Traditional City

an old-Europe city/

Nathan Lewis framing

Nathan Lewis has been writing about why we should be living in Traditional Citys (Urban Village) for a few years already. His "main" focus is Economic Development, but the city is what the economy actually is, in its physical form.

Summary for Fractally Generative Pattern Language

Thus, the "New Urbanists" (New Urbanism) and the "Old Suburbanists" share two things: their "Small Town America" ideal, and their attachment to car (Automobile) dependency. Thus, I like to call the "New Urbanists" the New Suburbanists. They have a plan for a nicer small town/Suburb. And it's a good plan. But it won't work very well for a big city, which is where most people live.

Examples (he doesn't think there are any in the US - all have too-wide streets)

  • Tokyo is my favorite, but it's hard to say anything bad about Singapore (except that it's not as much fun as Tokyo). Hong Kong is nice. The better bits of London and Paris used to inspire people -- they inspired the people who built New York City and downtown San Francisco -- but apparently that well has run dry as far as the New Suburbanists are concerned. And the lovely cities of Italy, or for that matter the exquisite "hill towns"? Yes, I know that certain New Suburbanists can appreciate the hill towns of Italy ("small town... small town..."), like every other tourist that flocks there from around the world, but they don't seem at all inclined to learn from the example and try to actually design and build something similar. Vienna... no? Bangkok has some traffic problems, but it has wonderful super-dense neighborhoods. I'm fond of the Don Muang district by the airport. The water taxis are way cool.

    • My definition of an Urban environment is one where it is easier to not own a car (Automobile) than to own one. New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore fit this description. Oddly enough, it is not necessary to be in a big city to be in an urban environment. There are many small towns/cities around the world that also fit this description, like the aforementioned Italian hill towns, or maybe little towns on the sea in Greece.

    • I think I've found out how to build real cities, and the secret is so simple that even a New Suburbanist can understand it. Here it is: Really Narrow Streets... Yes, there are cities with wonderful "GrandBoulevard-s," and realistically you are going to need a way for trucks to get around to supply the stores and whatnot, but what you want are a handful of "Grand Boulevards" combined with swathes of neighborhoods with really narrow streets, which is where the action is. Sort of an artery-capillary effect. Like central Paris. Look for yourself.

  • On Florence and Siena (Italy). Lots of pictures.

  • On Tokyo. Lots of pictures. A lot of Tokyo looks like this. Multistory (but not high-rise, 3-10 floors generally), Really Narrow Streets, no automobile traffic. It's not really a postcard shot, but there is a tremendous amount of interesting stuff when you walk around on street level. Hmmm--multistory (but not high-rise), Really Narrow Streets, no automobile traffic, pedestrian paradise. That sounds a lot like Florence, no? Precisely my point. If you have these basic ingredients, you will have a wonderful result, even if you build a bunch of concrete boxes... It boggles people's minds when I tell them that 90% of the streets in Tokyo have almost no traffic at all.

  • Probably the closest many Americans have come to a LifeWithoutCars is the time they may have spent at a residential university.

  • On the English village. The Traditional City can scale up to any size, or scale down to any size, but even at its largest and smallest, it is really the same thing: narrow roadways and multistory buildings side-by-side and hard up against the street. Even in the countryside, the basic needs of non-farmers are the same... You can own a car, but maybe use it only every other weekend. Or, you could rent one, or borrow your friend's. Or, you could just take a bus or train when you want to leave the village. Also, villages are spaced perhaps 3-5 miles apart, which means that everyone is within about 1.5-2.5 miles of a village. That's a nice walk. So, even the farmers don't need a car (or horse) to get to a village. Do you know how long it takes to clean and saddle a horse for riding? It's about 20 minutes with practice. And, horses don't walk any faster than humans. Then you have to put it all away when you're done. Easier just to walk.

  • On the French village. This illustrates particularly well the idea that there should be a dense Urban Village, and rural Agriculture, and a quick transition between the two. No "Suburbs."

