Urban Terroir

Terroir is a term from viniculture, referring to the character of a site as it influences the grapes and the wines. It wraps up a host of features, from topography and climate to soil conditions and geological features. It looks at a vineyard as the intersection of nature and purposeful human activity, with the grapes in between them. As a metaphor, it speaks to the nature of any place that mediates this intersection. We humans live in these places, nurtured or battered by them depending on the mediation — who it serves and who it fails to serve.

In 2007 and after, I wrote several articles on my own and with Richard Bender that looked at the Bay Region’s growth from the standpoint of the Slow Cities movement, which originated in Tuscany as an effort by towns there to preserve their way of life while still participating in global markets and tourism. This led me to urban theorists like Aldo Rossi and to critics of global modernity like Ivan Illich. A bit later, prompted by redevelopment proposals in San Francisco, I turned to arguments there about urban density.

What struck me about these arguments was the mutual incomprehension of the two highly polarized groups. Noting Illich’s contention that the Enlightenment deprived us of a locally based sense of scale, I wondered if part of the problem was a lack of a new tradition of “good fit” in urban contexts like San Francisco. I believed that such a tradition existed before and after World War II, reinforced both by pattern books and regional typologies that responded to a distinctive range of climates and lifestyles, then fell apart.

Fifteen years later, the balance between the sides — now characterized as YIMBY and NIMBY — has shifted, but the arguments continue. My first thought was to go back to an earlier generation of commentators that touched, directly or indirectly, on questions of density in urban contexts. My reading includes Rossi’s The Architecture of the City, Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia; Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City and Good City Form, and N.J. Habraken’s Supports. The era in which they wrote saw related books by Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Ivan Illich that argued polemically against modernism. Habraken’s book, although directed against mass housing, shares their critique of an urban life stifled by modernity.

Tafuri alone provides a visual image of going too far — a Piranesi image of a city that has jammed its buildings together with no apparent underlying order. That cities have such an order is their collective assumption, but Tafuri seems to have grasped that capitalism could drive a city to forego such a constraint, in whole or in part.

From Tafuri, page 17.

Rossi: the city analyzed

Rossi focuses on types, as opposed to models, and argues strongly against function as a valid means of thinking about or organizing cities. His book begins by looking at a major civic building in Padua that, over its long life, has housed every kind of use — and continues to do so. It has to be thought of as an urban artifact, as he calls it, and a building type that transcends any particular function. Rossi also comes out against fabric and in favor of context, seeing the latter not as a given, but as a human creation that is inherently malleable, yet seen as being made up of types that give a city its particular form or character. Types are what we intuit about a city as we encounter it and live in it — how, in whole and in part, it forms itself in relation to topography, to the ways the movement of people and goods is structured, and other factors. How we give specific form to a city, the models we choose and those we reject, follow from these governing types.

Reading Rossi’s first chapter, I thought how often contemporary redevelopment here is justified in terms of functions or uses and pre-existing models of how to accommodate them. This is a postwar phenomenon that retains a modernist disregard for context, despite zoning that seeks to respond to it. Legislation overriding such zoning, permitting arbitrary height increases, for example, as a reward for including below-market units, revives modernism’s strong attachment to top-down diktats in the name of social progress — whether to house the masses or eliminate tuberculosis by tearing down the close-knit neighborhoods of older cities. Today, the social good is housing production, achieved by filling out bigger zoning envelopes and eliminating parking.

Lynch: the city observed

In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch describes the recent growth of Boston, seeing it as a trial-and-error process reflecting public initiative and the responses of people on the ground — where and what they choose to build, how they move around their neighborhoods and access other districts, and what proves desirable and what doesn’t when the results are considered later. The book takes in other cities, but Boston is the most clearly sketched — and Lynch prefers to sketch rather than prescribe. His is a way of looking at a city that keeps the whole in view while considering the parts. He stresses the value of observing it over time, taking its past into account in contemplating next, and recognizing the incremental and imprecise nature of one’s actions. He resists any sweeping theory in favor of an informed “trying things out” that benefits from experience.

