December 2007


In October 2006, the U.S. Census population clock reached the 300-million-person mark. After some notoriety in the media, the clock proceeded to do what it does best: move forward. Our nation has a long history of population growth and an equally long history of building new places to meet the demands of this growth. While American frontiersmen may have settled the land quickly during the expansion years, they did not necessarily plan their towns in haste.

A survey of towns from across the country reveals that many beloved and important places were created using a few dozen distinctive formal town patterns. These patterns were repeated again and again to provide a familiar setting for waves of migrating Americans who were looking for a place to call home. Repeating town patterns helped surveyors and state general assemblies quickly establish county seats and bring law and order to new territories. At the same time, many land speculators used the same regional patterns to market their new towns as important cities of tomorrow. These patterns were efficient tools for planning and development. They were easy to plat and sell, adaptable to topographical challenges, and flexible enough to provide for future town expansion or accommodate changes in new building types or uses. These same patterns are still available for use.

Today, when new towns are planned, it is common for those involved to collect examples of local architectural styles, buildings, foliage, and streets. These items serve to guide and inspire the place-making process. An inventory of formal town patterns can serve the same purpose. This paper demonstrates how a collection of town patterns may be incorporated into the planning and design process.

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On November 26, 2007, professors Erle C. Ellis and Navin Ramankutty published a conceptual model and map that revolutionize the story of global ecosystems. The conventional view, which can be found in millions of atlases and introductory textbooks, is an aggregation of ecosystems called biomes. Biomes are classified by vegetation, climate and location, and have exotic, suggestive names like “Tropical Mountain Systems,” “Temperate Oceanic Forest” or “Boreal Tundra Woodland.”

Biomes also suffer from a notable deficiency: The humans are missing. In certain important respects, the conventional biome map is a fantasy, an image of the earth minus the influence of people and their land uses.

And have we ever had an influence! As Ellis and Ramankutty note, humans have been redesigning, re-engineering and remaking the land such that “the vegetation forms predicted by conventional biome systems are now rarely observed across large areas of Earth’s land surface.” Today, in the year 2007, “more than three quarters of Earth’s land surface has been reshaped by human activity.”

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