the Original Green and the Transect

French Quarter shop at dusk

   As promised, here’s the first Original Green post by another voice... this one is by Ann Daigle. If you don't know Ann, you should. And if you have noteworthy insights on issues either surrounding or central to the Original Green, please write them up and send them in. This blog should be our voices, not just my voice.

Note from Steve: I’m illustrating Ann’s post with images from the French Quarter of New Orleans because it’s Ann’s adopted hometown.

Jackson Square in French Quarter at dawn

Jackson Square just after dawn

   For over 5,000 years, people have built settlements.  They gathered together for safety and economy, and formed societies to share resources and responsibilities.  While the earth and its civilizations are vast, people and the settlements they built are remarkably similar.  Very early on, humans recognized that the impermanence of life could be overcome through a society’s built legacy – and that what they built formed lasting impressions about their civilization.

     No matter what country or culture, what geography or climate, permanent villages, towns and cities shared (and still share) particular design characteristics thanks to the similar aspirations and physical makeup of their inhabitants.  The way they grew was organic and naturally sustainable. 

   Building followed eight simple rules that ensured people’s and community’s needs were met:  

•  Settlements were close to food and water sources to nourish inhabitants, 

•  They were easily accessible to better foster society, governance and commerce, 

•  People were able to meet their daily needs within easily walkable distances, 

•  Buildings and public spaces were safe and secure, 

•  Land use and buildings were frugal to conserve resources, 

•  Buildings and public spaces were durable and enduring so they lasted for generations,

•  Buildings were flexible so that interiors could be accommodated for changing times, and 

•  Places were built to be beautiful so they were lovable, comfortable and made people happy.

bike chained to French Quarter gallery pole late at night

late-night bike on Decatur Street

   Lasting settlements grew at choice locations near abundant natural resources.  These locations and the settlement layout maximized environmental and geographic conditions to offer protection from wild animals and human enemies.  They were strategically accessible for trade by land or water, and shared paths for exploration.  

   When people settled, they built communities in compact configurations that leveraged available resources and provided internal safety for the people and their possessions.  The design they chose expressed the favored customs and aspirations of their society.  They set aside key sites – the highest and best land – for important buildings and shared spaces, and the most fertile land for grazing and farming.  

west corner of Jackson Square at dawn

Jackson Square at sunrise

   Early builders developed geometries for stable buildings with locally available materials.  Their designs maximized assets of light and air, while minimizing impacts of rain, harsh sun and wind.  More valuable permanent materials, difficult techniques and ornamentation were saved for buildings that housed important community functions so that the cultural, social, spiritual and economic longevity of the society could be furthered for posterity.  Shared housing was substantial.  Individual houses were less permanent, a characteristic that paralleled the mortality of individual residents.  

moon over Decatur Street apartments before sunrise in the French Quarter

Quarter apartments at dawn

   As settlements grew and prospered, people organized their buildings in more formal and sophisticated configurations that favored efficiency, accessibility and ambiance, and that brought comfort and delight to inhabitants.  Street widths and spaces between buildings were appropriate to the climate and topography, as were building heights and details.  Street size and connectivity facilitated mobility and way-finding by pedestrians, and paired with strategically placed buildings, generated a comforting sense of enclosure.  As early as 2,000 BC, dimensions were codified into regulations to ensure all building was compatible and to promote “equal ability to enjoy property.”

early morning street scene in north corner of New Orleans French Quarter

private bldg. on back side of Quarter

   Public space was balanced with private to support social mores and customs and reinforce the importance of common goals.  Special public gathering places were carefully selected at central intersections so that all paths lead to them.  Bounded with the most important buildings, these spaces were beautifully framed and ornamented like grand outdoor rooms.  Physically and symbolically they were the centers of community, and provided a stage for gatherings.

New Orleans French Quarter breakfast night spot

night spot for good meal in the Quarter

   Comfortable arrangements of houses, shops and religious, government and institutional buildings reflected important economic relationships.  Shops were situated at intersections and congregated together for easy access and visibility.  The majority were at the centers near key gathering spots and public buildings.  Housing surrounded this urban core of activity.  Most were raised above the streets in upper stories above modest shops and offices where residents made their living.  

flag and skull on New Orleans French Quarter townhouse

Townhouse… with skull

   Buildings closest to the center shared permanent materials, and accommodated as many people as comfortable in close proximity to the center where they could enjoy the vast array of services and civic life.  Houses further away were less permanent, and less defensible.  Street intersections were punctuated with shops to provide daily necessities.  The urban fabric eventually feathered into less-formal arrangements of sheds, farms and fields at the settlement’s edge, beyond which wilderness reigned.

French Quarter corner store at night

the French Quarter at night

   The organic growth of settlements followed geography and topography.  As growing populations and the need for services increased, compact neighborhoods were replicated, growing next to one another so that new and more precious resources could be shared at their edges.  The overall pattern that formed towns and cities resembled a constellation, with satellites of smaller commercial nodes encircling the major center.  All were connected and easily accessible, generally equidistant from the center and one another, with numerous pathways to get from one place to another.

