The Transect

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Rural-Urban Transect Diagram

rural-urban Transect illustration by Center for Applied Transect Studies

   Many of my good friends and colleagues who are Transect aficionados sometimes get so deep into the details of this very useful idea that they lose the general public, so this post describes "the Transect for the rest of us." This is essential because the Transect, along with Walk Appeal and the Sky Method, is a game-changer of Sprawl Recovery and must therefore be able to be understood broadly, not just by the planning geeks. So here's how it works:

natural transect illustration by James Wassell

natural transect illustration (above) and American Transect (below) both by James Wassell

American Transect illustration


   The Transect was invented about a century ago as a management tool for the natural environment. The basic idea is pretty simple: zones of the natural transect, from ocean to beach to dune, etc., each have their own rules. Certain creatures live in one that don't live in others. A fish wouldn't last long on the beach, for example. Nor would a palmetto survive very long planted in the ocean. Different natural conditions exist in each zone as well. Sand in the ocean is always covered by water, sand on the beach is sometimes covered, and sand on the dunes is only covered by water in a hurricane, for example.

Recent Years

   Landscape architect Douglas Duany took his brother Andrés out into the surf of South Beach in the late 1990s. As they walked up out of the water onto the beach, then across the dunes, and then into town, Douglas asked "why can't the Transect be extended into the city and used to manage the built environment as well?" Andrés, an architect and town planner and one of the founders of the New Urbanism, embraced the idea, and the "rural-to-urban Transect" was born.

   A bit over a decade later, the Transect is in the process of transforming American cities. For most of a century, city planning was based on what is known as "Euclidean zoning" because it started in Euclid, Ohio. The essence of Euclidean zoning is that it separates things: you live in a subdivision where there's nothing but houses, go to work in an office park where there's nothing but offices if you're a white-collar worker or in an industrial district where there's nothing but factories and warehouses if you're a blue-collar worker, and you shop in strip centers and shopping malls. And you have to drive to get from one to another.

Changing the Rules

   Andrés realized that until we changed the rules of zoning, we'd keep getting sprawl almost all the time because sprawl is the natural product of Euclidean zoning. So he built the SmartCode on the operating system of the Transect to be an antidote to sprawl. And then he opened it up where anyone who wanted to participate could help develop the SmartCode. Two years ago, the US reached a tipping point where 40 million Americans were living in cities that had adopted New Urbanist form-based codes such as the SmartCode. Today, dozens of planners use the SmartCode or other Transect-based codes.

   Let's take a peek under the hood and see how it works. The Transect organizes the built environment into 6 zones from T-1 (which is most rural) to T-6 (which is most urban.) These are the details:

T-1 Natural

Arkansas River running through natural countryside near South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   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 because something could bite you or even eat 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.

T-2 Rural

cows standing alongside fence at sunrise at Janna's Food Farm in Rogersville, Alabama

   The Rural zone includes lands that are not currently slated for development, but that have not been permanently protected, either. Most of the Rural Zone in the eastern United States is farmland and countryside. This zone isn’t quite as dangerous, but stay out of the fence where the bulls live. Man begins to shape this zone, but he uses natural or rustic materials to do it, like 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. 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.

T-3 Sub-Urban

houses in late afternoon light at South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   The Sub-Urban 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 of the cost of modifying things so large.

T-4 General Urban

houses on neighborhood street in Stonington, Connecticut

   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. 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 leaning over your fence with the latest news. And this is the place that kids love 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 down tree-lined sidewalks to the ice cream store down on the corner, and return home before they finish the cone.

T-5 Urban Center

King Street intersection in Alexandria, Virginia

   The Urban Center zone is Main Street America. 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 parents calling their kids to come in and do their homework long after the old folks out in front of the general store had folded up their checkerboard and laptops, and gone home for the day.

T-6 Urban Core

Manhattan skyscrapers photographed from the top of the Empire State Building

   The Urban Core zone only occurs in cities. It is the brightest, noisiest, most exciting part of the city, 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. 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.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Other Sprawl Recovery posts on the Original Green Blog:

   Sprawl Repair - A 12-Step Program

   Walk Appeal

      Walk Appeal Measurables

      Walk Appeal Immeasurables

      Walk Appeal Impact

   The Sky Method

   The Transect (this post)

      Fried-Egg Cities?


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© The Guild Foundation 2013