The Transect

35 thoughts on “The Transect”

  1. As a remodeler in South Los Angeles (40′ wide lots) built in the 1910-1930 era. i tend to disagree that remodeling these parcels is the right solution (yet i do it everyday – go figure…) i remodel them for rentals but i would not live here… One situation that has not happen to me yet but i believe would be very lucrative is to take two, three, five parcels side by side and create middle class properties in South LA. take the good from suburbia, big yard lots, block walls, large garages, swimming pools etc…items that would attract middle class family back to South LA (BTW – South LA is 15 mins from DTLA, and 25 mins from Santa Monica) With five parcels 40*150*5 = would create a 30,000 sq ft compound space for 350k*5 = 1.75 acquisition cost only.. IF the Suburbs taught us anything is that people want their privacy even at the expense of a 2 hour commute. I believe my scenario above would would be very lucrative, of course the hard part is finding five parcels owners to sell at the same time. Also LA City government may not like you removing all those rent control units from their books and will probably give you a hard time. thanks for reading this far.

  2. Another thing the modern outer ring subdivision doesn’t have is an actual back yard. Not in California anyway. I’m always a little surprised people are willing to pay the price they do and drive great distances for more square footage but no personal space.

    1. I talked with a developer in Phoenix (conservative Arizona Republicans, not liberal Democratic Californians) who explained that the authorities there now insist that new construction pay something closer to the true cost of infrastructure. The public expenditure for maintaining water, sewer, and roads to 1950’s style ranch homes on quarter acre lots is bankrupting the municipal government. There’s too little tax revenue to service too many city obligations. The market also demands larger homes since most buyers will trade off a yard if they can get a master bath you can land a helicopter in. The result is a 3,400 square foot house on a 6,000 square foot lot – most of which is driveway, a skinny five foot strip on either side, and a paved back patio with a toupee sized patch of green grass. From the air there’s almost no open land anywhere in these subdivisions other than the storm water retention pond (which is labeled something like the “Clubhouse Oasis.”)

      Culturally we want fully detached single family homes in uniformed subdivisions. Economically we can’t afford it. So we get cheek-by-jowl haciendas on the side of the freeway. We could just build traditional Chinese, Arab, or Roman style courtyard row houses with interior atriums and organize them in charming walkable tree lined narrow streets with corner shops and cafes. But that would be “communist” and involve “social engineering.”

      Do I care how people in these places live? Nope. Do I think they’ll even exist in their current form in a hundred years? Nope. Does any of this matter today? Nope.

      1. 3,400 square feet on a 6000 square feet lot is still only a floor-area ratio of 0.57. Are they building only single floor, then? Or is it setback requirements that are the problem? Fitting a large garden, parking for two, even three cars, and a very large house on such a plot shouldn’t be that difficult…

        1. I’ll blog more specifically on the topic at some point. The rules dictate certain lot sizes, set backs, covered off street parking, etc. The market demands specific features. So you’re right that these conditions can all be met in a reasonable manner. But when you step back and see the cumulative effect on the larger landscape the results are weird. Many people are happy with the results which is why we keep building more of it. I just wonder how these places will age as external reality presses down on them in the years to come. That’s an entirely different conversation.

  3. “The more complex a place is the more productive and dynamic it is.” This brings to mind an interesting (to me) analog: the ecological transect from littoral regions, particularly marshes and wetlands, which produce the most biomass, on the one hand; and desert (or arguably agricultural monoculture), on the other.

    1. Yes, it’s the same concept. The velocity of interactions makes a place dynamic and productive. There’s more specialization and more inter-connected activity where more players are feeding off each other and creating more value – in nature as well as cities.

      I would argue that there are diminishing returns and that the largest cities are too precariously complex and delicate at the moment. They’re vulnerable to disruptions of all kinds. The sweet spot of productivity and resilience is the medium smallish city or a largish town. The smaller scale means somewhat less dynamism, but a lot more ability to ride out a disruption.

      1. The funny thing is, for most of human history a “small city” would have been considered a bustling metropolis. The population estimates for Renaissance Florence are, what, 90k?

        Improved connectivity between towns can help a lot with productivity I think, whilst preserving resiliency – and having recognisably different settlements might be required in order to keep them productive. It does seem that Silicon Valley produces a lot of stuff that Silicon Valley wants, because the people there don’t get out of their bubble enough. I think it would be much more useful if they lived most of their time in small-medium towns, and got together for month-long hackathons, rather than spending all their time among people like themselves.

