Page Two articles are from our reader community.

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?

15 Replies to “City Country Fingers”

  1. Hi, My name is Tim, the article is very interesting, I like the information in it I didn’t know one could walk through a farm in the U.K. however I believe one could not do that in the United State of America. It would be a great urban building renewal project if the laws would allow such types of urbanization to exist. I would very much like to see such urbanization if it could be implemented.

  2. So… when you have a growing city adjacent to farmland, what’s the farmers’ first wish? To sell their land to real-estate developers. Even under the most intense modern systems for growing crops or raising animals (essentially industrial activities, neither of which produces a countryside of recreational or environmental value to the adjacent city) the value per-acre is much higher to a developer building even low-density housing. This is the situation at the edge of growing metropolises, which leads to sprawl of the city.

    In the inner segments of “fingers” the economic pressure to convert land to urban use would be even stronger. Surrounded on multiple sides by urban areas, the land would be coveted by developers pursuing higher-intensity projects, just as its agricultural stewards would be fed up with traffic on grid roads and guarding against trespassers. Enforced distance between activity nodes would lead to ridiculous urban travel times as the city grew; almost any city would lose its will to fund operation of everywhere-to-everywhere transit across empty expanses, and would experience the onset of traffic like a frog in a pot of heating water. If this sounds familiar, well, it’s the situation in every existing US city, whether it’s spread evenly across the plains like Chicago, had rivers to cross like New York, or even lakes like Seattle — it’s not like having to cross or go around Lake Washington has changed the desire of people around here to generally travel freely in large radii daily given the technology (personal autos) to do so. So a developer promising to build something urban halfway between two of the “fingers” would have no trouble gaining support among people, since it would be on the way for lots of folks, and would be relatively easy to connect in a comprehensive way to the transit network compared to extending the fingers even farther.

    Whatever the possible merits of this sort of thing, it is economically backwards to a Bailoian degree.

    1. In Washington terms, it would be setting the urban growth boundary so they can’t turn it into housing developments. I don’t know what all “country uses” should be allowed, or how to ensure a balance between farm and forest and recreation, but that’s OK because I wouldn’t be the sole decision-maker, it would be a group of experts and the community. Maybe it could only happen in a less libertarian society than we have. But as climate change and resource depletion become more extreme, maybe people will be more willing to look at alternatives.

      In any case, it’s a good what-if to see how things might have been different if certain base assumptions were different; i.e., if this had been implemented in the 1970s or earlier. Your “enforced distances between activity nodes” ignores the fact that that this space is built into our current city and sprawl, it’s just smaller micro-spaces that are like death by small drips. What if people had walkable access to real country land, and could see where their food was produced, if it wasn’t 50 miles away? What other changes would that trigger? For instance, they might voluntarily downsize their yards because “Who needs pseudo-country when you’ve got real country next door?” Maybe city-dwellers would have ownership of parts of a square mile, and could build whatever ballfields and vegetable gardens and parks they might need? Then they wouldn’t demand “open space” in the urban fingers.

      And likewise, what about these “ridiculous urban travel times”? That’s what we have now: three miles from UW to Northgate with low-density houses in between, fifteen miles from the U-District to Microsoft. In this scenario, the urban villages would be pushed together next to each other in a continuous finger, and made larger and denser. A 1-mile dense area like in Chicago can contain a lot of housing and workplaces and cultural venues, so there’s less need to go to the other fingers. And if you did work at Microsoft in the next finger, it would be a 2-mile trip: one mile across the countryside, and maybe another half-mile on each end. Maybe an additional mile or two if the finger was long. But still only four miles or less, not fifteen miles.

      So, what could we give the Bailos who want low density? Well first, a farm, with a farmhouse to live in, and perhaps bring your extended family. Many of them would take it, and I think Bailo might. Don’t think of “farm” too narrowly: there might be wide opportunities for diverse livelyhoods once the community sat down and considered it and would-be country-dwellers proposed their own ideas. As long as it stays away from the evils of exurban tracts, underused land, and car-dependent developments, it might work.

      If they don’t want a farm, but rather a house on a 1-acre lot in a cul-de-sac or low-density neighborhood, I don’t know. Maybe the ends of the urban fingers could support lower density, maybe they’d have to move to another city, maybe they can think of something else. Another concept is “cluster housing”; i.e., a group of houses close together, and designated open space next to it. That’s what some of the exurban developments are building now, and it may (possibly) be acceptable in a few of the country squares.

      Again, you need to start with a community that decides to make their city like this, and then all these other issues will be resolved as people discuss goals and principles and restrictions and possibilities.

