A Traditional City Primer
December 4, 2013

As you read my blog, you will often see me talk about and promote the Traditional City. This post will be an introductory to the Traditional City for those that are not familiar with it.

I have been called a quack - criticised for promoting the Traditional City as a cure-all for many of today's urban ailments (declining small businesses, obesity, social mobility and equality, reducing our cost of living, cutting down on our oil dependency, among others such as the general dullness of suburbia) often by people that do not truely understand what the traditional city is.


The Traditional City simply refers to the pattern of development that human civilization has built in for millenia;

The traditional city emerged way before we could have ever imagined the automobile or railroads. Most traditional cities were relatively unplanned - they naturally emerged simply by people colonizing and building close together, copying styles that they have seen elsewhere and liked;

Because the pattern emerged before there were cars or even transit, the traditional city pattern is very compact and walkable by nature. It is very human-scale, and has an amazing sense of place;

The secret to the traditional city is very simple (it is human-scale!), but to explain what that means, I must first digress.


There are three general patterns of built environments, each categorized by its scale.

There is suburbia;

Suburbia is basically an automobile-scale environment.

There is the hypertrophic city;

The hypertrophic city is a transit-scale environment.

Finally, there is the traditional city;

Which is about as human-scale as you can get.

You can also have hybrids, like the radiant city;

The radiant city is what happens when you try to build skyscrapers in a suburban form. Florida and Queensland is full of this stuff.

The scale at which we build our cities has a huge impact on our behaviour and our mindset. Let's say, for example, that we need to get to a destination that is a mile away.

If we opened our door and stepped out into suburbia;

Our natural tendenacy is to jump into the car and drive, even if our destination was only a few shops over and there were sidewalks. Anyone wanting to walk a mile through that would be called crazy. Simply adding sidewalks to suburbia enables people to walk that already want to, but it is not going to encourage anybody to walk - especially not for any serious commuting.

In the hypertrophic city, if we stepped out into this;

Only a hardened urbanist would automatically think about walking a mile. Many of us would try to see if there is a bus or rail line close, and short of that, we would wish we had our car with us so we could drive to our destination (and if we are not near a transit stop anyway, then it is likely that we brought our car with us, and that it is parallel parked nearby.)

If we opened our door and stepped out into this;

We would naturally walk. No one would nag us that walking is good for our fitness or for the environment. No one is out right banning us from driving (you can even see a couple of cars in the distance in the above photo), however the environment feels very human-scale and intimate.

The scale of the environment (and more importantly, the perception of scale) plays a huge part in influencing our behaviour, even if we do not know it.

The Hypertrophic City

Often, people say that American cities (and the large blocks, and the ultra-wide streets) were built for the automobile. While this is true for suburbia, many of our downtowns and urban cores were laid out before the automobile was even dreamt about. Chicago is over two centuries old, and has street widths that rival those of any modern highway;

We had an obsession with building wide streets long before the car came around. This obsession with 'bigger is better' spread during the 18th and 19th century, and is known as hypertrophism. Hypertrophism spread across North America, and eventually the rest of the anglophonic world. Over the years, there have been many theories as to why wide streets became the American standard (some sources hint that the early planners believed it would stop the spread of fires and diseases, others say surveyers simply wanted to sell off large areas of land.)

The hypertrophic visionaries in the early 20th century reached ridiculous heights;

We dreamt of skyscrapers, massive bridges, and ultra-wide streets. Our hypertrophic desires allowed us to show off our technological prowess. During the 20th century, we actually built some of this stuff;

It really did not turn out as fun as we had hoped. An ultra-wide road or a brand new skyscrapper does not wow people today like it did a century ago. Everyone has driven on a freeway, and Manhatten and Chicago are full of skyscrapers. Our brains have finally caught up to our technology. Just because we can do something, does not mean that we should. We all know that it is possible, we just are not that impressed by it anymore. I really hope the hypertrophic era is coming to an end.

Besides, when you fill a hypertrophic city up with skyscrapers, it feels very intimidating and dehumanizing;

That is not exactly the kind of environment you would want to raise a family in, and scares most people off into the suburbs.

Now let's take a step back. In the early 20th century - just as the car was gaining acceptance - we had a nation full of hypertrophic cities;

Our wide streets were perfect for the automobile;

When the automobile took over the hypertrophic city, it placed the city at a disadvantage. It was not a pleasant environment to drive through (we have always complained about traffic and parking downtown!) nor was it a pleasant environment to walk through either (the wide streets were now roaring with cars, and the large hypertrophic block sizes encouraged us to drive if we could afford to - it was a very dehumanizing environment.)

Most developers decided to go all in on the automobile (and forget about the people), and were able to drain most of the commercial activity out of our cities and into areas built purely for nothing other than motorists;

They had a luxury that cities did not - space. Their most powerful tool was being able to guarantee a parking space right in front of the shop for every visitor;

The hypertrophic cities that did survive had extensive transit systems;

That is why I call the hypertrophic city transit-scale. Were it not for extensive transit investments, very few people would be seen walking around.

I applaud New Urbanists for the work they do on fighting against suburbia. They have good intentions. My main criticism with the New Urbanist crowd is that even their best visions tend to be nearly identical to the hypertrophic pattern;

More wide streets. Most plans tend to incorporate transit - the fad nowadays is light rail;

And when they do not plan around transit, they tend to add a lot of parking. They just have a sneaky way of hiding it behind or under stuff;

Parking and transit is very expensive - taking up money and space that could be put to better use.

