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Pick your plot, worry about the details later.
November 30, 2012 5:51 PM   Subscribe

As Americans, we pick a place to live and then figure out how to get where we need to go. If no way exists, we build it. Roads, arterials, highways, Interstates, and so on. Flexible and distributed transportation networks are really the only solution compatible with that way of thinking. Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance. We were destined for the automobile all the way back in 1787, when we first decided to carve up the countryside into tidy squares.
Town, Section, Range, and the Transportation Psychology of a Nation

From Per Square Mile (previously).
posted by davidjmcgee (20 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting.

I'm in the middle of Beyond the 100th Meridian. I got the book because, hey it's about Powell, the one-armed badass who boated the Colorado! The first half of the book is just that - the story of the adventure. The second half, which is slow going, is about the rest of Powell's career. He consolidated the surveys into the USGS. He fought with Congress. And he made specific recommendations about how land should be parceled out in the arid country. He said it should *not* be as done back east - square miles, townships, etc. With water being evidently more scarce (except the first few years of settlement, leading to inappropriate optimism), he suggested something more like the ribbon farms, based on access to rivers and streams. He was ignored, and thousands died when the unseasonably wet years ceased to nourish the temperate farms planted on arid land.
posted by notsnot at 6:27 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Having grown up along the bayous of southern Louisiana, it just occurred to me that not all rural land parcels are allotted as "ribbon farms" as they are where I grew up. Huh. Learn something new every day.

Though I will say that said ribbon-style properties do not affect the local approach to transportation in any way -- south Louisiana is every bit as car dominant and public transportation phobic as the rest of the country. Town isn't as far away as it probably is in Wyoming or something, but it's still a sold 15 minute drive (so probably half a day's paddle with a dugout canoe along the bayous, which have no current to speak of).

A lot of people have the last name Voisin, though, which is French for "neighbor". I wonder how much more common that is as a last name in the Francophone world than the name Neighbors is the Anglosphere?
posted by Sara C. at 7:03 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whereas I live in central Illinois and the farmhouses do, in fact, cluster along roads and make farm towns with grain elevators that typically have rail spurs that run to them. Farms are 100s or 1000s of acres; the land is all going to be farmed anyway; and the housing DOES cluster, and it does cluster around major arteries. I'm not sure when we're talking such large-scale farms, as we are in most of the country that was sectioned off in squares, why a ribbon farm would be more efficient since those are not small family or subsistence farms where each house is on its field; there is a cluster of houses and stores and services that serve a surrounding area of fields, most of which do not have a farmer living on them but just a farmer who goes to them to tend them.

But even when it was smaller, family, pre-tractor farms around here, the houses clustered in towns along transportation networks, and farmers went OUT to their fields. Is he suggesting leaving the land not close to transportation networks unfarmed?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 PM on November 30, 2012


I think the hypothesis is that on square parcels, the land was divided up into squares within squares not according to natural features of the land or pre-existing roads (or stuff that would be used as roadways, like creeks or old trails). So the land was squared off, people came to settle, and chose how to lay out the settlements based on individual whim. Even if the houses in a farming community meet up in a place that makes a logical base for infrastructure, it's still basically a whim where that central place will be. Thus, settlers and their descendants are used to the idea that you don't go to where infrastructure is, infrastructure comes to you. Thus, cars, I guess?

Though, again, even in places that didn't settle that way, you still get the same approach to transportation as the regions that settled via square allotments. So I don't know that it makes any real difference except as an interesting accident of history.
posted by Sara C. at 8:00 PM on November 30, 2012


The trouble with grid layout of farms in the urbanizing Midwest is that it led to development of disconnected neighborhoods of streets where it's impossible to go from one neighborhood to the next, without driving out onto the main road and then back in at the next development. Every chunk was platted & built separately, with no thought of linking the different neighborhoods' back streets together, thereby enforcing car-centricity. I don't know if the "long strips" would have made a difference, but they at least wouldn't have made for the easy conversion of old farmland blocks to new, isolated neighborhoods.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:15 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


That subdivision design was purposeful H. K. They were trying to avoid the neighbourhoods becoming what are called 'rat runs' where drivers trying to avoid congested main roads flood into an alternate route through a neighbourhood. So it was an attempt to mitigate one of the problems of car centric planning.
posted by srboisvert at 8:56 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a theory that America has a subtle but deep socialist streak when it comes to land use--the idea that, to the greatest extent possible, "location, location, location" should be eliminated, and that all locations should be made equal.