      1. The delusion is that there won’t be any traffic across the “open space” when you want to go to the next “finger” over, or to a “finger” several over from where you are (and people will want to do this — the fact that they will is a fundamental fact that you have to grasp in order to understand 21st century transportation), and in the presumption of how short and dense the fingers would end up.

      2. Meanwhile, between your misunderstandings of Alexander and Olmstead, you’ve even managed to misunderstand Bailo. The dude lives in a small apartment, not a McMansion. He doesn’t want to live in a 1980s subdivision next to a freeway that lets him drive 70 MPH to a WalMart 10 miles distant, he wants to live in a technologically enhanced 1890s small town with a fairly compact boundary that’s surrounded by rural land, where he can walk to an enclosed mall that functions much like a downtown, and then catch a 300 MPH train to other, similar towns, to distant industrial areas that keep pollution away from the populated areas, or to old urban downtowns, which have been turned into amusement parks highlighting the crazy way we used to live. It’s not all that different from this idea, really. The central delusion is that putting big expanses of space between things relieves traffic and makes people less likely to drive everywhere.

        If you’re taking a bunch of land that’s within a few miles of an employment center and taking it out of circulation regarding housing, and claiming this will reduce typical commute distances, the only way this happens is by an immense increase in effective (i.e. population-weighted) density. Well, an immense increase in population-weighted density will decrease typical commute distances no matter what shape the city takes!

  3. It is really interesting to me that today there is far more interest in Growing Food locally and Support Your Local Farmer than there was about 15 years ago, and now there is precious little local farmland near cities in which to put this into practice.

  4. I doubt we’ll see massive re-purposive of already built areas to agricultural use. The best bet right now is to attempt to preserve farmland/open space in areas that are being developed. There is some preserved land in say the Sammamish Valley and in the Green/White/Puyallup valley.

  5. I mean, really, if you want to look at a city where urban land uses are constrained to particular corridors with large amounts of non-urban space in between, you might look at the example of the Bay Area, where lots of non-urban space is maintained not by explicit policy by physical geography (mountains and bodies of water), cultural taboos (the Colma cemetery district), and a few large parks and nature preserves.

    People’s lives cross all these boundaries, so they’re all run through by big highways, and those highways get congested just like they would going through urban areas! Five bridges cross the San Francisco and San Pablo bays, and 237 is essentially a 6th, a bypass route near the wetlands of Alviso. Big highways cross the mountains; Route 17, for example, is heavily used by commuters and pleasure travelers alike despite its dangerous reputation. And if you visit the cemeteries in Colma (I have) the primary sound you’ll hear is noise from 280 and El Camino Real — if you visit by walking from the train (I have) you’ll quickly realize that nearly every road that goes through anywhere is a car sewer. The roads that could be used for recreation, except for hiking trails in the forest preserves, are urban highways carrying urban traffic, just temporarily through non-urban spaces.

    From 10,000 feet in the air the Bay Area’s auto-age suburbs, constrained to sometimes narrow corridors, look really different from Chicago’s or Houston’s, which spread out evenly for miles. On the ground they work just the same. Big limitations in how much land is available for urban uses, then, clearly don’t guarantee compact and walkable communities. Building those, in an age dominated by cars, requires a commitment to that itself, and the discipline not to solve every transportation problem by throwing more lanes at it.

    1. Those spaces are more than a mile wide, so more difficult to cross. And the land uses are less active than Alexander envisions. He recommended farms everywhere. I added forests, because we mustn’t cut down the remaining old-growth woods. That would also apply to the existing wildlife preserves in the Bay Area, which would have to be preserved but are less active than the “country” Alexander envisions.

      One idea I’ve been toying with for Seattle is to focus the country-lands on the existing Olmstead park chain. So the Seward Park forest would remain, and the lots around it would become small farms (probably smaller than Alexander’s 1-mile standard), and some of the already-logged parts of the park could join in the farms. Beacon-Rainer would be the designated urban district (working around the existing woods on Beacon Hill), and also the hill east of Rainier Avenue (at least the west side would be upzoned, and perhaps part of the top to around PCC). But again, these country lands would be up to a mile wide, not several miles. (Alexander says minimum one mile, but I don’t think the Seattle penninsulas are large enough for those.)

      1. What happens when you take a widely-spaced network of roads through the country and put them between urban places? They become overrun with traffic, and as they aren’t running through places with lots of crossings or destinations on the way, turn into urban highways! This has severe consequences both for the “country” and the “city” on each side! There is ample evidence of this in real cities populated by real people! You don’t have to read any books of theory to see it, you just have to look around yourself with your eyes open!!! Nobody can deny that lots of Olmstead-legacy and forest-preserve parks are nice parks (the boulevards are more questionable, but that’s far afield of the land-use topic), and many are worth having on their own merits, but they haven’t made a tiny dent in the overall development and travel patterns of their cities as a whole! Olmstead was a fine park designer whose ideas about urban planning and the future of cities turned out to be no better than the average pundit of his time (i.e. he wasn’t unusually bad or anything, but was wrong for all the typical reasons people are wrong about the future, and a hundred years later (!!!), for ideas on the future of cities we need to look to people that have observed present cities).