        1. Is part of the reason for this, though, that in the context of overall population levels and the agricultural and “industrial” surplus pre-modern economies could produce, a Florence was comparatively large? Throw in the realities of modern consolidation of control into fewer companies (families and people) and only the larger cities can play a similar roll?

          Except for college towns or unusually sited resorts, how many American cities of 90,000 people are all that productive (or prosperous). Most are “husks” economically speaking.

          1. Things have acquired their current scale as a direct result of resource availability. Ancient Rome, the Han Dynasty, Ancient Egypt, the Mayans… They all puffed up and expanded right up to the edge of what was physically possible given exogenous limitations. The modern world has access to a massive stockpile of coal, oil, and gas that the ancients didn’t. Those fuels made it possible to extract more of everything else from the environment and ramp up everything from Dubai to Las Vegas and Shanghai. One of the side effects of this hypertrophy is an equally massive concentration of economic and political power that’s not radically different from what developed in antiquity. Take away the goodie pile of abundant cheap resources and everything will eventually devolve back to lower levels of complexity.

            1. I agree with what you’re saying. I just want to throw in a little counterpoint though: we know for a fact that people in cities generally consume fewer resources than those in rural areas. There are many obvious reasons: smaller homes, greater opportunity to walk/cycle/take transit, more shared forms of entertainment, etc. While rural people certainly have the *opportunity* for simpler living, in my experience they mostly live a suburban style existence, with a big house, big TV, big trucks, etc. In addition, all those opportunities of city living (and the expense) tend to encourage people to have kids later, which is the major contributing factor to slowing population growth. The urbanisation of the world arguably makes it much easier for us to transition to a lower environmental impact per capita.

          2. Probably. But a lot, if not most, big cities grew big from manufacturing industry, which benefited from economies of scale. If circumstances change to once again favour smaller scale artisanal production (i.e. the third industrial revolution), then we may see a change back to smaller cities.

            Of course, that would affect capital cities, which like the megacities of the ancients derive their wealth from skimming off the rest of the country, a lot less…

  4. As an engineer, I like this idea of the efficient metabolism of small town America. Yet, in the 21st century, is it really realistic for an individual to live so isolated from job centers? Do you honestly believe those occupations and skills linked to small town life (farming, blacksmithing, shoe repair, etc.) are going to come back in sufficient numbers to support people as they did prior to the Industrial Revolution?

    There are a lot of possible scenarios between a World Made by Hand & the Hyperloop. I can imagine modest Main Street towns close-ish to cities, with an old rail station perhaps, becoming desirable telecommuting hubs..

    1. There are traditional small towns, and then there are traditional small towns… Palo Alto is a Norman Rockwell village with a Main Street and a cozy little train station connecting it to San Francisco up the peninsula. So is Mountain View. So is San Carlos. So is Sausalito if you substitute a ferry boat for a train. Blacksmiths and cobblers? Not so much. More like Apple and Google. The factory in the factory town could be all sorts of things that drive the economy.

      The point Kunstler makes is that we currently have the world we have – one of hypertrophic skyscraper cities and endless coast-to-coast horizontal sprawl (two sides of the same coin) because of a century or two of massively abundant cheap energy and easy credit. Over the next century or so we’ll see that wind down and everything will necessarily re-scale to a more reasonable level.

      We won’t be building new places that look exactly like 1890 or 1920. Instead we’ll mostly be living with the chunks of what we already have that incrementally get modified to fit the reality we find ourselves in day-by-day over the decades.

    2. Well, people anticipate large cities, even though the original justification for (most of) them (large manufacturing hubs) isn’t coming back…

      If the ongoing third industrial revolution delivers only a fraction of it’s promise, it will be possible for small towns to engage in lot’s of import replacement for things which are currently factory made. Clothing and furniture to start with, but also bicycles, certain electronic goods, books (probably already there, with print on demand machines). That would relocalise a lot of jobs, reducing the need for external inputs, and with railways and telecommunication, perhaps something would work out.

      1. Interesting point. There is certainly more and more interest in the “maker sphere”. I mean, I do not sport an ironic curlycued moustache, but I admire the design quality of a lot of this new stuff, made increasing with the technology you note.

  5. I wonder if any of these suburbs could be persuaded to take a punt on an experimental upzoning? Designate an old big box site for traditional urbanism, and set up a development company (using private money) to clear the site and plat it out, then sell the lots. The rest of the suburb can keep with their restrictive zoning, parking minimums, and giant streets. If it’s successful, then look at upzoning the area nearby the new town centre – if it’s not, then it’s not like the town has lost anything of value.

