The New Urbanist Transect


The idea of the Transect originated as an ecological tool used to describe a series of environments. A classic example is the transect that runs from ocean to beach to dune ridge to palmetto grove to oak forest. The Transect allows scientists to study each zone and observe the unique rules of each. The idea, however, applies equally well to the human habitat. It has been developed by Andres Duany into a powerful and comprehensive design strategy that works on all parts of the human habitat, from Yellowstone to Manhattan.

The Transect of the Human Habitat is divided into six Context Zones. Each zone is defined by very specific rules that set it apart from the others. One of the major errors of post-World War II planning is the effort to make everything “suburban,” which ends up being a pinch of urban and a dash of rural, all mixed up together into a confusing concoction. This results in the bland sameness that afflicts so much of America, a condition with which we are all far too familiar. The Transect provides real choices again.

Transect-based town centers, for example, look and work just like the old Main Streets, which were once the center of the vitality and commerce of the town, housing all of the necessities of everyday life. Farmers’ markets, homecoming parades, celebrations for soldiers returning from the war and general good-natured hanging-out all happened on Main Street or at the town square. You could go there for a Saturday afternoon matinee, a soda at the drug store, a gallon of paint from the hardware store, or a can of shoe polish down at the general store. The bank was there, as was City Hall and the fire station. Your lawyer (if you ever needed one) probably had an office over the square, while your dentist was probably two blocks down Main Street. If you lived on Main Street (or anywhere nearby), you probably were a person that liked to be in the center of the action, and you probably didn’t mind a little noise from all the activity, or the glow of a street light late at night.

If you wanted a quieter life, however, you could buy a little bungalow on a side street with a sidewalk and picket fence, or you could even get a place on the outskirts of town where the roads began to curve out into the countryside and the streetlights and sidewalks ran out. Further out, the only thing you could hear at night were the whippoorwills and the bullfrogs, and the stars never burned so brightly as they did out there. Back then, you really did have a choice. Transect-based design brings the choice back again.

How real are the choices? They are so real that almost anything you want to build belongs somewhere on the Transect.

Would you like a big lot with plenty of room for your Golden Retriever to run? There’s a place on the Transect for you.

Are you tired of spending all day Saturday mowing grass, or do you yearn late in the evening while you’re soaking muscles worn out from a day of yard work for the little cottage garden just across the picket fence from the sidewalk? There’s a place on the Transect for you, too.

Or what if you’re just out of college with a new job, and you’re looking for someplace where the action is? You’d love hearing strains of the Blues band drifting across the street to your apartment as you get ready to go out on Friday night. There’s a place on the Transect for you, too.

Transect based designs find a place for just about everything and everyone, letting you be yourself more intensely than unrestrained suburbia ever could. 

“The transect conceives of rural and urban conditions as interconnected parts of a system that requires different responses, depending on where development is situated. It then strengthens the connection by basing urban planning and design on the degree of relative intensity of urban elements with respect to natural systems.”
— Emily Talen

Transect Context Zones

T1: Natural

The Natural Zone includes all lands that have been permanently protected from development.  This includes national parks, state parks and most land trust lands. Here, in the wilderness, nature trumps mankind every time.  This is actually a place that is just a bit dangerous to humans; something could bite you, for example. The only buildings you’re likely to find here are forest rangers’ cottages or campground structures. This is the quietest place you can find (except in a thunderstorm or a buffalo stampede), and it’s the place where the stars shine the brightest.

T2: Rural


The Rural Zone includes lands that are not currently slated for development, but that have not been permanently protected from development. Most of the Rural Zone in the eastern United States is farmland and countryside.  This zone isn’t quite as dangerous, as long as you stay out of the fence where the big bull lives. Man begins to shape this zone, but he uses natural or rustic materials to do it, like the rows upon rows of corn in the field converging on the horizon, the columns of fruit trees marching like soldiers over the hills of the orchard, or the lonely lines of barbed wire strung along cedar posts at the edge of a field.  You may hear a distant tractor plowing the fields by day, or the cows mooing as they come home in the evening. The blips of the fireflies over the fresh-mown fields are still the most numerous lights, but you may occasionally see a light in the window of a farmhouse as you go by, at least until bedtime.


T3:  Sub-urban Neighborhood


The Sub-urban Neighborhood Zone isn’t exactly the ‘burbs. It’s close, to be sure, but it doesn’t include some things like the big box retail that you might instead find in a highway business district.  The Sub-urban Zone is most similar to the areas at the outskirts of town where the town grid begins to give way to nature. Here, lots are usually larger, streets begin to curve with the contour of the land, and fences, if you have them, look more like their country cousins around the homestead. Streetlights and sidewalks begin to occur in this Zone, but only on the busiest streets. Natural features such as streams still trump things built by humans, in part because things are far enough apart in the Sub-urban Zone that you simply cannot afford the cost of modifying nature.


T4: General Urban


The General Urban Zone is the place that settlements finally start coalescing into strongly identifiable neighborhoods, each with their own center that you can walk to in five minutes or less.  You have clearly made it into the town or city by the time you get to this Zone.  This is the place where the houses pull up close enough to the street that you can sit on your porch and talk to your neighbor who has stopped to lean over your fence with the latest news. And this is the place that kids across America are rediscovering after having been held hostage at the end of a cul-de-sac for the past half-century by anyone with a drivers’ license. Here, the neighborhood is compact enough that they can safely walk or ride their bikes down tree-lined sidewalks to the ice cream store down on the corner and return home before they finish the cone.


T5:  Urban Center


The Urban Center Zone is Main Street America. Main Street was never far from the life of every American town. There were sometimes townhouses at the edge of Main Street and there was always a good selection of apartments over the Street itself, and over the square.  Young couples just getting started would often live in an apartment over Main Street, but they weren’t alone.  The Main Street neighborhood was as diverse as any, including merchants living over their shops and old folks who didn’t want to have to saddle up to get to all the necessities.  You could see lights on in the windows over the square every evening and could hear mothers calling their kids to come in and do their homework long after the old men out in front of the general store had folded up their checkerboard and gone home for the day.


T6:  Urban Core


The Urban Core Zone only occurs in cities. It is the brightest, noisiest, most exciting part of the city. It is every city’s answer to Manhattan or Michigan Avenue, with the city’s tallest buildings, busiest streets, and most variety. It’s the place where you should find one-of-a-kind functions like City Hall, but it’s also the place with all the galleries and the biggest selection of restaurants. The Urban Core is the place where mankind trumps nature; it’s where the only trees are lined up in planters beside the street, and where the river running through town is contained in grand stone embankments. That may sound dismal to nature-lovers, but the Urban Core is so intriguing that thousands or even millions stay there for months on end, leaving nature in the wilderness to grow in peace. The Urban Core is mankind’s greatest gift to nature. 

“The purpose of community is to create built environments that become ever-closer to functioning as the human equivalent of nature’s interactive, mutually supportive and self-renewing systems.”
— Vern Swaback

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