A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander (1977) is one of the seminal works in modern urbanism. It describes “patterns”, or recurring problems in land use, and how to address them in a pedestrian-friendly and community-building manner.
However, some of the patterns seem decidedly odd. #3, “City Country Fingers”, suggests making urban districts a mile wide maximum — like “fingers” from downtown — and between them have fingers of countryside a minimum mile wide. These would contain working farms. The urban fingers could be several miles long, but not wide. This pattern would completely replace low-density suburbs and rarely-used ornamental yards, although it would be implemented incrementally. A transit line (subway) would run down the middle of each urban finger, and there would also be an arterial road for deliveries and such.
The idea is that all city-dwellers would be within a 10-minute walk of both the countryside and the transit line. The other urban streets would be all small, short, pedestrian-friendly grids. The country cross-streets (from one urban finger to the next) would be a mile apart. While this may connote “superblocks”, it would be farms and forest in the block, not big-box stores. The spacing of the country streets is based on the minimum size of a viable farm. “Since 90 percent of all farms are still 500 acres or less and there is no respectable evidence that the giant farm is more efficient, these fingers of farmland need be no more more than 1 mile wide.” (1965 reference) There would be a “right to walk” across private countryside, similar to the UK, as long as you don’t disturb crops or livestock. Other patterns discuss putting urban neighborhoods in hills and farmland in valleys, and converting existing farms and parks to farm/parks.
What do you guys think of this?
It’s an intriguing idea, although utopian. Still, a new town or a rapidly-growing town could set its master plan this way. I worry that it’s a complete remake of the landscape based on an untested idea. That’s what Le Corbusier did in his 1922 plan for Paris: replace the central city with identical tower-in-the-park skyscrapers spaced widely apart, with open space and highways in between. The 20th century implemented this in modified form with many unanticipated consequences. As Wytold Rybczynski said, “The towers in the park were most often realized as towers in the parking lot.” (Makeshift Metropolis, 2010) Any other so massive remake would have massive unintended consequences too.
Still, the idea is intriguing. It would give people easy access to nature, and a more significant nature than underused yards and parks. It would help the urban food supply and sustainability. It would make all urban districts walkable and transit-based. The fingers of countryside sound nonsense at first, but might they be feasable? There’s no reason Chicago “has” to spread in all directions in an undifferentiated spread of city. One mile is wide enough for a thriving urban district, and it’s about the size of each of Chicago’s neighborhoods. So what’s wrong with countryside between the neighborhoods? You just need frequent transit between them.
Applying this to Seattle is more difficult because of our narrow penninsula shapes, and hills and waterway barriers. In some places a mile-wide urban district would leave only half a mile for countryside on one side. But we could modify it, or apply it mostly to the suburban areas (which are less constrained). Or follow the “urban neighborhoods on hills” patterns, which is how many of our urban neighborhoods already are. In that case, Rainier Valley and SODO and downtown Renton would become farmland, which would good for flood control anyway. Of course there would be practical issues: displacement, economics, rebuilding housing and workplaces. But as an ideal, or implemented incrementally where feasable, what do you think?