Transitioning to the Traditional City

May 23, 2010

Some people who read my series on Traditional Cities then ask: how to we transition from Suburban Hell, or the 19th Century Hypertrophic City, or the 20th Century Hypertrophic City -- in other words the tragic junkpile we have today -- to a Traditional City?

It seems really difficult.

But, I think it is much easier than people assume. The thing that makes it seem difficult is the desire to live in a Traditional City, with trains and so forth, while everybody else is imagining Suburban Hell.

I didn't say they "like" Suburban Hell. Hardly anybody does (just ask your kids). But they aren't imagining anything different. Maybe a few imagine their "little teeny farm in the country." That is about the only alternative present in people's minds. However, this remains a dream for most people, because they work in the city. Besides, Suburban Hell is already a product of the "little teeny farm" fantasy. The end result when you try to combine the "city" with the "little teeny eco-farm" is Suburban Hell with six tomato plants in the backyard, a Prius, and reusable shopping bags.

April 4, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?
March 28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms

Let me ask you this: how did we transition from the Traditional City to the 19th Century Hypertrophic City and Suburban Hell in the first place? (As I've explained earlier, Suburban Hell is a direct outgrowth of the 19th Century Hypertrophic City, optimized for cars.)

Let's get a few things straight to begin with. We -- I mean Americans in particular -- did not adopt 19th Century Hypertrophism/Suburban Hell for utilitarian reasons. It is much more expensive, ugly, and hard to maintain than the Traditional City.

July 26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village

There might have been a sort of utilitarian aesthetic involved in the process. For example, I postulated that the original desire to make Really Wide Streets -- vastly wider than was necessary -- at the beginning of the 19th century was related to the idea that wagons should be able to make U-turns. Did any wagons actually need to make U-turns? No. There weren't that many wagons in those days, and if you had to turn around you could just go around the block. Just as wagon-drivers had done in Traditional Cities for the past four thousand years. This "utilitarian" idea didn't actually serve any meaningful purpose. There was no actual utility -- indeed, there was negative utility, because such large streets were impossible to pave before asphalt, and also make walking around harder to do, which is what 99% of people did in those days -- even those that owned wagons. That's why I call it a utilitarian aesthetic. It was, of course, the aesthetic of Heroic Materialism, to use Kenneth Clarke's terminology.

Once this new 19th Century Hypertrophism aesthetic (Really Wide Streets, freestanding farmhouses on quarter-acre plots) was implanted in people's minds, they replicated it across the continent. All U.S. 19th Century Hypertrophic cities look about the same.

February 21, 2010: Toledo, Spain or Toledo, Ohio?

Thus, I want you to think of Suburban Hell as a sort of aesthetic. Just a picture in people's minds. When the picture in people's minds changed -- this aesthetic shift to Heroic Materialism -- then everything they built changed, without any sort of rational discussion or, I would say, even awareness that a change had happened. This picture in people's minds gets replicated over and over whether or not it makes any sense. For example:

You just have to laugh at this one. Carrying a car across the water on the ferry so you can drive fifty meters? There's even a car-sized gravel road to drive on and a little parking lot at the lighthouse!

This photo is a bit of a joke, but gets the point across. How about this one?

It's an image from the 1940s of a colony on Mars.


And what do you see beneath the glass dome? Why, it's a 19th Century Hypertrophic City complete with Really Wide Streets and of course automobiles! Where are they going to drive on Mars? Don't you think you could get around this bubble on foot? Isn't it a little expensive to ship cars to Mars? Isn't real estate on Mars expensive enough that we shouldn't be using it for parking spaces?

Driving on the moon. Now where did they get that idea?

This is precisely what I mean by the aesthetic of Heroic Materialism. In the 1940s, it was considered a great accomplishment -- a heroic, materialist accomplishment -- to build a parking lot on Mars so you can have a car with nowhere to drive. Today, since we are in the declining years of Heroic Materialism, we can see this as immensely, imponderably, unconsionably stupid. However, we don't have a replacement. The next age -- the one that follows Heroic Materialism -- hasn't begun yet.

