The First Transect Seminar

By Laurence Aurbach
May 6, 2001

Citation: Aurbach, L.J., "The First Transect Seminar," New Urban News, vol. 6, no. 5, pp. 18-19

New Urbanists, academics and curious onlookers recently gathered in New Haven for the first Transect seminar. Sponsored by Yale School of Architecture and the Knight Foundation, the event was a multi-disciplinary look at this new system of land use planning. It was also the culmination of a course taught at Yale by architects Andres Duany and Leon Krier. The broad array of disciplines represented included ecology, landscape architecture, planning, sociology, cultural history, marketing and transportation engineering. Chuck Bohl, Director of the Knight Program in Community Building, opened the seminar by introducing the Transect concept.

The Transect is both a descriptive theory and a system of land use. The central notion is a gradient of habitats from wilderness to urban core. As one moves along the gradient, differences in design, ecology and social structure are apparent. When those differences are systematized into land use code, the Transect becomes a comprehensive alternative to conventional zoning. Planning for character of place is enabled and supported because the Transect is organized around qualitative experience.

Ecologist James Collins gave the keynote address on the relationship between human and natural environments. Professor Collins has found that complex forces control change along gradients; therefore transects must include multiple factors and dimensions to be accurate. The field of ecology has traditionally ignored humans and their activities. However, Collins's research in the valleys of southern Arizona found species whose evolution and survival are deeply intertwined with the ranching operations there. Collins suggested that we think not of human vs. natural environments in opposition, but instead of ecosystems that are more or less affected by humans.

Planning professor Emily Talen described some of the tensions inherent in the planning field, and how the Transect may overcome them. The historic tension of form vs. pattern puts 3-D, small, specific projects in opposition to 2-D, comprehensive plans covering large, vague areas. The tension of order vs. diversity puts design and aesthetics in opposition to process and social justice. Planners, said Talen, do not recognize objective beauty and are uneasy with social order (a key element of New Urbanism). Use of the Transect in planning can potentially integrate and resolve these tensions.

Architect Patrick Pinnell explored the mythical underpinnings of the American suburban dream. He quoted Frederick J. Turner, saying that American identity has been defined by the presence of the frontier and distance from the city. The suburb recreates in small the myth that the frontier is not closed. A land-buying guide from the 1950's was shown; it contained the admonition "AVIOD CITIES," and promoted the self-contained compound where community institutions were replaced by machines. In contrast, said Pinnell, engagement and participation are the premise of the Transect.

Diana Balmori, professor of landscape architecture, discussed ecological health in the urban and suburban settings. Numerous design techniques have been developed so that ecosystems and planted areas can accommodate humans and still function well. This often involves greater complexity in parkland environments and avoidance of monocultural plantings. In many cases, European and Asian techniques are more advanced than American. Balmori presented a recent project she designed for a Minnesota suburb, a wetlands park that functions beautifully as a stormwater catchment system.

Social ecology professor Stephen Kellert traced the connections between ecological and social systems. His research found that environmental quality is correlated with social and behavioral indicators. Healthier watersheds correlated with environmental values as well as prosperity and quality of life. Kellert theorized that positive feedback loops cause the correlation, arising from incremental, mutual changes of behavior, attitude and the environment. An exclusive focus on low-impact design leads to terrible mistakes because it ignores the many ways people develop affinity with place.

After the lunch break, Duany and Krier led the participants around the studio where the students' work was displayed. The students had traveled to cities and towns throughout the United States where they took "core samples" of the different transect zones. Each location had plans, elevations and photos of the urban core, the urban center, the general urban and the sub-urban zones. The centerpiece of the studio display was a wall that held transect gradients for all of the test cities. Not only could one read vertically to see the transect gradient, one could also read horizontally to see how a specific zone varied from place to place. The students had built on their research by designing structures and neighborhoods for a variety of lifestyles. Duany stated that the students achieved high quality designs very quickly by employing the Transect.