The subject of the post is one aspect of this. The other is the insistence on maintaining effectively unlimited parking (ie you cannot build anything unless you provide enough space for everyone who would possibly visit to put their car), and unlimited access to the roads in between (ie no congestion tolling). This serves to increase the usefulness of far-flung locations (where providing parking is cheap) at the expense of central locations (where providing parking is expensive and alternatives might otherwise exist).

Of course this doesn't really work out, but not for a lack of trying.
posted by alexei at 9:14 PM on November 30, 2012


More Americans need to visit places like Germany, where the city centers are often car-free places of narrow streets and lots of foot traffic. It's extremely pleasant. One might even use the word "civilized".

But who am I kidding? It only takes one TV commercial showing some hot, masculine dude doing the ol' "WA HOO!" driving through a puddle, and everyone is all RAH RAH for driving.

Even here in Switzerland, we encounter people using cars who will say it's because they are "too lazy" to use the trains. They seem unable to comprehend how much hassle it is to drive, park, and walk between the car and their destination, and back, on top of dealing with gasoline and maintenance, and the worse thing, traffic.
posted by Goofyy at 11:23 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tim DeChant cleaned it a little and put this article in Wired.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:56 AM on December 1, 2012


Whereas I live in central Illinois and the farmhouses do, in fact, cluster along roads and make farm towns with grain elevators that typically have rail spurs that run to them. Farms are 100s or 1000s of acres; the land is all going to be farmed anyway; and the housing DOES cluster, and it does cluster around major arteries. I'm not sure when we're talking such large-scale farms, as we are in most of the country that was sectioned off in squares, why a ribbon farm would be more efficient since those are not small family or subsistence farms where each house is on its field; there is a cluster of houses and stores and services that serve a surrounding area of fields, most of which do not have a farmer living on them but just a farmer who goes to them to tend them.

It's not an issue of size, but of proportion. If you have farms of similar acerage, and houses are built along the road, proportionally square farms will require more road than ribbon farms. Just in terms of farmers serviced per mile of road, it's probably safe to say ribbon farms are more efficient. And there are fewer u-turns with the tractor, theoretically anyway.
posted by romanb at 2:26 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed this very much, but I was really looking forward to reading the second half of the article...the half that started with "It’s the American way, and it’s driven the psychology of an entire nation."

(I think that is the first time I have been disappointed to see the entire article laid out on a single web page.)
posted by iamkimiam at 2:46 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


" , and houses are built along the road, proportionally square farms will require more road than ribbon farms."

Yes, but houses are not build on the fields. Roads are pretty minimal access toads to move equipment, not cars, and they are far apart. Farms are as LONG as the ribbon farms he's comparing to in most places (often longer), they are just WIDER. There is a maximum length beyond which you are just driving a heavy harvester over fields, compacting them, because you got full mid-field. Square fields are more efficient for the pollination of corn. I honestly don't think he knows how either farming or settlement works in the vast Midwest where grain comes from. Because his complaint sounds mistifyingly like, "Your farms aren't very dense with people. Farm only within 40 linear acres of major roads. Ignore the rest and do not put in access roads for equipment or farm it. Also please farm your primary crop suboptimally and reduce yields so that it looks more like what I have decided is the platonic ideal for all farms."