  • On Hogwarts and other Castle towns.

  • Counter-example: his own residence of New Berlin, NY. Wide streets, low density.

  • Counter-example of New York City. The streets are too wide, and the buildings are too big. That is much taller than the Traditional City, which tends to top out around six stories, the limits of practical use without elevators... Actually, I like Manhattan. The funny thing is, it is OK (not that great, but OK) because the big buildings and the big streets match, to a certain degree. The 19th Century Hypertrophic City is, strangely enough, worse when it is only sort-of-Hypertrophic... Unfortunately, there's only one Manhattan. Pretty much all the cities built in the U.S. during the 19th century -- and also most of New York City outside of Midtown -- look much more like Norwich. This includes, for example, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia Pa.

Interesting broadside against the Sustainable hair-shirt types. Take Ben Franklin (1706-1790), for example: a wealthy businessman, inventor, and diplomat. Probably didn't have a canned-tomato fetish. Didn't milk goats. Lived in a dense urban area. Can't we be more like Ben and less like Pa Ingalls?... But even Sharon Astyk says her fantasy view of the "sustainable" future has perhaps 10%-30% of the population actively engaged in food production, which of course leaves 70%-90% to live a more Ben Franklin-like urban lifestyle... By the way, the ideal of little Family Farms is not necessarily that hard to achieve. In Japan for example, all the farms are small and family owned. The government simply made it illegal for a Corporation to engage in agriculture, because, like Europeans also, they wanted to preserve the tradition of small family-owned farms. Simple as that. And it worked! Food prices are somewhat higher, but you would expect that given Japan's topography and climate alone, and the quality is much higher as well. On balance, it is a good policy if you ask me. Sometimes these things are really easy to solve... Urban living is much less resource-intensive than suburban (i.e., ersatz-rural) living... The energy/resources not-used by living Amsterdam-style instead of Houston-style is much, much greater -- about a million times greater -- than the energy/resources not-used by using a Solar Oven (Solar Cooking) instead of a regular oven, or cutting back on TP. Do you see why I'm making fun of the solar-oven fetishists?

  • Note that policy in Japan may have costs.

    • Dec'2008: Japan’s farming population is declining as the current generation of farmers ages amid a dearth of potential successors. With more and more farmers abandoning production, the country is losing agricultural resources that are vital to its food security. The entry of private enterprises into the farming sector has the potential to revive Japan’s crisis-hit agricultural sector by identifying successors other than the children of farmers and creating jobs. Corporate involvement in agriculture is restricted by the Agricultural Land Law and related laws. Joint stock companies are permitted to participate in the farming sector in two ways. One is as “agricultural production corporations,” which can be established anywhere in the country and are allowed not only to lease farmland but also to acquire ownership rights. These corporations, though, are subject to various conditions, including that they derive over half of their sales from agriculture; that over three-quarters of the total voting rights are held by full-time farmers, farmland rights providers, agricultural cooperatives, and other parties involved in farming; and that full-time farmers account for a majority of the company’s directors. In addition, only joint stock companies that restrict stock transfers are eligible for this status. In short, this designation is for incorporated family-run farms, rather than for ordinary companies.
    • some history
    • discussion of 2013 reform proposals
  • The Problem With Little Teeny Farms. Look, I have nothing against growing some tomatoes in your backyard, but it is a hobby, or perhaps a survival technique as urban Russians or Cubans discovered. I can tell you one thing it is NOT: it is not Sustainable. You aren't going to have a Civilization that lasts for a thousand years that is based on eighth-acre hobby Kitchen Gardens. Part2: Some people have been pushing the notion that a family of four can be sustained with a 3000 square foot garden... Let's reverse-engineer it. Using the 1899 yield of 750 pounds/acre (probably better to look at Calories Per Acre), how many acres would it take to feed a family of four? Add some space for the house and woodlands, and we're up to 17 acres or so. This is still before domesticated food animals... In 1900, the average farm in Illinois was 125 acres. In 1850, the U.S. average was about 200 acres... Let's think about this: What are the characteristics of a Collapse period?