November 22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?

I proposed that what comes next after Heroic Materialism is what you could call a focus on lifestyle. That's an easy, Elle Magazine sort of way of putting it. Driving on the moon was a peak moment for Heroic Materialism. It summed up their Heroic Materialist hopes and dreams. Did it improve anyone's lifestyle? No. In the new era, the one that follows Heroic Materialism, we might think that driving on the moon is the ultimate waste of time. Instead, we might focus on, say, an exquisite garden. Something you can enjoy every day, as an important part of your fabulous lifestyle. With a little more ambition, we might consider not just a little garden, but the entirety of the city in which we live. Then we could focus on City Design, with all the enthusiasm and seriousness that we once devoted to driving on the moon.

Now let's think of something that is not a joke: the city of Juneau, Alaska.

Juneau is not one teeny island, it is a city of 31,000 people. That's a pretty big city. Almost as big as Siena, Italy (54,000), a world-famous Traditional City. It serves as the capitol of the state of Alaska.

The funny thing about Juneau is that there are no roads into or out of the city. It is surrounded by high mountains, and is accessible only by boat and plane.

If ever there was a time to make a city that didn't have automobiles, this would be it. That would be the utilitarian (i.e. sensible) thing to do. You could have a really wonderful pedestrian city, like Venice or Siena, if that's what you imagined. It would actually be cheaper and easier to make than Suburban Hell.

However, what people imagined is a city that looks just like Suburban Hell everywhere else. They replicated the pattern in their head, even though it made no sense at all. So, that is what they built, without thinking about it much.

Imagine if this city was built like Siena -- a beautiful Traditional City, but on the water on the Alaskan coast, with big mountains in the background. Wow.

Just like this. It's not so hard. (Siena, Italy)

Unfortunately, you're going to have to imagine it, because the reality is, it looks just like your own Suburban Hell neighborhood!

The same combination of 19th Century Hypertrophic-style farmhouse-on-a-quarter-acre residential areas, and Big Box/Big Parking commercial areas that characterizes Suburban Hell.

March 7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell

Look at all those parking lots in a city which is inaccessible by car.

Can you grasp the degree of idiocy here?

Can you fully comprehend it?

Just think about it. Turn it around in your brain. Think about what could have been instead.

This is not a big city. One little trolley would be enough for all personal transportation needs. If it was made to Traditional City standards, all Place and no NoPlace, the physical dimensions would be much smaller, and you could probably walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes. It would be a perfect no-car pedestrian city.

October 10, 2009: Place and Non-Place

At the average 75 people/hectare density of Vienna, you could fit 31,000 people in 1.43 square miles. It would take about 25 minutes to walk from one side to the other, or to put it another way, everything would be within a 13 minute walk of the center. At a Moscow density of 125 people/hectare, 31,000 people would use about 0.86 square miles.

This photo of the area around Gakugei Daigaku train station (the A mark) in Tokyo is about one square mile. The average population/hectare in this section of Tokyo, Meguro City, is 177. At that density, you could fit all of Juneau in 0.67 square miles, or two-thirds of this aerial photo -- without high-rise buildings, either. This is a lovely place to live -- one of the most popular, fashionable and expensive neighborhoods in Tokyo -- and not "too crowded."

At the population density of Athens, Greece, you could fit Juneau in 0.62 square miles. At the population density of Union City, New Jersey, it would fit in the same 0.62 square miles. At the population density of Levallois-Perret, France, you could fit it in 0.46 square miles. At the population density of Hong Kong, you could fit it in 0.37 square miles. At the population density of Manila, Philippines, you could fit it in 0.28 square miles. I'm not sure I would recommend that. But, you could do it.

Try to imagine what that would be like.

This is a photo of Bruges, Belgium. The population is about 117,000. The population density is about 85 people/hectare, but that includes the whole city. This central area is probably denser than that.

Note how there are no cars. Just right for Juneau!

The sun doesn't get real high in winter in Juneau.

Central Juneau (Bruges) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A lovely central square in Juneau. Of course there are no cars.

Life's good in Juneau, Alaska.

