The concept of the transect was borrowed from ecology. Ecological transects are used to describe changes in habitat over some gradient such as a change in topography or distance from a water body.
A major feature of transect planning is that it incorporates a variety of residential and commercial spaces into a single neighbourhood. A typical neighbourhood would consist of a light commercial area with a bank, general store, pub, coffee shop, and apartments. Moving outwards from the centre, residential density would gradually decrease starting with apartments to townhouses to fully detached houses. The central area would be a focus of transit and ideally be within walking distance from any point in the neighbourhood.
The importance of transect planning is particularly seen as a contrast to modern single-use zoning and suburban development. In these patterns, large areas are dedicated to a single purpose, such as housing, offices, shopping, and they can only be accessed via major roads. The transect, by contrast, decreases the necessity for long-distance travel by any means.
Many of the features of transect planning cannot be reproduced without a change to municipal ordinances. For example, the transect encourages storefronts to push forward to the sidewalk, to allow window shopping, and push parking lots to the rear. In many municipalities, this design would not be permitted today under town planning bylaws. Hence, any effort to implement the principles of the transect must be accompanied by code changes (hence the development of SmartCode).
The transect contains other features: it creates a framework to control and promote growth in certain areas; it intends to increase pedestrian life, local safety, and community identity; and, it provides tools to protect and restore natural environments.