A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. —Aaron Renn
Terroir refers to the conditions of terrain and microclimate in wine-growing regions and, more specifically, within a given vineyard. It takes in those attributes of place that influence the grapes and thus the wine. The better the terroir the better the end product. Terroir is such an important aspect of wine making that some regions like those of the Champagne region, are so special that they restrict the use of their name.
As the conditions of terrain and microclimates imparts a unique quality on the wine that is specific to that region, so too with a city. The geography, climate, history and structure of a place imparts special meaning on a city. Perhaps most closely linked to the structure, scale and density that make up a spaces’ urban fabric, urban terroir refers to the elements that make up the conditions of our urban spaces. Thus, the feeling of New York City’s is distinct from that of Boston; just as being in Denver feels different from being in Austin.
Another way of looking at terroir is the parts of a city we can influence. Just as a farmer carefully nurtures and cultivates his or her soil, a city can influence its structure and history. Indeed urban terroir posits human cultivation, and cultivation in an urban sense is how a city becomes “our space.”
What gives terroir importance compared to words like ‘density’ or ‘fabric’ is its holistic nature. Urban terroir explicitly includes both humanity and nature and we cannot treat it unconnected from either. Indeed, each is intrinsic to terroir and the reason we cultivate it. Simply focusing on static features such as structure and scale lack this holistic connotation.
While the built form of the city can be static—or dead, to use Christopher Alexander’s apt phrase—its terroir is constantly evolving. As with all living things, terroir is subject to both discrete human intervention and to larger economic and climatic patterns as well as the relationship these factors form. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, urban terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed. Whatever affects it—such as scale—becomes part of the terroir, nurtured both for its own sake and for what it can give to what we want to achieve and to sustain in our cities.
In my next post, I will explore how cities can tend to their urban terroir.