Of course there are scenic spots on the water in Juneau, Alaska.

It's actually easier to build this stuff than acres and acres of highways and parking lots. There's much less of it, so each piece is nicer.

People walking down the middle of the street in Juneau, Alaska.

I hope you liked our little tour of Juneau (Bruges).

You may have heard of Jared Diamond's account of the Viking settlements in Greenland. Here it is summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in a book review:

Read the whole review

A thousand years ago, a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from Norway for the vast Arctic landmass west of Scandinavia which came to be known as Greenland. It was largely uninhabitable—a forbidding expanse of snow and ice. But along the southwestern coast there were two deep fjords protected from the harsh winds and saltwater spray of the North Atlantic Ocean, and as the Norse sailed upriver they saw grassy slopes flowering with buttercups, dandelions, and bluebells, and thick forests of willow and birch and alder. Two colonies were formed, three hundred miles apart, known as the Eastern and Western Settlements. The Norse raised sheep, goats, and cattle. They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland. They hunted seal and caribou. They built a string of parish churches and a magnificent cathedral, the remains of which are still standing. They traded actively with mainland Europe, and tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church. The Norse colonies in Greenland were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated communities, numbering at their peak five thousand people. They lasted for four hundred and fifty years—and then they vanished. ...

There was nothing wrong with the social organization of the Greenland settlements. The Norse built a functioning reproduction of the predominant northern-European civic model of the time—devout, structured, and reasonably orderly. In 1408, right before the end, records from the Eastern Settlement dutifully report that Thorstein Olafsson married Sigrid Bjornsdotter in Hvalsey Church on September 14th of that year, with Brand Halldorstson, Thord Jorundarson, Thorbjorn Bardarson, and Jon Jonsson as witnesses, following the proclamation of the wedding banns on three consecutive Sundays.

The problem with the settlements, Diamond argues, was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

But Greenland’s ecosystem was too fragile to withstand that kind of pressure. The short, cool growing season meant that plants developed slowly, which in turn meant that topsoil layers were shallow and lacking in soil constituents, like organic humus and clay, that hold moisture and keep soil resilient in the face of strong winds. “The sequence of soil erosion in Greenland begins with cutting or burning the cover of trees and shrubs, which are more effective at holding soil than is grass,” he writes. “With the trees and shrubs gone, livestock, especially sheep and goats, graze down the grass, which regenerates only slowly in Greenland’s climate. Once the grass cover is broken and the soil is exposed, soil is carried away especially by the strong winds, and also by pounding from occasionally heavy rains, to the point where the topsoil can be removed for a distance of miles from an entire valley.” Without adequate pastureland, the summer hay yields shrank; without adequate supplies of hay, keeping livestock through the long winter got harder. And, without adequate supplies of wood, getting fuel for the winter became increasingly difficult.

The Norse needed to reduce their reliance on livestock—particularly cows, which consumed an enormous amount of agricultural resources. But cows were a sign of high status; to northern Europeans, beef was a prized food. They needed to copy the Inuit practice of burning seal blubber for heat and light in the winter, and to learn from the Inuit the difficult art of hunting ringed seals, which were the most reliably plentiful source of food available in the winter. But the Norse had contempt for the Inuit—they called them skraelings, “wretches”—and preferred to practice their own brand of European agriculture. In the summer, when the Norse should have been sending ships on lumber-gathering missions to Labrador, in order to relieve the pressure on their own forestlands, they instead sent boats and men to the coast to hunt for walrus. Walrus tusks, after all, had great trade value. In return for those tusks, the Norse were able to acquire, among other things, church bells, stained-glass windows, bronze candlesticks, Communion wine, linen, silk, silver, churchmen’s robes, and jewelry to adorn their massive cathedral at Gardar, with its three-ton sandstone building blocks and eighty-foot bell tower. In the end, the Norse starved to death. ...

