems it is important that each sample unit (a line stint or a grid square) is treated equally, otherwise the results will be worthless. After the finds have been collected, cleaned, sorted, and identified, different categories can be mapped and patterns identified.

    This sort of practice lends itself to interesting varieties of site analysis, as well as to studying urban areas. I forget the names, but she referred us to a guy who would study urban areas in pretty interesting ways by walking transects based on latitude and longitude (the interesting thing being how such strictly unrelated lines crossed the city without regard for street grid, patterns of development, etc., as well as how that line is experienced on foot — passing through alleys, backyards, across roads, under bridges, across waterbodies, etc.).

    2. I’ve been really fascinated for a while with the idea of studying regions based on waterbodies (particularly rivers), and I think you could think of a river as a transect, though it wouldn’t be a straight transect. The interesting thing there is that the river both crosses across conditions as well as participating in the creation of urban conditions. Mathur and da Cunha’s Mississippi study would kind of be a prototype for this, though they are at least as interested in the river itself as they are in the river as a transect.

    I’ll be interested to see what else you come up with.

  15. Someone asked about transects that reveal something other than
    spatial relations. See
    http://www.zubeworld.com/crumbmuseum/history1.html for a temporal
    sequence, R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America.” The transect is
    historical rather than spatial – it’s a path through time. In the
    SmartCode, there’s an example of a temporal transect on Table 2 (free
    download here http://www.smartcodecentral.com/smartfilesv9_2.html ),
    which shows the evolution of normative regional patterns that would
    support walkable environments (as opposed to separated-use sprawl).
    The diagram from left to right not only shows the Community Units
    allocated in the model code for different regional sectors, but it
    also shows how hamlets have tended and may tend to evolve into
    villages, villages into towns with several adjacent neighborhoods,
    and towns into cities with numerous adjacent neighborhoods that
    densify around transit and the urban core. If anyone does take a
    look at the SmartCode, please be aware that it is a model that must
    be calibrated using the Synoptic Survey referenced earlier. This has
    been done in hundreds of different kinds of human habitats from rural
    hamlets to Manhattan. It’s simply not the case that the NU Transect
    cannot be used to plan today’s cities. We’re doing it. (List of
    SmartCodes and other transect-based codes adopted and in process here
    http://www.smartcodecomplete.com/learn/links.html )
    PS – Table 2 and Article 2 have been modified to include a new Sector
    for Sprawl Repair. They are for the next version of the SmartCode,
    which will incorporate the Sprawl Repair Module in its entirety, now
    available here http://www.transect.org/modules.html , and which is
    still being edited. If anyone is interested in seeing a draft, feel
    free to contact me through the CATS website.
    Brett, if you would like to experience a physical rural-to-urban
    transect, you need only take a walk from a less urban part of a
    neighborhood to a more urban part and you’re walking the physical
    local Transect as New Urbanists have observed and identified it.
    (Today, not 100 years ago.) I do it every day, from my T4 character
    block to my T5 mixed use corridor, Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. The
    essence of the coding process is to recognize all the different
    elements that contribute to the character of those varying habitats –
    the thoroughfare types, building types, frontage types, planting
    types, permitted uses, civic space types, and more. We ain’t making
    it up. If it weren’t there we wouldn’t be able to measure it and
    photograph it.

  16. BfDonnelly · ·

    “For the NU transect, I find the premise stuck in notions of old world centralized cities, somehow forgetting that we now live in polycentric metropolises.”

    Actually, the New Urbanism is all about the polycentric city–it’s even in our charter!

  17. Bfdonnelly · ·

    XO Sauce,

    You make a couple of good points, but it’s not as if New Urbanists haven’t thought of them.

    First, you’re right that the New Urban Transect is a slight misnomer. In landscape ecology terms, each T-zone is more properly a “land cover.” Like a land cover, each T-zone can be further differentiated. Land cover can be,

    Forest > deciduous.

    Likewise, T-zones can be further differentiated,

    T-4 > T-4a (or T-4b, etc.)

    Further, when used in the SmartCode, they can be even more finely differentiated by using “Special Requirements.” Despite their name, they’re not always _required._ A good example might be that in the French Quarter in New Orleans there might be a “Special Requirement” on some streets, _recommending_ a wrought-iron gallery frontage.

    The second point is that not everything in urban life varies along Transect zones. Urban Design Associates has a system they’ve described very well in _The Urban Design Handbook._ It’s called X-rays. Think of it as a series of layers, each of which shows one kind of thing–e.g. streets, schools, open spaces, and so on. When all those are layered on top of each other, they give a fairly complete picture. The same basic technique could be used to show anything you like, as long as it can be mapped. It might show neighborhood bars or contaminated wells or beautiful views. The key, though, is that these sorts of things are generally details within an overal T-zone–which is to say “land cover.” In landscape ecology terms, they might show, say, the tracks of individual species, or water holes or the like.

    So it’s not as if the New Urban Transect is some mono-maniacal scheme that obliterates urban realities. It is one among several organizing schemes, NONE of which should ever be used to the exclusion of the others. It is an important, helpful, and flexible one–but nobody is pretending that it is the only organizing scheme urbanists need.

  18. The biggest problem with NU Transect is that it must “calibrated” rather than observed from natural principles and the structure of the city. And the person leading the NU Transect is a photographer with no urban training whatsoever! How on earth can they understand how a city is structured, knowing that this is complexity at its greatest, and that this is a balance between science and observation.