The Traditional City

The traditional city is a human-scale environment. It is extremely compact, walkable, with very little space dedicated to non-places such as parking and driving lanes. Overall, it is a very intimate environment;

You natural want to walk;

Even with bland architecture, there is still an amazing sense of place about the traditional city;

New Urbanists focus on placemaking. In a traditional city, the entire city is a 'place';

Take similar architecture, widen the street, and you immediately loose that sense of place;

Sure, you can dress it up with some landscaping, but with a traditional city, there is no need to go to that extra effort;

The only thing you have to do to build a traditional city - an environment where people naturally want to walk - is to build Really Narrow Streets;

By street, I am not referring to the lanes or some property/road boundary. I am referring to the entire physical space between two building fronts. Ideally, this space should be less than 20 feet wide for the majority of your streets;

With the occasional wide arterial street, but these 'boulevards' should make up less than 20% of all your streets;

You do not need fancy expensive architecture, any old buildings will do;

Because once you begin thinking about really narrow streets, your whole mindset changes;

You do not even have to ban cars;

But most people will naturally want to walk;

Let's go extremely narrow;

We will automatically place people first;

...and everything else will just fall into place;

It is that simple. Do not overthink it. Take something that looks nice and build it.


I have heard many criticisms of the traditional city - excuses of why it will not work, despite being a successful pattern that has been used for thousands of years

1. It is expensive!

For who?

For the cities, they have less infrastructure to maintain. Look how cheap this street would cost to maintain;

Compared to this wide thing with traffic lights and all;

While servicing many more businesses. In fact, in suburbia, maintenance costs for infrastructure often exceed the tax revenue because you have to build so much just to serve so few people;

When your primary focus is on walking, there is very little need to invest in extensive public transit;

You may need to invest in transit and parking to get people into and out of your traditional city, but you can pool all of this infrastructure together and focus on making the rest of the environment human-centric and highly walkable;

For developers and business owners, they only need to build shop fronts;

Not entire parking lots;

And for citizens, there is no need to own and maintain a car. Infact, a car would probably be more of a burden, and there are plenty of car sharing programs out there for times when you need one.

It is true that rent and property prices in traditional cities are much higher than in suburbia. This is not because the traditional city pattern in itself is expensive to build, but because the demand for it exceeds the avaliable supply. This is wonderful news for developers that are looking to make a profit, and increasing the supply will only bring prices down.

2. It is illegal!

My most common criticism I hear is that it is illegal. Yes, it is true. But it is not illegal because there is anything inheriently bad about the traditional city. Infact, many cities would love it, if they had something like this;

If you built that in the United States, it would be a tourist attraction. The city would be proud of it.

However, over the past century we have introduced regulations and zoning codes that were designed to fit the needs of the hypertrophic city, and later, suburbia;

But, laws are laws. There is nothing wrong with the traditional city - the municipality has just introduced laws designed to suit suburbia. The same council that passed those laws, with enough motivation, could stay up all night and pass a law by the next day allowing this to be built instead;

3. It will burn down!

We learnt pretty early on to build exterior walls with non-flammable materials (brick, stone, metal, glass.) Many of these buildings are still standing after hundreds of years.

Then there is the argument that our ultra-large fire trucks will not be able to maneuver around the narrow streets of a traditional city;

If that is the case, you should discipline your fire department for wasting city money on buying the biggest fire truck they can find. Many traditional cities tend to use fire hydrants anyway, rather than relying on expensive fire trucks to cart around water;

4. Ambulances will not make it through!

An ambulance can fit down a 15 foot wide street just fine;

People will move out of the way for an ambulance, just as motorists do.

5. It will be unsafe and full of crime!

Many people associate traditional cities and narrow streets with ghettos. Perhaps it is because the traditional city can be found in countries all over the world, both rich and poor, and so they like to focus on the worst examples that they find;

I can easily do that to suburbia too;

And with the hypertrophic city;

There is nothing inherently dangerous about the traditional city. In fact, I would argue that it is somewhat safer, because parking lots and deserted streets are magnets for crime. I would feel much safer on lit, narrow streets with other pedestrians around;

Also, most traffic accidents in a traditional city are minor, both due to the low percentage of people driving, and due to the slow speed that automobiles have to navigate at.

4. It is un-American!

The traditional city is not un-American, it is just extremely rare in the United States. Here are some American examples of places with traditional city-like qualities;

It is more un-American to have tax payers subsidize roads they rarely use and force residents to purchase a car, than to build a highly-walkable urban environment that requires very little infrastructure.

5. Cars are freedom!

The twisted reality that cars equate to freedom is true, if you live in an environment that is dependent on them;

In an environment dependent on the automobile, you practically depend on one for your mobility. It is too inconvenient or unattractive to use any other form of transportation, so the car is seen as a neccessary prosthetic just to go about your business.

In a traditional city, a car is an unnecessary inconvenience in most cases;

There are people that love to drive. However, there is a critical difference between weekend cruises through open country roads;

And being forced to drive just to get between places within your own city;

If you enjoy recreational driving, then by having more people walking there will be less cars on the road to make your drive more pleasant.


The traditional city is the pattern that we have developed our cities in for thousands of years. It is proven, and it works. There are examples of traditional cities all around the world - with millions of people happily living that lifestyle. The real challenge is bringing it to the United States. In the past, I wrote a blog post titled Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit) where I showed how easy and profitable it was.

If you ever have the opportunity to develop a new neighborhood, redevelop an existing one, or are infilling a large city block - I highly recommend that you give the traditional city a try. It may be worth your while, and you will be at the forefront of urbanism in the United States - creating a lovable place that will receive national recognition;

People spend their life savings just to spend a week in a place like that. What if you could create that in your city?

For more information about traditional cities and human-scale environments, I recommend you take a look at the work of Nathan Lewis, Charlie Gardner, and Philip LaCombe.