Diamond writes, for instance, of the fact that nobody can find fish remains in Norse archeological sites. One scientist sifted through tons of debris from the Vatnahverfi farm and found only three fish bones; another researcher analyzed thirty-five thousand bones from the garbage of another Norse farm and found two fish bones. How can this be? Greenland is a fisherman’s dream: Diamond describes running into a Danish tourist in Greenland who had just caught two Arctic char in a shallow pool with her bare hands. “Every archaeologist who comes to excavate in Greenland . . . starts out with his or her own idea about where all those missing fish bones might be hiding,” he writes. “Could the Norse have strictly confined their munching on fish to within a few feet of the shoreline, at sites now underwater because of land subsidence? Could they have faithfully saved all their fish bones for fertilizer, fuel, or feeding to cows?” It seems unlikely. There are no fish bones in Norse archeological remains, Diamond concludes, for the simple reason that the Norse didn’t eat fish. For one reason or another, they had a cultural taboo against it.

Given the difficulty that the Norse had in putting food on the table, this was insane. Eating fish would have substantially reduced the ecological demands of the Norse settlements. The Norse would have needed fewer livestock and less pastureland. Fishing is not nearly as labor-intensive as raising cattle or hunting caribou, so eating fish would have freed time and energy for other activities. It would have diversified their diet.

Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount importance. “The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond writes. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.”
We today think that the Norse in Greenland were complete nutjobs. They would rather perish than eat fish? Greenland was a paradise of fishing, but a hellish place to try to raise cows and vegetables. How could anyone be so stupid. Diamond says that the idea of fishing was "a taboo," but I doubt it. Taboos tend to get broken when you're starving, and there's no record of such a taboo. It just wasn't something they imagined. They imagined that they were farmers and pastoralists, even though it was much easier to be a fisherman in Greenland. You could catch fish with your bare hands! I wouldn't say that the Vikings "liked" or "preferred" being farmers and pastoralists. It's hard work. Catching fish with your hands is easy. People don't starve to death because they "prefer" milking cows to catching fish. For whatever reason, they imagined starving to death trying to be a farmers and pastoralists, rather than imagining living a life of plenty as fishermen. They were so intent on imagining themselves starving to death that they actually starved to death, even though they could pick up fish with their bare hands.

Do you understand?

Today, we aren't quite starving to death, yet, but for some reason we imagine ourselves barely scraping by with this hyperexpensive, ugly, miserable, ecocidal Suburban Hell existence, rather than imagining living a life of plenty in a cheap, beautiful, fun, eco-friendly Traditional City.

April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types

Just as the Vikings couldn't imagine that they could eat fish, even though they could see that the Inuit lived on nothing but fish, we Americans have a hard time imagining that we could live in a beautiful Traditional city, and ride trains, even though many hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asians live in Traditional Cities and ride trains, and like it very much thank you.

September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity

By now you probably know the conclusion. If you want to transition to a Traditional City, you just have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, it's easy. Like being a fisherman in Greenland. Just think how easy it would have been to build a beautiful Traditional City where Juneau is.

Just think how easy it would be to tear down that Surburban Hell crap in Juneau (it has a short lifespan anyway, and most of it consists of parking lots) and build a Traditional City today. One week with a couple Caterpillar D7 bulldozers would do it. You are only one week away from the Traditional City. If you can imagine it.

March 14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together

For example, people imagine that it would be difficult to build a full-scale train system in the U.S., so people could go wherever they want without needing a car. Oh it's soooo haaaard!

December 27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like

Chinese people don't have this failure of imagination. They imagine that it's easy. It's what they want, so they just do it.

Over the next ten years, China plans to build 70,000 miles of new rail track, much of it high-speed passenger rail. This despite that China is in fact a rather difficult place to build rail lines, as it is quite mountainous.

Ten years from now, China will have 70,000 miles of brand-new rail track, in addition to their existing, quite excellent rail service. That is enough to build track from Los Angeles to New York twenty times over.

Ten years from now, people in the U.S. might still be whining that building rail is soooo haaaard, even though actually it is very easy to build rail line in the U.S., because there is so much flat open land.

