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.



Optional link


What is 3 * 8 ?

sgr • 08.10.2016 • 12:19 PM (MDT)
I am inclined to your thoughts here, but I don't think you address the crime objection sufficiently enough. And maybe it is American bias. Yes parking lots are more dangerous, but one associates the home more than the retail as the place where you want the lowest crime. When retreating to a hypertrophic SF home, yes it is depressing, but it is difficult to imagine that the ugly fortress is less safe than the "cool" apartment surrounded by 30,000 people per square mile.
John Dietl • 08.15.2014 • 20:58 PM (MDT)
This looks pretty interesting. I have never felt the urge to live in any cities, but this might be a step up. But I did visit Germany once and spent a day in Lindau which was quite charming. I don't know if I would like to live somewhere without my car; I gotta get away from all those people. The German small towns seem to be more of a compromise. They don't have so many "really narrow streets". People own cars. But the villages are compact (at least by American standards) and separated from each other by open country. One thing I don't get is how, if a traditional district were built in an existing city, the residents of that district can commute to their jobs outside the district. The traditional cities seem to be designed for people who work in the city as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, schoolteachers, etc. Is there room in a traditional city for factories, technology parks, and warehouses? Does each factory need its own dedicated public transportation node from the residential zones? I really don't understand how anyone can just build a city. Why would anyone want to move to an empty city? What jobs would they do there? Would you convince a population to move there simultaneously and begin providing services to each other? What would the town produce to bring money into the town? Would the town planner have to convince a manufacturer to settle there, or would a seed of pensioners be enough cash inflow to keep the town buzzing? Also, how do these places handle snow? Most of the highly populated parts Europe don't get much snow. Does Tokyo get any snow? Does anyone want to schlep enough food to feed 3 children across town when it's 10°F outside?
psqwan • 07.30.2014 • 16:51 PM (MDT)
must see some of the shitty works here in south florida, recent residential downtown ft lauderdale growth is a particular abomination and name your 'city place' for added affect ad nausea all over seaboard -- radant city freel
Beverly • 07.29.2014 • 10:21 AM (MDT)
Awesome! If you haven't already, check out this book: "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein and Max Jacobson (1977) Christopher Alexander also wrote "The Timeless Way of Building." Thanks Colin, Bev
Steve • 07.28.2014 • 13:38 PM (MDT)
Also see this TED talk by James Kunstler: https://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia
Tim • 07.27.2014 • 18:08 PM (MDT)
Here are my fire engine comments. Most fire trucks have pumps because although hydrants are ubiquitous, they do not supply the volume and pressure of water needed to put a fire out quickly unless pumped. The truck in the photo you posted has an aerial nozzle just as many have ladders on them to service large building fires. Obviously, if you had a traditional city situation, you would not need a large truck like that you would only need a small one, something akin to the type of fire truck you'd see in a small American town in the 1930s, no bigger than the ambulance in your piece. I visited a number of hill towns in Italy last year, and some small cities in Germany and Switzerland. The charm of the places at that scale was quite striking. I believe that it has a place in the future of human civilization and development. I don't think it's the only answer to the problems cities face, but some experimentation as infill in existing urban areas is quite realistic.
Tim • 07.27.2014 • 18:03 PM (MDT)
Here are my fire engine comments. Most fire trucks have pumps because although hydrants are ubiquitous, they do not supply the volume and pressure of water needed to put a fire out quickly unless pumped. The truck in the photo you posted has an aerial nozzle just as many have ladders on them to service large building fires. Obviously, if you had a traditional city situation, you would not need a large truck like that you would only need a small one, something akin to the type of fire truck you'd see in a small American town in the 1930s, no bigger than the ambulance in your piece. I visited a number of hill towns in Italy last year, and some small cities in Germany and Switzerland. The charm of the places at that scale was quite striking. I believe that it has a place in the future of human civilization and development. I don't think it's the only answer to the problems cities face, but some experimentation as infill in existing urban areas is quite realistic.
Regonald • 07.27.2014 • 07:22 AM (MDT)
I agree with all of your points, except the note about fire engines. The huge fire engines that we have do not carry water as you mention, they still use fire hydrants with hoses. I actually have no idea why they are so huge.
joe f. • 07.27.2014 • 06:26 AM (MDT)
It's nice to have a name for what I've been feeling, most recently for about three years while living and travelling overseas. I lived in Garmisch, Germany in the fussganger (pedestrian) zone. We traveled to Venice, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Salzburg and other places like them. I'm a writer, not a city planner, so all I ever knew was that they felt right. Venice, in particular, is my favorite. But even in places like Salzburg or Rome I always preferred the old quarters to the new. And it's not just Europe. I was stationed in Korea three times for a total of almost 7 years. The same is true there. I've never been accused of being sentimental, and I'm no history buff, so it's always been kind of out of character for me. Now I know. All that was in the Army. About halfway through my career I started opting out of visits to the big cities once I had seen them. Tokyo looks like Berlin with different script on the signs and a few Japanese flourishes. The new parts of Seoul could be swapped out with the new parts of London, and so on. And where they are different -- for example San Francisco -- is where they are small enough to be unique. Now I live in suburban Maryland. The only place I walk to is the shopping center that's about 8 or 10 minutes from my house. Almost no one is ever walking on the streets, and judging by the looks I get I think people assume I'm poor and in the area to do some work or something, because the only people from that area who aren't driving are either walking dogs or out running. Nobody walks to the store or to pick up takeout. With cars and suburbs it's all about isolation. It's so easy to see, but only if you've seen something else. Most people in the suburbs today haven't.
Gerard • 07.27.2014 • 04:41 AM (MDT)