But again, key point, these fields don't have farmhouses on them. Farmers live in town or along major arteries. Outlying fields are served by access roads (you'll note, if you read farmland ads, maybe 20% of them specify there's a frontage on a paved road. It's a selling point as most access roads, though Google may map them, are unpaved. Maintained, but not paved.). Many don't even touch access roads, you just get an easement to drive across another guy's land. Access roads are supported by local taxes and they are pretty much the minimum mileage and quality required to actually get equipment to outlying farms. They're not at all like interstates, maintained by a federal government for larger economic purposes.

I don't know how many of you have been to rural farming country in the Midwest and to rural farming country in, say, France or Ireland, but there already a hell of a lot less paved roads-per-acre here than there because farms are historically larger and one town historically serves a far larger area of fields.

It's just not very dense here. People specifically cluster in towns to take advantage of transportation networks. What are they doing wrong according to him, other than having *uninhabited* fields in shapes he doesn't think *inhabited* fields ought to be?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:41 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also grain is moved out from here on trains and barges. Moving it by truck (as he seems to think we do) would be moronic and your food would cost a lot more. It moves by farm equipment to the grain elevator and by train from there. That these are not PASSENGER trains is a different issue that is driven by the extreme low density of these towns that serve very large areas.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:49 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another interesting feature of traditional ribbon allotment is how the fields will cut across different soil types/textures as they make their way down to the water. I can imagine that would be a boon for mixed farming but might be a challenge for modern grain farms. But when I think about it, so much of the technology we use to farm quarters is designed for just that -- for example, we often think of a quarter as having a uniform soil class/texture, and fertilize and manage it accordingly. It's only been in the last few years that precision agriculture has become more widespread in our area, but if the farms had been set up as ribbon allotments, that innovation might have become common much earlier.
posted by bluebelle at 6:30 AM on December 1, 2012


American car culture sort of bugs me, because I'm not sure there really is such a thing. Lots of people would be happy with good/extant public transportation and more pedestrian centered urban planning. It's just that the US is pretty big and spread out and everyone builds things close to absolutely nothing else, so owning a car and driving places yourself is a necessary survival skill in most parts of the US. I'd love to live without a car, but it's a wasteland out there.
posted by byanyothername at 6:54 AM on December 1, 2012


Farmers live in town or along major arteries.

Literally the ONLY point I saw made in the article is that said "major arteries" had to be brought to the farmhouses rather than the farms and their houses being situated along naturally occurring transportation points like rivers or preexisting trails. Which theoretically changed local culture to include the assumption that you can settle wherever and however you want, and transportation that suits your needs will be brought to you. Which is exactly what had to happen in the case of rural settlements in what was then the "western frontier" of the US.

You're reading a lot into this article that isn't there. I don't entirely agree with his premise, having grown up in a place that, according to this guy, should be an idyllic environment for human-scaled transportation, and yet has all the problems the rest of the country does despite the local trend towards ribbon farms. But no, he's not saying that there's anything morally wrong with farming on square plots rather than long skinny ones, or that anybody should deliberately reduce efficiency, or that people who grew up in the midwest are assholes, or whatever you're getting here.
posted by Sara C. at 10:33 AM on December 1, 2012


Lots of people would be happy with good/extant public transportation and more pedestrian centered urban planning.

Well, no. That's absolutely untrue. Unfortunately. Communities all over the US fight tooth and nail to PREVENT public transportation and pedestrian centered urban planning, every day. That's the reason there's reasonably OK public transit in Los Angeles, except it doesn't cover Beverly Hills or Bel Air or Brentwood. That's the reason my exurban hometown fought tooth and nail against a rail trail conversion project (because apparently thieves will ride bikes along the bike path to come rob your McMansion). People fucking HATE public transit and human-scaled development in this country and in all but a few cities will do almost anything to avoid it.