That is why I post hundreds and hundreds of photographs, along with simple rules of design (Really Narrow Streets). I want to help you imagine the Traditional City -- and imagine it correctly (i.e. not like

November 15, 2009: Let's Kick Around

When your seven-year-old children start drawing crayon pictures of Really Narrow Streets and buildings side-by-side connected by trains, rather than a freestanding farmhouse in the country (with smoke rising from the chimney) and a car, you will know that you have made the mental transition from Suburban Hell to the Traditional City. At that point, the Traditional City will simply bloom like spring flowers across the landscape everywhere.

* * *

I will add one more suggestion for those interested in Traditional City urban design. Go visit a real Traditional City. On your vacation. Many are popular tourist destinations, so it shouldn't be too hard to persuade the wife and kids.

Some cities, like Venice, are gorgeous Traditional Cities from end to end. However, most are not. You have to go search out the bits that are the best, most inspiring examples of the Traditional City. The old city part of Shanghai is one of the most spectacular examples of a Traditional City in the world. However, most of Shanghai today consists of a 20th Century Hypertrophism pattern of cookie cutter highrise buildings separated by mega-roadways and Green Space. So I don't want to hear some dopey excuse like: "I went to the worst parts of Shanghai and it was crap!" What did you think was going to happen?

Take some pictures of the parts that you think are the most amazing examples of Traditional City design.

You wouldn't think I would have to give instructions about how to visit a Traditional City, but I have some understanding of how people -- Americans especially -- do these things. Americans are simply unaccustomed to how Traditional Cities are laid out. For example, it is common in the U.S. that the "destination" is the largest street. The Strip in Las Vegas. Or Broadway in New York. So, Americans go to the largest street in the city and look around, expecting that they are seeing the best the city has to offer. This doesn't work in a Traditional City environment. All you will see is a lot of automobile traffic. You have to get off the large streets -- on foot -- and find the narrow back streets, the Really Narrow Streets, the pedestrian-centric places. In the U.S., the narrow streets are often like alleys, grungy utility streets, and often dangerous. However, in many Traditional City environments, the large street is the grungy utility street, and the little back streets are where the action is. Think about SoHo in New York if you want, or Chinatown. It's like a safari. You have to hunt around for the best spots.

Lastly, be sure to interact as much as possible with the Tradtional City environment. This means going into cafes, restaurants, shops. Lots and lots of them. Ride up and down the elevators. This is also different from Suburban Hell, and Americans don't know how to do it.

If you find a place like this, with lots of bars and restaurants, then go to the bars and restaurants.

These are also bars and clubs. Go visit!

Get a hotel that is right in the middle of the Traditional City environment if you can. If you go to Florence, get a hotel in central Florence. Try to experience, as much as possible, the "no car Traditional City lifestyle." Walk everywhere, or take the subway.

Most of all, you should understand that this stuff is real. It is not my fantasy. It's not something that I invented. So we don't need to have the "that wouldn't work because etc. etc." discussion. We can just go and look. The experiment is already done.

Other comments in this series:

April 18, 2010: How to Live the Good Life in the Traditional City
April 4, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?
March 28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms
March 14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
March 7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell
February 21, 2010: Toledo, Spain or Toledo, Ohio?
January 31, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York 2: The Bad and the Ugly
January 24, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York City
January 10, 2010: We Could All Be Wizards
December 27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
December 13, 2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
November 22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
November 15, 2009: Let's Kick Around
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks

October 18, 2009: Let's Take Another Trip to Venice
October 10, 2009: Place and Non-Place
September 28, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head

September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity

July 26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A Bazillion Windmills
April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types

March 3, 2009: Let's Visit Some More Villages
February 15, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to the French Village
February 1, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to the English Village
January 25, 2009: How to Buy Gold on the Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries
(scroll down)
December 28, 2008: Currencies are Causes, not Effects (scroll down)
December 21, 2008: Life Without Cars
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities

July 20, 2008: The Traditional City vs. the "Radiant City"
December 2, 2007: Let's Take a Trip to Tokyo
October 7, 2007: Let's Take a Trip to Venice
June 17, 2007: Recipe for Florence
July 9, 2007: No Growth Economics
March 26, 2006: The Eco-Metropolis