I would like to thank Mary Ellen Tyler, and Denis Jesson for comments which have helped clarify confusing pieces of evidence. My wife Cindy has not only put up with hours of morose brooding but has been my first-draft editor, pointing out confusing ideas and just plain bad writing. Jane Jocobs has offered encouragement, and I thank her for that. More, I thank her for being an example of what it is to observe and to think. Robert Allsopp was responsible for my involvement with these issues, and our many discussions late into the night lead to the core ideas which I present in this essay.


In the mid 1970s, I was working on a government-driven planning project. The goal of the project was to set a new standard for medium-density single-family housing. Improvements were to include ecological integration, reduced servicing costs, re-defining street hierarchies, and integrating commercial and residential uses in the suburbs. As we worked questions started to present themselves regarding just how parks work in a community, how front doors actually get used, and how we relate to neighbours and to strangers.

The answers we started to come up with were contrary to then–standard planning practice, and startled us in their simplicity. I began to haunt the libraries, and reviewed hundreds of historic town, village and city plans. The consistency with which these older communities conformed with our “new” ideas was amazing, and I got pretty excited.

I continued my research, and wrote most of this essay in the 1970s. I attempted to publish it, had a few serious rounds with publishers, but failed to make arrangements. The paper has been used in three universities as a teaching document for the past 25 years – but the document has mainly sat in my file cabinet all that time.

Since all of this happened, the New Urbanists have arrived and changed the dialogue, Leon Krier has built some towns, Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been re-built, and there is a general sense that are know what we are doing.

But there is still, I believe, a missing piece in the discussion of how cities fit together. So I have “dusted off” my old files, re-written some sections – and offer this essay as a contribution to the discussion and to the discovery.

Almost all – or perhaps all – planners, architects and urban designers subscribe to the idea (or fashion?) that older cities are superior as urban models to much of the modern planning and city design of the early 20th century. This essay is written within this current consensus; however, it is not a wishful view of a golden era – nor another condemnation of what Jane Jacobs called the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful”. It is, instead, about a set of spatial/organizational characteristics found in pre-twentieth century cities – and a comparison of those characteristics with much of current thinking and design.

Traditional cities did two particular things particularly well:

  • They provided a spatial framework which clarified territorial positioning; and
  • They provided a spatial framework which facilitated gradual evolution and transition in patterns of land use.

As we will explore, these are closely linked urban characteristics, which grow out of one coherent geometric (or topological) model. These two characteristics of older cities have been badly compromised by 20th century approaches to planning, land sub-division and urban development. Even the point of view, or agenda, of the “New Urbanists” – and those creating historical or historicist environments – have not retrieved the central organizational tool which I will explore in this essay.