Returning to the auditorium, planning professor Sidney Brower spoke about the qualities that make neighborhoods good. Neighborhoods are good or bad according to how they support the interests and activities of their residents. People have different lifestyle preferences and various neighborhoods fulfill those preferences to different degrees. Brower's research found that preferences for neighborhood type fell into 4 categories: Center (active), small-town (friendly), residential (childraising/security) and retreat (privacy). Three of these neighborhood types are a close match to zones in the Transect.

Todd Zimmerman, a demographic analyst, described the categories of consumers in America and their housing preferences. Five marketing categories of residential environments were described, and these closely matched the Transect zones. Zimmerman looks with particular interest at the life stages, mobility and occupational status of homebuyers. His surveys find that New Urbanist neighborhoods have widespread appeal and that demand outstrips supply.

Richard Hall is a transportation engineer who made the journey from mainstream practice to New Urbanist design. Hall detailed the shortcomings of conventional practice and called for new functional classifications using the Transect. Conventional transportation planning only recognizes two zones: urban and rural. This, along with rigid design standards, leads to poorly designed and malfunctioning street systems. Localities should plan land use first, transportation facilities second. Use of the Transect will allow proactive analysis; streets can define space, perform multiple other functions and thus serve a broad range of residents and activities.

Andres Duany spoke on the necessity of the Transect from a political point of view. The competition (conventional suburban development) employs a system that is comprehensive and elegant from the planning and financing points of view. Each part of the city is specialized; each part of the development process is standardized. Countering this system is the environmentalist approach, which succeeds because it uses a normative, standardized, technocratic vocabulary and presents itself as science. The Transect emulates that approach; it is environmentally-derived and can be administered by environmentalists. Duany illustrated how the Transect is a cross-cultural idea and has existed for decades if not centuries. The New Urbanist innovation is to use it as the basis for land use planning, design and administration.

Architecture professor Victor Deupi and sociology professor David Brain were called upon to comment on the day's proceedings and to field questions. The Transect was found to have enormous integrative potential. Areas in need of further investigation included the process of continuous adaptation, the existence of additional Transect zones, and supporting research into community needs (the moral transect). Questions were raised: Is technocratic vocabulary always appropriate considering its disadvantages? Can the process of sampling Transect zones and developing local types be systematized? How can the Transect be communicated to landowners and developers? Why would planners agree to this system?

Leon Krier closed the seminar by emphasizing the scientific nature of the Transect. It is not an escapist abstraction; it should be adaptable to fit real-world conditions. It is panoramic and it allows people to address sweeping social and design issues to achieve a better quality of life.

If being a New Urbanist means being a generalist, then the Transect seminar certainly pushed the boundary of that definition. The multitude of viewpoints expressed was, in the words of one speaker, "bewildering." Some time will be needed to digest this dress rehearsal event in order to present the Transect in a more integrated, polished form. The seminar participants took home an enriching and thought-provoking experience.


-----Information about Transect-based codes-----

Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. Selected pages from the Smart Code available at See in particular the key summary page "Summary of Code Standards":

Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., "Smart Code" available from


---Books and articles by speakers (or recommended by speakers)---

Balmori, Diana, F. Herbert Bormann and Gordon Geballe, Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony (1993)

NRDC's review of Balmori's Farmington, MN Prairie Waterway:

Brower, Sidney, Good Neighborhoods (1996)

Collins, James, et. al., "A New Urban Ecology" in American Scientist, Vol. 88, No. 5, Sept-Oct 2000. Abstract at

Cronon, William, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991)

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2000)

Hall, Richard, "TND Transportation Issues" in New Urbanism: Comprehensive Report & Best Practices Guide, New Urban Publications (2001) available at

Kellert, Stephen-- Ordinary Nature: Exploring and Designing Natural Process in Everyday Life (upcoming) and The Value of Life: Biological Diversity and Human Society (1997)

Krier, Leon, Architecture, Choice or Fate? (1998)

Stilgoe, John, Outside Lies Magic (1998)

Turner, Frederick, The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit (1995)

Wilson, Edward O., Biophilia (1984)


---Other writings mentioned---

A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (AASHTO Green Book) available from

Studies performed by the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) project

Dubos, Rene, The Wooing of Earth (1980)

MacArthur, Robert H. and Edward O. Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967)

Spirn, Anne Whiston, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (1984)

Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier in American History (1921)

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