Urban Transects Revisited #2

Thanks for all the comments on the urban transects revisited post – an engaged and wonderfully broad ranging conversation.  I think a common thread in the dialogue is that an urban transect has the most research and application value as a method of interpreting and intervening in the city when its multilayered, openly adaptive (both in relationship to the environments in which it is applied and to its own embedded methodologies), and expressive of spatial and physical qualities.

In the spirit of that conversation, I’ve pulled together other transects I’ve come across that demonstrate a diversity of approaches to achieve different effects than the two transects already discussed.  These are the ones that have surfaced thus far – a mix of highly analytical to completely physical experiences.  I was pretty surprised by what I found–a bit different from what I was expecting…

The Dérive

French situationists were pioneers of exploring the spatial, physical and pychological effects of the city, circa the late 19505- 1960s.  Guy Dubord, their most eloquent spokesperson, described the method of “drifting” through the city in his essay “The Theory of the Derive”:

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. (Full essay here)

Guy Dubord’s “Naked City”

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The ecological analysis of the absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of distinct neighborhoods with no relation to administrative boundaries, and above all of the dominating action of centers of attraction, must be utilized and completed by psychogeographical methods. The objective passional terrain of the dérive must be defined in accordance both with its own logic and with its relations with social morphology.”

The Derive avoids normative/rationalist modes of operating in the city, giving over to the “psychogeographical” vibe of one’s surroundings (sometimes a hard one for a designer to wrap their heads around).  As their focus was on the experience itself (and political stance), there doesn’t seem to be much visualization artifacts left behind.  The derive method and situationist ideas have hung around design schools for some time,  to provide a different, less technical way of experiencing the city (see Varnelis for an interesting critique of the method).

Around the same time in the U.S….

Edward Ruscha:  Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

“For Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha mounted a motorized Nikon to the back of a pick-up truck and photographed every building he passed. The resulting book, with the pictures printed in order and labeled with their street numbers, achieved an effective non-judgemental and almost anthropological record of previously unexplored details and aspects of the urban experience.”

This is the earliest example of the photo-stitched transect I’ve come across, which is now ubiquitous in streetscape studies and software ready in all commercial digital cameras.

Venturi, Brown, Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas

“This work, as a call to reinvigorate architectural design with symbolic content, advocates the study of the commercial strip and in particular, the role that signs play in conveying meaning and providing order to the landscape. The study begins with a discussion of an architectural studio project conducted at Yale in 1968. The mission of the studio was to document and analyze the physical form of Las Vegas in order to learn from contemporary urban sprawl. During the process, the studio attempted to develop a set of graphic methods for analyzing and representing the commercial strip. (summary from here)”

First example of the transect methodology used to study urban sprawl?

And More recently…

Frank Dresmé of 21IBS:

These images made the rounds through the design blogs a couple of years ago but they are still one of my favorites.  The project is called Project 360 degrees and the transects are of paths Frank made through Amsterdam.

(dotted lines represent 4 transect paths)

The designer was frustrated by conventional maps of the city so he made is own with an assemblage of drawings and photo collage of the physical materiality of the city, emphasizing signage and infrastructure.  The apparently meandering pathways are similar to the “drift” yet the emphasis of the journey is different…a continuous physical tracing of the material pedestrian environment.

So how about taking the sensibility of the situationists and crossing it with contemporary interests in extreme sports/fitness, self improvement and more directed uses of time: Baudelaire’s  flâneur on steroids.   Introducing the Parkour and Free Running.

Image from here

Parkour and free running entail running through the city while athletically maneuvering around the various obstacles one encounters.  The Parkour (the French version – the art of moving) is closer to the idea a transect line, as the traceurs attempt to find the most efficient way around obstacles in the effort to continue along a continuous trajectory, which differs from the American version of Free Running, where a more spontaneous or intuitive path is encouraged.  The philosophy of the practice contends that the parkour is “a means of reclaiming what it means to be a human being. It teaches us to move using the natural methods that we should have learned from infancy. It teaches us to touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered by it.”

The opening 10 minute super stunt chase scene of the James Bond film Casino Royal features Bond chasing actor Sebastian Foucan (above), founder and world-famous free runner.  truly a unique way to know and interact with the city.

Transects according to contemporary urban ecology: anthropogenic biomes

“Conceptual model of anthropogenic biomes compared with data. (a) Anthropogenic biomes structured by population density (logarithmic scale) and land use (percent land area), forming patterns of (b) ecosystem structure (percent land cover), process (NPP, carbon balance; red = emissions, reactive nitrogen), and biodiversity (native versus non-native + domestic biodiversity; indicated relative to pre-existing biodiversity; white space indicates net reduction of biodiversity) within broad groups of anthropogenic biomes. (c) Mean population density, land use, land cover, and NPP observed within anthropogenic biomes (Figure 1; WebTable 1). Biome labels at bottom omit names of broad groups, at top”.