This brings forward Lynch’s Good City Form, which provides an overview of competing viewpoints at the time of its writing — Rossi and Christopher Alexander are mentioned, for example. Lynch also provides what proved to be an influential language for describing city form, using such terms as texture and grain in relation to density while arguing that what we take as “good density” varies necessarily with the place and situation. In the same way, he attributes grain — coarse or fine — to the economic and political realities giving rise to it.

Habraken: against mass

Supports argues vociferously against mass housing, which Habraken equates with barracks. He argues that mass housing breaks the tie between dweller and dwelling that is basic to a city’s variety and vitality — everything that contributes to its texture in Lynch’s sense. When dwellers are housed, they can only consume what’s offered. A city’s scale also shifts towards ever-larger projects — housing towers or apartment blocks — that vary only in form and aesthetic details, creating what Lynch calls a coarse grain that is best understood as a diagram. Like the barracks, mass housing is a product of organization — the goal is to produce a maximum number of dwellings efficiently at scale. The techniques it embraces serve this purpose, but the production numbers fall short, in part because dwellers resist its overall sameness and its deadening effects on the city. It attracts nomadic users.

Children exercising on the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Marseilles Block.

Habraken ends Supports, first published in 1961, by calling for an urban housing typology that combines aspects of industrial loft buildings with precedents like Le Corbusier’s Marseilles Block. It would provide a framework for housing infill assembled by individual households from a range of prefabricated components, a strategy Habraken envisions enabling the kind of mass customization achieved by manufacturers of that era. The Townland System proposed for Operation Breakthrough, an industrialized housing demonstration program launched by HUD Secretary George Romney later in the decade, tried to implement this concept.

Habraken’s The Structure of the Ordinary, written in the late 1990s, seeks to ground his concept of framework and infill in the vernacular present and its long history within traditional settlement. He identifies three ways that communities guide human settlement: through form, “the physical order”; place, “the territorial order”; and understanding, “the cultural order.” In passing, he comments on other critics of the modern breakdown of these ordering principles — a breakdown which, as he argued in Supports, tips the balance against communities and individual householders both, exposing them to administrative control and an impoverished marketplace.

Illich: toward conviviality

Habraken doesn’t reference Ivan Illich, but Illich’s critique of modernity resembles Habraken’s critique of mass housing as modernity’s expression. He goes beyond Habraken in arguing that modernity, owing to its roots in the Enlightenment project of imposing universals, makes gauging proportion and setting limits difficult. As his intellectual biographer David Cayley puts it,

It was Illich’s view that “all worlds before our own” were shaped by a sense of proportion. Heaven and earth, man and woman, here and there were all proportions — each conditioned, complemented, and defined by the other. There was no individual thing or person able to define itself — everything depended on its other and on “the net of correspondences” in which it was enmeshed. People and place were similarly related — the people’s way of life given by the landscape and natural endowments of that place. Cultures differed, each shaping its sense of the good, the beautiful, and the true differently but sharing this “experience of fit’” that provided its “ethical” standard, insofar as ethics, originally, was nothing other than this ability to discern what is proper to a given setting. This world has now gone, replaced by a reality ruled by contract, choice, and self-determination. The “common sense” by which people discerned what was fitting was washed away, and we now live in “social constellations” to which nothing corresponds. It is, Illich says, “a womb-less world” in which every frontier leads out not to a beyond but only to more of the same. From poetry to architecture, economics to medicine, what is celebrated is not what observes a due measure and proportion but the brilliantly and inventively arbitrary. (Cayley, pp. 362–363)

lllich’s “choice” and “self-determination” are what Habraken’s qualifies as impoverished by the transformation of individual householders into captive consumers of the limited offerings anything “mass” provides. It’s choice devoid of meaningful context — Habraken’s form, place, and understanding — and self-determination that proceeds arbitrarily, unconcerned with others beyond itself, except as top-down constraints limit its actions.

