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Friday, February 13, 2015
Land Planning in Old... "New France"
An interesting approach to land planning that was once exercised in French colonial holdings. The "Seigneurial System" or "Ribbon Farms" placed an emphasis on ensuring equitable access to roadways, waterways, and public utility access.
The flight from Boston to Chicago isn’t the most scenic, but if you’re lucky enough to snag a window seat – no mean feat these days – study the patchwork landscape with a discerning eye. About 40 minutes into the flight, you’ll notice something a bit peculiar (at least for North America): Instead of the usual tableau of square or rectangular farmsteads, you’ll see ribbons of agronomy.
These ribbon layouts are a ghost of geography: a relic from when France parceled land in Canada back in the 1600s. What’s most intriguing to me, though, is how ribbon farms – or rather the lack thereof in much of the United States – shaped attitudes toward modern transportation, and continue to shape our psychology as a nation today.
Because with ribbon farms, the expectation is that transportation is king.
By starting with the transportation network and then building out from there, ribbon farms come with certain efficiencies. Part of their elegance is how easy it is to transport goods from them. Within a ribbon farm, moving around is a bit more difficult – the farthest part is much farther away from the house and barn than the most distant part of a square farm. Butbetween farms and markets, ribbon farms are superior. Roads running past ribbon farms can serve more addresses over the same distance; neighbors are a short walk away; cities and crossroads closer than you’d expect.
The transportation-centric layout of ribbon farms in North America traces its roots back to medieval times. When France was trying to stabilize its colonial foothold in the New World back in the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu (an adviser to the king and powerhouse in French politics) hatched a plan. To encourage more intensive settlement, he parceled the land similarly to the way it was divided in France: in long, thin strips oriented perpendicularly to a transportation route – which in Nouvelle France was primarily the St. Lawrence River.
Much of arable North America, however, was not allocated in ribbon farms. The Public Land Survey System carved up large portions of the United States into one square mile sections, each of which were subdivided to create farms and aggregated to form townships. Canada adopted a similar system, the Dominion Land Survey, for its prairie states.
So when the U.S. started with square farms, the process and the results were theexact opposite from ribbon farms: We plotted the farms first and then pondered the logistics. It’s therefore no surprise that Americans feel transportation should come to us instead of the other way around. 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.
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…. IT’S THE AMERICAN WAY.
And it’s this quirk of geography – the shape of a typical American farm – that I believe influenced the development of the entire nation.
Here’s how: Roads snaked out to farms where they were needed, which is to say nearly everywhere. Farmsteads, and later suburban houses, were more or less evenly distributed across the landscape rather than concentrated alongside existing roadsides. In regions dominated by ribbon farms, transportation was clearly the foundation. But in much of the rest of North America, parcels were delineated first; transportation routes followed.
The fact that the farm, not the transportation, came first is important. It was a geographic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Flexible and distributed transportation networks are really the only solution compatible with this 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. Pick your plot, worry about the details later. It’s the American way, and it’s driven the psychology of an entire nation.
Editor’s Note: An earlier, unedited version of this article appeared on the author’s blog.