Transects piggy backed onto infrastructure: adventures on public transporation

The Safari 7:  Urban Safari on New York’s #7 subway line

From the project description:

“The 7 Line is a physical, urban transect through New York City’s most diverse collection of human ecosystems.  Affectionately called the International Express, the 7 line runs from Manhattan’s dense core, under the East River, and through a dispersed mixture of residences and parklands, terminating in downtown Flushing, Queens, the nation’s most ethnically diverse county. Here, in territories excavated by Robert Moses’ transportation networks, watersheds constructed by the World’s Fair, and tree canopies stretched across residential street grids, species find systems necessary for survival, develop mating rituals and behaviors amidst inter-species competition and cooperation, and respond to migration, colonization, and disturbances of this dynamic urban landscape. By mapping the complexity, biodiversity, conflicts, and potentials of our urban ecosystems Safari 7 aims to unpack the role of architecture and the related disciplines in the construction of networks, spatial patterns, enclosures, grounds, rituals, and policies that are the city’s life support mechanism.

The project uses a range of media – podcasts, maps, signs, schedules and social networking tools – to create a platform where commuters, school children, subway operators – and yes, architects – can connect to New York City’s ecosystems as they travel through it.  New York’s transit system acts as an eco-urban classroom, and passengers become their own park rangers, or safari guides.”

Narrative themes of the Safari 7  Transect.  (See also the BLDG blog post for more coverage and the gallery exhibit)

And on the double decker bus, The Cruise (1998) with contemporary beatnik poet meets Woody Allen tour bus operator (and New York city chronicler) Allen Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch

film clip here

I’m still tracking some of the leads from the previous comments.



  1. Mark Klett and his students photographed a transect of Phoenix. This work was presented at the Sprawl photographic conference in Dallas last year.

  2. it’s seems everyone is pooped from your first post. nice follow up, though.

    the parkour reference is pretty fun and dresme’s drawings and the safari 7 exhibition are great to see together. I saw that exhibition and it was great fun and interesting too, though far from claiming to be a new/true paradigm for organizing the city (which was refreshing).

  3. Thanks Sandy for the Mark Klett and R. Crumb examples, revealing time lapse as a form of transect. The long-term temporal dimension (in addition to the experiential and spatial) has yet to be fully examined and utilized. The time question also fits in with Eatingbark’s comment regarding Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s Mississippi Floods study (and the Deccan Traverses), which I think is a great example of all three aspects. Their use of section in series to reveal time and transformation in the landscape is remarkable.

  4. Eatingbark = Rob when I’m logged into my WordPress account, by the way. In case that wasn’t obvious.

  5. The Cruise, which is a great movie, is also a meandering survey of a unique mind even as it’s a transect of New York and also of one afternoon. But what it conveys better than the static representations is the way that the time of the surveyor affects the perception of the places along the survey line. The Cruise, as well as Parkour, are both highly idiosyncratic, depending on the weather and time as much as direction. But they don’t offer any control against which to judge the experience, just the raw event. If you attempt to perform the same transect over and over again at different times and with different contexts or conditions, mapping or notating differences in experience might yield information not obvious in a single pass.


    Perhaps some distaste for the NU transect is the sense that in order to be functional, it has to be significantly abstracted and essentially sterilized to objective (and wonky) content, i.e. the FAR and height. Mapping a site is essentially editing out data, determining what information is noise, until some relationship is clear. So, as a microcosm of the standard criticism of New Urbanism, you have this relatively abstract and generic model for design that is often depicted in a painterly wash, just as many developments have relatively generic houses in soft colors depicted in mushy watercolors on the brochures. This relationship fits the basic definition for kitsch – so I have instinctively balked at transect zoning even as I recognize its strengths and see rational criticisms.

    In contrast, the more impressionistic representations of transects show a much more vital understanding of the city than the objective ones, even as they verge toward artistic forms. The problem, obviously, is that the more perspectival a method of cutting through the city is, the more difficult it is to apply to other situations, or even to distill the information at all.

  6. Oh, and if I may also be so bold, here’s my little contribution to the list of transects.

  7. …my little contribution…
    Ha! I’ve been on a few of those. I’m particularly fond of midsummer sunset versions.
    When I was living in San Francisco a few years back there was an interesting version of this type of transect. It was a neighborhood mixer type of event, where people would start in one neighborhood, stop by the local bar or someone’s home for a drink and some conversation (usually while standing in the road due to the amount of people) and then move on to the next stop. Being that the neighborhoods are so small in S.F. (and have lots of good bars) it worked perfectly for bringing people together in a very loose spontaneous way.

  8. …regarding the merits of the meandering and artistic vs. the abstract, prescriptive and data graphics…

    I think the value is totally linked to the premise and intended affect the transect is hoping to achieve. In terms of design process I think we tend to start with artistic modalities…such as a form of the derive or the directed meander in order to “find a way in“, looking for something tangible that grabs us: a certain “real” reading of place, an uncovering of a starting point for analysis, which then leads to a design proposition/agenda based on that reading, and at larger scales, inevitable abstraction. The abstraction is “essentially editing out data, determining what information is noise, until some relationship is clear” based on that proposition and design agenda, which I think both Berger and New Urbanists would argue is latent in their drawings. As designers we rarely if ever give rise to chaos–we bring order, almost exclusively through how we draw. Thus I don’t think any of these transects are objective per se, as no architectural drawing is and there is no fully objective readings of the city. Rather they speak to varieties of variably subjective ends and aspirations.

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