Also, yes, the whole point of the article is how everyone chooses to build things close to absolutely nothing else. Which is weird, when you think about it, because it's something that is so illogical and counterproductive compared to every other part of the world*. And the hypothesis of the author of this article is that what sparked that counterproductive thought wasn't the invention of the car, or cheap poured concrete, or the CCC paving roads as part of the New Deal, it was coded in the very ways that American settlers on the frontiers chose to divide up the land.
posted by Sara C. at 10:41 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Literally the ONLY point I saw made in the article is that said "major arteries" had to be brought to the farmhouses rather than the farms and their houses being situated along naturally occurring transportation points like rivers or preexisting trails."

Well, that's literally just silly, because in huge parts of the areas he's talking about (that were platted out before anyone moved there), development occurred exactly as you'd expect: Along navigable rivers first, then along railroads when the railroads arrived. If he's saying "people moved there and waited for someone to pave them a road" ... well, they didn't. Farmers don't settle where they can't move their grain out. It doesn't do you any good just sitting there.

I think what I'm getting here is that he's actually has NO IDEA how pre-platted land actually developed, which is a pretty trivial thing to find out. And he claims farmsteads are "evenly spaced" through an area instead of clustered along roads, which isn't even a little true; they do him one better and cluster in towns. He says "Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance." -- but the vast majority of these little farming towns do their shipping of grain BY TRAIN. A substantial majority of corn, wheat, and soybeans is shipped by rail or barge; the big flat places with the square farms ship so much grain by rail that it tends to render rail the largest form of shipping for the whole state by tonnage. Trucks accounted for only 7% of grain shipping in the U.S. in the year 2000, according to the USDA.

I guess my complaint is, it sounds really nice to say "Farmsteads, and later suburban houses, were more or less evenly distributed across the landscape rather than concentrated next to existing roadsides. The fact that the farm, not the transportation, came first is important. ... Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance. We were destined for the automobile all the way back in 1787, when we first decided to carve up the countryside into tidy squares." but none of those things are things that actually HAPPENED in the development of the square-platted, grain-growing areas he's talking about. If he thinks transit networks in the U.S. are suboptimal and too car-focused, that's one thing, but what he's trying to support that claim with things that never happened because he's decided they fit his narrative. He'd do better to look at post-War patterns of suburban development, development of refrigeration, and finished-goods shipping, I suspect.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:44 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


And he claims farmsteads are "evenly spaced" through an area instead of clustered along roads, which isn't even a little true; they do him one better and cluster in towns.

My understanding is that he's talking about the way that territories/new states were subdivided into counties, which were then subdivided into townships, which were then subdivided into homestead claims. Which definitely did happen just as he describes. Like notsnot upthread, I also just finished reading a book that discusses the consequences of that approach. I believe those consequences were called the Dust Bowl.

This may not be the way that your hometown or region or state developed, but it is the way that pretty much the entire US west of the Mississippi developed, and it would be stupid to pretend that it didn't have an effect on the national attitude towards planning.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on December 1, 2012


There were lots of areas broken up into homesteads before there was anything in the way of transportation infrastructure there, but without transportation they were just subsistance farms. As the railroads spread west (or in areas where there was existing water transportation), those little homesteads became export-producing farms. You can't have a farm, except in a very minimal sense, without a way to transport crops off of it to market.

Anyway, I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who claims that "Trains [...] never had a chance." That's a load of crap — the U.S. has the most advanced and efficient freight rail system in the world. And far from being in decline, it's at maximum capacity and expanding, while at the same time having huge sums poured into it each year in search of further efficiency improvements.

To handwave all that away suggests either a very tenuous grasp of the subject at hand, or a willingness to ignore anything that doesn't support his preordained conclusion.

Why the U.S. doesn't have passenger rail similar to Western Europe's is an interesting question, and comes down in large part to some key decisions that were made differently in the U.S. in the wake of World War Two than in Europe. In the U.S., lots of suddenly-spare manufacturing capacity meant lots of cars, which found a ready demand in the form of returning G.I.'s. That led pretty directly to modern "car culture", the suburbs, a willingness to pay for Interstate highways without tolls, etc. It is not at all clear to me that you would get to the same place if, just to play with a counterfactual, the U.S. had sat the war out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:15 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


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