    1. From what I have observed all around the country there is nothing that puts fear and loathing into the hearts of suburban home owners as the words “up zoning.” See also, “density” “transit” “infill” “apartments” “mixed use” etc. People who self select in to a suburban environment were specifically avoiding anything that smacked of city life.

      That doesn’t mean that many suburbs aren’t doing plenty of up zoning. It just takes the form of very large heavy handed projects at a high price point. In order to overcome the political and social resistance you really need to spread a lot of money around with something that’s “transformative” and “catalytic” that will get all sorts of existing players excited – contractors, material suppliers, economic development officials, tax collectors…

      The end result is a profoundly suburban landscape punctuated with giant apartment/condo/upscale shopping mall complexes with multi-story parking decks. Do I care about these places one way or another? Not really.

      The more likely trajectory for most suburbs in less affluent areas is continued decline and abandonment. Full stop.

          1. I’m 53. Mom is entering her final phase. I can’t afford to repurchase a home here. I may be following your theme about relocating back there to watch over her, even though I love California and hated growing up in Indiana. But dayum, the property is cheap. So much affordable stuff from my favorite era, the 1920s `dense garden “suburbia”.

            The irrationality is just becoming wearing.

            Ach…we shall see.

            1. What part of Indiana? I live in the heart of downtown Indy and some amazing things are taking place here in the last 5 years. No where near what it could be but Indy continues to slowly but steadily move forward in reclaiming density.

  6. People living in a rural setting do not need to follow much of a social contract with their neighbors, should they choose not to. But in city life, there is much overt and covert relying upon each other: transportation, heat and sidewalks come to mnd, for starters. I think these differences have helped evolve our different views of the world. Sure, big bad government can get in the way of new ideas, but it’s general function allows us to live side-by-side without much drama. I don’t yell at my neighbors and I have to get a building permit in exchange for police and fire protection. That’s how I see the social contract. It exists in the rural arena but can be fudged much more easily.

    Everything on the transect is salvageable except most suburbia. Just throw it out. It gobbles land inefficiently wasting endless infrastructure. I will never tire of re-imagining our small industrial cities (ok, and small towns) as we reuse our great old industrial architecture within completely walkable and transit-ready settings.

    As you have said, suburbia violates the social contract by giving the false impression of rural rugged self-reliance.

  7. “””Living in an off grid cabin in the back of beyond buffers you from a great deal of the obligations””” … Hrm, I have lived in the back of beyond; I strongly disagree. Everything, and I mean Everything, is yours to maintain. That is a very serious obligation. Those living – or advocating for living – in the back of beyond have a strong tendency to gloss over the maintenance burden – which often needs to be dealt with right-then. Perhaps they enjoy it, perhaps they actually pay someone else to do it, but someday they might not enjoy it or be able to pay someone else. Which is not to say it is not a great life-style choice… but a lovely cabin in the woods doesn’t stay that way on its own.

    1. Absolutely. However, I was referring to the obligations imposed by the environment – be it urban or rural. In the “cabin in the woods” you chop your own wood, haul your own water, fix your own roof, etc. And you’re far from things like medical attention and so on. But that’s why the transect is important for people to understand. Where and how do you really want to live? At what cost – in money, time, effort…

      City people know they’re dependent on the larger system and are more willing to work collectively. Rural people prefer self reliance and shun “socialism.” My point about suburbia is that it could be the perfect compromise, but in practice is usually the worst of both worlds. People pretend they’re rugged individualists on their quarter acre cul-de-sac, but are blind to their vulnerabilities and the need for group solutions.

    2. “I have lived in the back of beyond; I strongly disagree. Everything, and I mean Everything, is yours to maintain. That is a very serious obligation. ”

      Exactly. I am descended from subsistence farmers, who by rights also had to be or become plumbers, electricians, mechanics, roofers, painters, etc. while also tending to family, fields, and animal husbandry. When you are no longer able to climb, or to grip, or to shovel, or to chop, or to generally horse things around, you are done with isolated living, and that is probably before you’re dead.

      I agree with Johnny that suburbia was imagined as halfway on the transect between those extremes of Center City and “back of beyond”, and largely hasn’t lived up to that place on the map. Fortunately for my parents, they are closer to the ideal: they bought their suburban half-acre before HOAs, so they can have a big garden and fruit trees in back and a clothesline in the side yard. Today it’s more likely that one could do those things (and share/trade specialties with neighbors) in an older city neighborhood or the first-ring suburbs, while still having a city job.