Have you read Christopher Alexander? A Pattern Language. It is the template you are describing.
Andrew • 07.27.2014 • 00:08 AM (MDT)
In fact, what I think happens is that these quaint little towns exist purely for very rich people who can live right next to the commercial district of their city, blocking everybody else out and occupying too much space that should be used for high-density buildings. Everyone else in the city suffers as they have to commute longer to work. These little towns do not actually exist in the form of affordable areas away from commercial distrincts as they do not support the density required for businesses to find appropriate staff.
Andrew • 07.26.2014 • 23:47 PM (MDT)
I am skeptical. A city that doesn't build upwards and also limit the use of cars, will always just expand to the point that it takes 2 weeks to walk to work.
George Carty • 04.15.2014 • 01:17 AM (MDT)
Did the Eisenhower administration encourage low-density suburbia in part because of a belief that spreading out the population meant that fewer could be killed at once by any given Soviet nuclear weapon? Also, what would you say to those who defend suburbia on the grounds that its dendritic street layouts give them lots of privacy? If you combined a dendritic street layout with narrow Traditional City streets, what you'd end up with is a lot like the traditional Islamic city -- utterly impossible to drive in (as so many streets are both dead ends and too narrow to turn around in) in a way that even the European-style Traditional City is not.
Andrew Price • 01.15.2014 • 14:18 PM (MST)
Hi Alex, 1. Light manufacturing integrates very well into the traditional city model. You can integrate freight roads and rail and shipment in easily - as is done around the world. There is some discussion about this on the Strong Towns Network (www.strongtowns.net) if you are interested. Heavy manufacturing (the noisy, polluting kind) has always tended to be located away from population centres. 2. When your economy is focused around small businesses - what you lack in selection at a single retailer, you make up for in the sheer choice of retailers. If you're shopping for shoes, you will have a dozen or more shoe stores to choose from and compare - each offering their own selection of goods - which is much more 'free market' and offers greater competition between retailers than a big box store. Anyway, big box stores and traditional department stores can happily exist side by side in traditional cities.
alex • 01.15.2014 • 13:53 PM (MST)
some questions: 1. What about manufacturing? In suburbia office parks can allow for material intensive businesses to receive raw materials and ship goods. I'm sure this happens in traditional countries or else they wouldn't have diverse economies. 2. Do small shops really stock as many goods as big box retailers? I hate big box, but you must admit that the selection is much better than small shops.
Jason • 12.09.2013 • 12:20 PM (MST)
A very interesting and pictorial article. I wish you\\'d identified all the places in the photos. Is one St. Paul de Vence in Provence? It looks familiar.
Andrew Price • 12.04.2013 • 16:26 PM (MST)
Hi Nicolas, For all of your questions - the possibilities are endless! I'm being abstract about the 'how' and the 'where' because it really depends on the particular circumstance. Honestly, I would love to see it work in a small town (even one without transit, if it's compact enough to be fairly walkable.) I think we'd see pockets of traditional city development - filling in city blocks with narrow streets, and various brownfield sites as small as an acre or so. If you look at my Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit) post you'll see I present one way of developing (buy the land, build the streets, sell off the plots), and I cover various options for parking. But again, this is just one model - the possibilities are endless. As for the building materials - brick is relatively common and not that expensive. One thing you must consider is that you're only solely responsible for street-facing walls. You can share the cost of attached walls with your neighbors (which for most non-corner properties would be every wall except the front.)
Nicolas Derome • 12.04.2013 • 15:53 PM (MST)
As I've been reading your posts (and Nathan Lewis'), the biggest questions/concerns I could think of are: 1. Where do you build it? Most demand for new development is in big cities. The urban cores typically have relatively few large plots of land available for development, and if they do exist, it's probably because there's something undesirable about them that kept them from being developed until now. Outside the urban cores, larger plots of land may be available, but the development would still have to interact with its autocentric surroundings, which means the development itself will probably require a decent amount of parking and such. 2. How do you build it? Does a single developer just buy a big piece of land and build everything? Could the development become monotonous in that case? Would they build it all at once, or incrementally? And if incrementally, how would the first increments work? 3. Parking. In highly urban cores with \"low\" demand for parking, development demand is very high, and you would probably need to build at FSIs of 5.0 or more. Around here, places that have more moderate demand where you could build at densities more typical of traditional cities (FSI 1.0-3.0) tend to have greater needs for parking. In places I'm familiar with, potential development sites that are probably going to be built at those densities include. Former Refinery: http://goo.gl/maps/6AZ37 Former Power Plant: http://goo.gl/maps/ILF0f Marina: http://goo.gl/maps/aZOKP Another brownfield: http://goo.gl/maps/6ZjX7 Downtown Mall: http://goo.gl/maps/qwJfB Closed down meat packing plant: http://goo.gl/maps/4Bg6F Commuter rail parking lots and surrounding autocentric properties: http://goo.gl/maps/xcI8J Demand for parking in these places is not as high as in autocentric suburbs, but higher than in Downtown Toronto. The development won't be self contained, residents will still need to leave it for work and some shopping needs (especially in the early phases of development) and you're probably going to want to bring in people from elsewhere to support the local retail. Transit is ok for getting to some places, but only some. Many households would probably still want at least one car. 4. Cost... depending on how/where you do it, might still be high. Streets are cheap since they're small, but the buildings would be more expensive than standard suburban buildings if they're built of masonry. If they're built incrementally, you also don't get economies of scale... not to mention noise complaints from neighbours, and not having much room for construction equipment because of the small streets and lots adding complications. Land will probably be relatively expensive if it's in an area that's less car dependent, unless maybe it's a brownfield, in which case it's the clean up that will be expensive.