    I do understand the smart code and the transect, and I very much appreciate the concept, having been using it myself for over 20 years now. However, the arbitrary calibration is deeply worrying. And the differentiation and sub-zones just sound like a graduated subjectiveness.

    If there is no underlying structure principles driving and deriving the location of key places and centres, then its subjectiveness and imposition of personal viewpoints (a la calibration by amateur photographers).

    This is one key point where the New Urbanist Transect fails in broad urbanism.

    The second point where it fails is that it depends on those discontinuous 5 min circles for creating urban structure. Single point optimization across urban space/systems or natural systems is not reality, and has never been reality. Thus how can this represent what is going on in an urban place, or even represent what I believe Brett is getting at in his interesting post? This where Berger actually is closer to how cities work.

    There are some very interesting works in European Universities that deal with central places and the paths across cities, via culture, social interaction, public space typologies, forms of networks, etc. Compared to the New Urbanist Transect, these hold much more promise to grappling with the complexities of a city or town, as they build upon principles (Objectivity) which can be share, agreed upon, debated, measured, assessed rather than personal calibration (subjectivity) which can be argued and disagreed with, but on what basis when it has been done under one person’s point of view?

  19. Why are the comments moderated if not to weed out personal flaming from anonymous sources?
    To correct the record, my SmartCode-specific resume is here:
    Before going full-time with this work, I had 25 years of professional experience studying and photographing the built environment and open country (i.e., rural-to-urban transects) in all fifty states. That should be sufficient. But I’m certainly not managing the model code alone. I consult with the original author, Andres Duany, at least weekly, and with others who contributed to the early development of the NU Transect and the SmartCode. Every day I debate coding and planning issues with 200+ accomplished planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers, builders, developers, urban planning academics, and land use attorneys. The model SmartCode as it exists today is representative of their collective wisdom. Go ahead and slam the managing editor for not fitting your conventional notion of a planner, but please don’t misrepresent the work, the source of the work, or the process we use. I’m wondering where the anonymous poster got the impression that transect calibration is “arbitrary” or “one person’s point of view.” Didn’t I just get done describing the Synoptic Survey process? That is accomplished with public participation in every community. We walk the local transect, we observe, we measure, we photograph (it helps to actually know how to represent urban typology photographically), we discuss, and we calibrate.
    Furthermore, “how cities work” has been deeply dysfunctional for many decades. The five-to-ten minute pedestrian sheds have been lost or at least degraded, lot by lot, block by block. Restoring it as an underlying physical structure is essential to providing transportation options for all. Planners and architects who ignore that basic truth have forgotten whom we serve.
    It is certainly not the only spatial structure New Urbanist professionals grapple with, and anyone who is up to date on NU initiatives knows that. But it is fundamental.

  20. I’d like to expand upon Bruce Donnelly’s post comparing Transect Zones to “land cover.” Transect Zones are more than land cover, because as formulated in New Urban codes, they integrate building function and usually specific building use as part of their habitats. They’re for municipal zoning, and while all transect-based codes are form-based codes, we’re not at the point yet where cities are willing to throw out their use tables. The best we can do is to allocate uses along the local transect such that habitats maintain their essential character, and such that the residential habitats are more or less within pedestrian sheds of higher T-zones. That’s how you protect and encourage a mixed-use neighborhood while still providing choices in living arrangements for different incomes and ages.

  21. BfDonnelly · ·

    I’ll support Sandy’s point that the Transect zones integrate building function. I’ll also point out, though, that as the term “land cover” is used in landscape ecology, it includes habitat functions–which are analogous to building functions. The term “land cover” isn’t very descriptive, but it includes habitat functions, which are the nearest analog to building functions. By the way, as Sandy says, we debate amongst ourselves. Debate should not be taken, however, as a sign of disunity.

    When a naturalist draws a transect (small “t”), the naturalist will characterize and document the land covers through which it passes. That’s what a synoptic survey does. Synoptic surveys start with the existing urbanism. The Transect (capital “T”) that comes out of a synoptic survey of Manhattan, NYC will be different from Oneonta New York’s. A naturalist may draw an idealized descriptive transect that cuts from a beach through to the top of an island’s volcano, even though there may be no such literal line that can be drawn on an actual island. However, just as the naturalist is drawing from nature, the urbanist will draw from the observed environment. To XO Sauce’s main point, though, there is MUCH more to the New Urbanism than just the Transect. There are a lot of organizing principles—the Transect is just one of them. To XO Sauce’s minor point, we New Urbanists certainly don’t claim that the Transect is something new in the world. People have differentiated between the urban and the rural—and the gradations in-between for a very long time. They haven’t used precisely the same construct as the New Urban Transect, but they have used their own schemes.

  22. This comparison of transects reveals the primary flaw with the NU model: it only applies to greenfield development; existing urbanized areas will be very difficult to conform to the NU transect.

  23. Chad, not true. We use the method all the time for existing urbanism. In fact, it is better for existing urbanism because you have something close by to analyze for context. Again, I think people are taking the diagram too literally. It is an abstraction, a simplification. The diagram is not reality, guys; it’s a flat colored thing on a computer screen. Drop me a line when you come to Philadelphia, and I’ll walk you around some of our neighborhoods and show you how it works in real life. Until then, see this link to find list of existing communities (and some greenfield) where the NU Transect has been used to write a form-based code, and Google maps with more information about them:
    Chad: What has given you the impression that the Transect can only be used for greenfield? We’d really like to know. Perhaps there is some misleading content on our website?

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