    • So, the survival farmer might get their grain somehow (not too difficult if you are near the water where ships can dock), but they need to provide their own vegetables. (If they were really left to their own devices to produce all caloric intake, most urban residents would simply perish.) It might be nice if a lot of people had at least a little experience with producing food... For example, if, after five or ten years, you had no expectation that automobiles would ever be available again, except for a couple local warlords driving around in their G-Wagons, then you would go about arranging your activities so that you didn't need an automobile. On a large scale, this could be a no-car Traditional City... Existing structures would be used at first, but over time, you have to go to where you can Make A Living, as an agriculturalist perhaps or as some sort of urban craft/profession/service provider... What if, for example, you lived in San Francisco's East Bay, and for some reason gasoline became unavailable?... Maybe the BART train is still running, because people still need to move, so they figure out a way to keep it running, because it is a heck of a lot easier to maintain one line of rail track than it is to maintain thousands of miles of paved road and hundreds of thousands of personal automobiles. Then, the areas that are within a couple miles of the BART station (and maybe on the water) become very desirable, and those areas that are accessible only by car become less desirable... I think that many of these "little teeny farm" types are really talking about Collapse. I, on the other hand, am talking about the arrangement that follows collapse. Of course, you don't have to have a collapse. You could just have a voluntary transition to a new arrangement. Dmitry Orlov has some good points about a "voluntary transition to a new arrangement.".. On the large scale, it is quite common that systems simply continue as they are until they collapse. Only after the collapse, when all the entrenched interests have gone extinct, are people free to establish a new arrangement... Within the context of collapse, a lot of what the "little teeny farm" and "self-sufficiency" types say is quite relevant, so maybe they are serving a purpose here whose importance will become apparent later on.

Bringing it all together. The Traditional City is fun, affordable (When your rent is $650 (or $400 in a cheaper city) and you don't have a car, your utilities are minimal, the Public Schools are good and there's a decent public HealthCare system, life becomes very affordable... It's all the burdens you can cast off. No big mortgage. No car. No shopping for furnishings. Virtually no maintenance. Housekeeping is practically instant. No spending every Saturday mowing the lawn.), and sustainable.


May23'2010 update: on the challenge of transition. 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... 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.


Apr'2011 update: he thinks it's just the application of 3 simple rules:

  • Really Narrow Streets
  • Buildings Side By Side (TownHouse): There can be courtyards, gardens, parks and so forth, but you don't have the ring-of-grass-all-around, or for that matter a barren plaza. 3-5 stories, but ok to have a few higher
  • no Automobiles!
  • oh, yeah, and electric Commuter Train/SubWay to get to other places
    • I don't recall him every noting where people work in offices
      • though he shows one example in London with caption There's a lesson here about incorporating large buildings with Really Narrow Streets.

Jun'2011: he notes that this can work with Single Family Homes, too, not just a TownHouse model, giving the example of the Seijo neighborhood of Tokyo. Seijo is located in Setagaya-ku, a western district of Tokyo. Setagaya-ku has a Population Density of 37,333 people per square mile, which is quite high, although most of the development is SFDR like Seijo. He also notes that this area was farmland in the 1950s, so it's a recent development, not something with the road size inherited from centuries ago. So, I would say these population densities can definitely support local walking-based retail and commerce. The figure of a square mile is important, because if you put a restaurant in the middle of that square mile, then everyone within that square mile could walk to the restaurant within fifteen minutes, and mostly less than that. So, if you have 32,000 people that can walk to your restaurant, then you can have a viable business without a parking lot. And, since people can walk to the restaurant, instead of taking a car, maybe they can get by with one car per family instead of two or three. But, if only 3,200, or one-tenth as many people can walk there, then you need a parking lot and you end up with a Suburban Hell strip-mall. And, the family needs that second or third car.

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