“Dehousing” society, to extend to housing Illich’s argument against schools as the only path to learning, means restoring the proportionality, at every level, that modernity abandoned, and, within this restored context, giving people back the ability to house themselves. (See note.) This suggests, by implication, tipping the balance of redevelopment toward community and neighborhood, and away from larger entities with no real stake in them. Habraken and Illich might argue, along with John F.C. Turner (in Freedom to Build) that the tent cities and RV villages reflect the efforts of unhoused to assert, by whatever means are available to them, the need to house themselves. As informal settlements elsewhere amply demonstrate, such efforts are the beginning, not the end, of a process that, once land tenure is established, consistently seeks to fit in with what’s around them.

The idea of “degrowth” as our current necessity relates to Illich’s idea of conviviality, by which he means the natural limits beyond which we lose sight of a natural, supportive relationship with us and with life in general. Illich invoked in their Greek originals the ideals of asceticism and austerity that informed monastic life, for example. As his word “conviviality” suggests, these weren’t seen as depriving humanity of an abundance that’s within its means — what humanity and nature together can affordably, resiliently sustain. Illich saw as hubris the tendency, also born in the Enlightenment and pursued by modernism as a project, to see “wholes” or systems that are imagined to be within human control. This legacy of science gives men godlike illusions.

Conviviality suggests two aspects to proportionality: that it is subject to others to which it relates; and that it is subject to the inherent limits of what is lawful for our species qua nature as we immediately experience it. If we ignore these aspects, we put conviviality at risk. When this happens, we “brilliantly and inventively” improvise in ways that are “arbitrary” if they ignore salient relationships and inherent limits. Technology and abstract policy are often what we reach for as all-purpose “fixes” when we decline to address or even see the need for fit.

Proscription, not prescription

In documenting traditional patterns of habitation and instances of their application, and proposing a way of restoring direct household participation in human settlement, Christopher Alexander touches on the ideas put forward by Habraken and Illich. Alexander’s question, “Does it have life?” relates to Illich’s conviviality. “Fit” is implied in Alexander’s patterns and instances — his instinct for memorable places and settings is noteworthy, giving The Nature of Order, something of the quality of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a compendium of observations and examples that is more like a seedbank than a work of theory or a guide to practice.

When Alexander’s question is combined with Habraken’s form, place, and understanding idea, rooting the way we guide human settlement in each and every specific context, and with Illich’s conviviality as a proportionality that acknowledges abundance’s natural limits, we move toward what Lynch called the fine-grained. We also recognize Tafuri’s Piranesi reference as visually making their shared point about a loss of proportionality, of limits, of any awareness of “other.” Rossi, who touches on these matters only indirectly, is nonetheless on to something when he points to “urban artifacts” as the one building type that legitimately parts company with its immediate context to become both a monument, a visual anchor in its city, and a type that transcends function. Tafuri’s Piranesi reference is in effect a footnote saying, “Use sparingly or you’ll lose any larger sense of place.”

The word urbanity speaks to the pleasures that a city affords at whatever densities people find congenial. These densities will vary across a city’s territory and those variations vary in turn across time in response to the ebb and flow of human activity — an ebb and flow itself reflecting conditions elsewhere, not just on the ground. All of which is to say that it is easier to proscribe than prescribe when it comes to the question of setting density, as the answers are either arbitrary or contingent without a shared understanding sufficient to guide fit in terms of proportion as a convivial respect for others and awareness of limits. Zoning is a blunt instrument in this regard, and form-mandating legislation “from above” is worse. Both forestall the question and mandate answers which, when they fail to account for the unforeseen, whether locally or in terms of their implications, immediately push a supposedly worked-out, by-right process back into case by case, the root cause of endemically glacial delay.

San Francisco’s Dogpatch, addressed by the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan.

What would be proscribed in setting density? The aforementioned bluntness, for starts. Instead of abstractions and diagrams, towns and cities would instead forge time-bound agreements with their neighborhoods. John Rahaim, as San Francisco Planning Director, pulled off the feat of working with such an urban community, the Eastern Neighborhoods, to arrive at an accepted plan for their redevelopment that resulted in a remarkably quick transformation, since conforming with the plan ensured project entitlement. In retrospect, the plan’s main takeaway is that securing promised community benefits — neighborhood-serving parks, schools, libraries, and other improvements that were to be provided partly by the developers — must be city-enforced. While the results are otherwise “ordinary,” having smaller builders in the mix gives it a modicum of variety.