   The natural inclination of early settlers and builders to build sustainably is what architect and town designer, Steve Mouzon, calls, “the Original Green.”  Every decision about how, why and where the community and buildings were formed was guided by rational environmental, economic and cultural reasons. The organization of spaces and the building techniques that worked best were replicated, modified and enhanced, then replicated again by successive generations.  Successful solutions eventually became what we call, traditions.

French Quarter dining courtyard

French Quarter dining courtyard

   One of the most obvious historic patterns inherent in all communities throughout civilization and across all cultures is what planners today have named the “rural to urban Transect of human settlement.”  It reflects the Original Green principles, and has been researched and analyzed internationally.  It now forms the framework for policy and codes for community building that are healthy and sustainable.

French Quarter live-work unit

live-work in the Quarter

   The Transect is observable in all walkable pre-automobile and pre-zoning code communities, and in most places built before the era of Modernist urban and building design.  It (or its remnants) is often recognized as the locations in today’s cities and towns that feel authentic and have a greater sense of place and local character.  The Transect can be viewed in ancient Chinese scrolls, maps of 1700 London, illustrations of 1850 New Orleans and in photographs of 1900 San Francisco.  

   At its most simple, the Transect is a gradual change and undulation in character as one moves from the city center to the rural edge.  More complexly, the Transect borrows from environmental study.  It describes the city as a series of “human habitats” that like natural ecosystems are at their healthiest when they co-exist, are integrated, mutually beneficial and self-sustaining. 

French Quarter apartment building on Decatur Street at sunrise

French Quarter apartments at sunrise

   For planning and coding purposes, the Transect can be expressed as a hierarchy of “Transect Zones” that exist within a sustainable city from its center to its edge.  Planners have identified six “T-Zones” that are evident in healthy, walkable places in varied mixes and patterns:  (T6) Urban Core, (T5) Urban Center, (T4) Urban General, (T3) Suburban, (T2) Rural and (T1) Natural.

   Transect zones do not exist alone, as monocultures, but rather work in concert with other T-Zones to form complete neighborhoods.  The most delightful places are those in which transition from T-zone to T-zone is fine-grained and complex.  Real neighborhoods are not subdivisions, but rather walkable places with a mix of uses, housing types and public spaces, such that people can meet their basic daily needs within a five to ten minute walk.  Historically neighborhoods cover a ¼ mile radius “pedestrian shed,” which is an approximate five-minute walk from center to edge.

front porch and iron fence in the French Quarter

French Quarter T3

   All T-Zones share similar elements - they all have buildings, landscape, infrastructure, public and private spaces.  However, the elements of each zone also have distinct characteristics that make each habitat or zone unique.  For instance, while barns are common buildings in T2 Rural, they are inappropriate buildings for the Urban Center. Likewise townhouses belong in Urban areas, but are inappropriate in Suburban or Rural zones.

   In general, as one travels from Urban to Rural areas, density, building height, the mix of uses and public amenities are reduced, and the natural landscape becomes more dominant.  Important civic buildings, commercial and mixed-use buildings give way to sparsely sited houses, then to farms and agriculture, and there are fewer opportunities for entertainment, culture and socialization.  Streets and sidewalks move from formal hardscaped boulevards and avenues to unpaved roads with swales and nature paths.  

French Quarter shotgun cottage at nightfall

French Quarter T4

   The characteristics of T-Zones, while sharing common elements and similarities, also vary in regions based on local geography, climate, social culture and building traditions.  Their evidence can be observed, analyzed, measured and documented, and the most desirable characteristics entered into form-based codes and polices for new and infill development.  

   Planning, coding and (re)building a neighborhood with a mix of Transect Zones ensures that what came naturally at one point in city development - the places that people love and admire - can once again become the DNA of growth.  Transect Planning is based on the premise that for people to be happy and healthy throughout their lives they must have access to the full diversity of rural to urban habitats within their community – ideally within walking distance.  This mirrors the basic principles of the Original Green, and emphasizes the idea that sustainability and human happiness go hand in hand – naturally.

wrought iron galleries filled with plants in the French Quarter, just behind Jackson Square

French Quarter T5

   The goal for a city seeking sustainability is to nurture authentic places that accommodate the Original Green via a full set of Transect habitats. This gives residents the option to “age in place” by offering opportunities for children, young singles, families and those in their prime to safely live, work, shop and play within their neighborhood.  

   Just as the gulls on the seashore could not exist without the wetlands or upland forests, so man cannot exist without access to urban civilization or the rural landscape.  Suburban places, no matter how seemingly pastoral, cannot exist as monocultures without farmland and wilderness or the greatest achievements of urbanity.  

   The Original Green and the Transect provide for places – and life - that is enriched with quality.  This is the DNA of “Community Building.”

   ~Ann Daigle

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on Steve’s Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018