  8. Good article. I dig the touch of Kunstler at the end. Maybe I’m not thinking creatively enough, but with the generous setbacks, insane street widths, cheap building materials, garage door frontages, and the overall low density per plot size, it might be better to do a total teardown and start fresh or return it to farmland. Places like LA would do well by re-establishing agriculture back in the valleys, orange county and the IE. I’m not sure cul-de-sac suburbia (there are suburbs out there that are equipt to handle the future just fine) is out of place as much as it’s increasingly falling out of time.

    1. In places where the larger economy contracts we’ll see de facto tear downs in the form of fire and rot. That’s the more likely trajectory compared to a master plan to re-ruralize things on purpose. There are very few political or cultural environments that would allow that to occur in an intentional manner. The physical stuff is always secondary to the cultural and political dynamics of a place. Once the middle class decamps for some better location properties lose value and eventually fall apart. But after the political barriers dissolve and regulatory agencies go broke places can reinvent themselves along different lines. Detroit is the most likely future of many failing suburbs – and it looks a lot like small town America from a century ago.

      1. I would argue that the physical stuff is just as important. Detroit has a bunch of pre WWII infrastructure, including buildings made out of brick that could stand up to a half century of neglect more so than a run of the mill particle board cul-de-sac McMansion. You could place the will to use durable materials into the cultural/political aspect I suppose. People today could still inhabit any of the old 1000 year old southwestern US cliff dwellings (and would probably do so if it weren’t illegal). The cruddy infrastructure of suburbia may decay too fast for it to be reinhabited for any town-like purpose. We shall see…

        1. We are in agreement that the older pre WWII brick buildings are far superior to the compressed dust and spray on synthetic stucco schlock that passes for “architecture” today. However… we will have no choice but to make use of the crap that’s on hand as time goes by. The tract homes may not last long enough to be given a second life, but the concrete box commercial and office variety of suburban mediocrity has potential. I’m aware of at least one retrofit in the desert where a cinder block building was encased in straw bales for insulation and it made a perfectly comfortable low tech adaptive re-use.

          1. Agree, McMansions are garbage [see fire-and-rot] but quite a few industrial spaces are salvageable. And, ironically, at least here in the Midwest the industrial spaces are more likely to be located near water front, rail, and other types of transportation corridors. In contrast to McMansions which are strewn across the horizon.

  9. Two quick comments, neither of which I can claim as my own, but I will take credit for bringing them up. Anyway, Andres Duany called out transect violations as kitsch. The Cadillac on the Texas ranch, the split-rail fence on Main Street, just like stilettos versus boots. It’s the right thing in the wrong place. Arguments can be made regarding good execution in the wrong context (which is tragic) versus poor execution and vulgarity (which is pitiable). Something to think about there.

    Jim Kunstler would call the suburbs tragic and vulgar, but his example isn’t so much the stilettos in the mud or rubber boots at the wedding, but the overweight middle-aged man wearing a t-shirt and sneakers 24 hours a day 7 days a week. There’s an infantilized nature to the suburbs and its inhabitants, like they’ve kind of grown up, but not really. I like to use the analogy that a city is like a cake, but the suburbs are the ingredients of a cake that haven’t yet been baked, or in some cases not even mixed together. All the ingredients are there, it’s just not finished yet, and it can make you sick.

    1. Andres Duany is a stylish guy so I defer to his wisdom. But I’m ambivalent about judgements leveled at suburbia (or cities, or the countryside) based on taste. Some people like wagon wheel coffee tables and Navajo blankets in a vinyl sided condo in New Jersey. “Whatever.” As I pointed out in this post, the important thing about the transect is functionality.

      You absolutely could have a wedding on a farm where everyone wore rubber boots and it could totally work in that context and be charming without being kitsch. And stilettos are actually highly functional because they change the shape of a woman’s leg and make her more alluring. There is no bad taste. There’s just the wrong object in the wrong context.

      I agree with Kunstler 98% of the time, but he’s an alter kocker. He gets fired up about things that are technically true, but irrelevant. Lots of things in life are vulgar. So what? If it’s vulgar and it keeps you warm and fed and happy that doesn’t bother me. If it’s vulgar and you go cold and hungry then it’s a problem. This is my interpretation of the transect.

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