As a model for how to replan an area to reconcile goals with every potential of generating conflict, the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan is absolutely pertinent to other cities grappling with this same problem. What it offers is a way to account for householders by engaging neighbors as direct participants and simultaneously account for the commons — what serves them communally — and the environs within which both are situated. It raises the issues of redevelopment for real people in a real place, seeking answers that hold for a specific time horizon. It says, in effect, that a given area isn’t obliged to solve the city or the region’s problems, but to help solve them — not for all time, but for a generation or two, when others will take a new look, building on these precedents.

Such plans set limits on an area’s transformation that aim for a convivial balance, proportionate to the environs, the community, and the neighbors, that is negotiated rather than imposed. They can work both ways — in areas in steep decline, it can negotiate a floor to stanch the losses. They can address the need for flexibility and nuance where redevelopment sometimes runs over individual homeowners. They can proscribe practices that are known to be destructive to urbanity without jeopardizing their larger goals.

The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan wasn’t perfect — its implementation revealed insufficiencies from which others can learn. And even a time-bound plan needs to allow for necessary modifications that can be made in the same way as the plan itself, as a community-wide negotiation as opposed to individual cases (provision for which will ideally have been built in based on the principles the plan embodies — the basis for its limits).

Toward a finer grain

Conversations with a resident of the Eastern Neighborhoods who is active in one of its neighborhood committees — a dedicated group with close ties to its district’s supervisor — suggests to me the importance of a finer grain of ongoing political participation than is often possible in our cities. San Francisco also has local news outlets, like Mission Local, that cover city politics from the standpoint of district relevance. Both help to keep the neighborhoods at large informed about larger events that may affect them. (My friend’s neighborhood committee would have been split in two by proposed redistricting, but it successfully pushed back.)

Urban terroir, like a vineyard’s terroir, is a ground to be worked — a constant effort by those who love a place that gives them life and whose life depends in turn on cultivation, care, forethought, and awareness of limits. Legislative and regulatory changes strike fear at the local level owing to past experience with what typically results when cities are pressured to enact them. There’s clearly a role here for cities to encourage community-based efforts to interpret them imaginatively (and vernacularly) rather than literally or arbitrarily — to consider the spirit, not the letter or diagram, of these changes.


In Illich’s Gender (1982), he writes,

A modern apartment comes out of the same kind of space for which garages are designed. It is constructed out of economic — that is, genderless — modules of space-time, of ‘spime,’ and is made to meet the tenants’ imputed needs. It is usually attached to transportation systems. Both the garage and the apartment are rationally and economically built for the overnight storage of a productive resource. Both are man-proof; the walls are insured against damage by bumpers or children, and both cars and children are insured against accidents. The apartment is a repository that serves for the confinement of people, who are considered fragile and dangerous. It is impossible for the tenants to ‘make a home’; the place is structured and equipped for shadow work only. It is the address at which wires and traffic lanes, postmen and police can reach and service those who are healthy, sane, and civilian, those who survive outside institutions on Valium, TV, and supermarket deliveries. It is the specialized place for the practice of intimacy between genderless humans, the only place left where the two sexes can pee into the same pot. (Pp. 119–120)


Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, MIT Press, 1982, first published in Italy in 1962.

Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, MIT Press, 1976, first published in Italy in 1972.

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, MIT Press, 1960, and Good City Form, MIT Press, 1959.

N. John Habraken, Supports, Praeger, 1972, first published in the Netherlands in 1961, and The Structure of the Ordinary, MIT Press, 1998.

David Cayley, Ivan Illich, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021.

Ivan Illich, Gender, Pantheon, 1982.

John F.C. Turner, Freedom to Build, Collier Macmillan, 1972.

Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, I–IV, Center for Environmental Structure, 2002–2004, and (with others) A Pattern Language, Oxford, 1977.

Emily Wang, San Francisco architect-activist and Potrero Hill resident, is my informant on the denouement of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which I heard John Rahaim describe in a lecture at SPUR or UC Berkeley.



Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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