        And who’s going to pay more for acreage conveniently located in the middle of Seattle: small farmers, or the armada of Microsoft millionaires we’ve got around here, looking for a house on some land? Or people that want to build country clubs and grounds for horse-riding? That’s what’s taken root in greenbelts protected from urbanization around English cities (a real place populated by real people), as urban sprawl has blown past unabated despite transit service far better than most places around here could hope to achieve!

  6. This can also apply to smaller scales. Instead of restructuring a metropolis, you can look at one finger pair. What does that resemble? As I said above, some new neigborhoods are being built with cluster housing: all the buildings in one part of the lot, and open space in the rest, usually in the form of parklike spaces and woodsy trails. What if we just made the open space more active: say, a farm. Or a farmette or p-patches or whatever. That could be attractive to residents, if they can get organic food on-site inexpesively, more than they could do in an individual garden.

    Thus I present the next step for New Urbanism: a farm in the neighborhood.

    This can start with current neighborhood developments. That could be a proving ground that would inspire individual finger-pairs (several neighborhoods in a contiguous row, and a longer country-space). That then could be the basis for a citywide plan.

    1. 1. If you say we’re going to “make it a farm”, who owns the land and who runs the farm? What if the person that owns the land doesn’t want to run a farm? What if the person that owns the land wants to run a farm that isn’t compatible with the trees that are there? Is the city going to hire a bunch of farmers-in-residence to retain control over the landscape in these ways?

      2. Do you have any idea how much land is actually needed to provide a meaningful amount of food to a large urban population?

      Aw, fuck it, I’m pretty sure you’re just trolling me now.

    2. In the case of a single neighborhood development. the farmland would be owned by the house owners with a covenant restriction, the same way that open space in existing planned neighborhoods work. In the case of a metropolitan area in Washington, the state urban growth boundary would be set around the urban zones, and city/county zoning would regulate the variety of country uses allowed. Of course this would require new types of zones, and a discussion of what the allowed uses would be.

      As for who would operate the farm, in a metropolitan context it would be the farm owners, doing whatever’s allowed under the zoning. The city government might own some parcels for public uses, and a group of city-dwellers might own shares in a parcel, as long as the uses were under the overall zoning.

      In a single-neighborhood context, the simplest farm would be large P-patches; above that would be resident-operated (like a commune); above that would be the homeowners’ association hiring a farm manager (the residents would buy produce cheaply, and may get a discount for volunteering); above that would be leasing the farm to an operator. There are no farm-operating companies now in cities, but there might be under this scenario, and it’s a logical extension of what a property management company or a gardening company might get into.

      It doesn’t have to provide all the food for the city or neighborhood. It just has to supplement it. A very local kind of farmers’ market.

  7. I think it’s important to understand about Christopher Alexander, too… he’s an architect, not a city planner. His writing often appeals to urbanists because he perceived something many urbanists also do, that many lauded modernist buildings of the 20th century were designed without regard to their context, as a highly academic form of art rather than as a useful part of a neighborhood that people have to live with and in every day. His idea of a good practice of architecture focused on people, which is infinitely preferable to typical egotistical designers looking to build something that looks great from an airplane.

    But his thoughts about cities are nothing special — they aren’t based on any deep knowledge of cities and often don’t even acknowledge the difficult problems of urban transportation. If you really follow through the consequences of some of his ideas you find that they’re either not that different from what already exists, or that they’re economically implausible. That’s OK — he’s an architect, it’s not his job to know all that stuff. But presenting him as some sort of great urbanist thinker isn’t accurate.

  8. I grew up on a dairy farm. I know what a farm is like. I have good news and bad news about what a farm is like. They are:

    Good news: I’m next to a farm with grass and plants.
    Bad news: I’m next to a farm that generates manure of various smells. Plus I’m next to animals and farm equipment that sometimes make loud sounds.

    Good luck with those fingers. Its interesting that the writer is UK – they have ha ha fencing. (Basically its a deep trench marked by hedgerows. ) We all across the pond have wire, sometimes barbed wire.

    I’d be fine, but good luck finding enough tolerant people to populate the city fingers such that they won’t drive the few country finger inhabitants insane with complaints.

Comments are closed.