Rethinking the Urban Grid


We often use the utilitarian, rational deployment of street grids as a boon to our best cities. American cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. stand as the result of a preplanned order deployed to guide expansion over time. In many ways it has worked. Partitioning up the city has helped to shape a straightforward process for development, creating defined districts for zoning along with a web for transportation. But as the way we interact with the city evolves, including the buildings within it, the grid lags behind, representing the same functions that it did centuries ago. These massive infrastructural frameworks have grown to the point of being outmoded, trailing the urban evolution around and within them. We are at a point for a reassessment for how best to use this wealth of connective tissue that provides access to and from our homes, our jobs and our leisure both inside and outside of the city.

As it recently reached its 200th birthday, New York’s street grid provides a prime case study for weighing how we utilize a network of systems that we have come to simply accept as a constant (for any system that should be the first clue that a fresh look is warranted).

Manhattan’s grid covers roughly 25% of its ground plane making it one of the city’s largest infrastructural assets. Originally, the plan was the brainchild of Gouverneur Morris, Jon Rutherfurd and Simeon De Witt: a three member commission assigned by the New York State Legislature to create a plan for the island. The plan, by and large similar to the latticework of streets we know today (though missing Central Park), was proposed in 1807 and finally adopted in 1811. The “New York city block” was born.

Far before the days of fiber optic and coaxial cable, the grid also provided unfettered access to surface transportation throughout the island with roads that could reach the entire landscape in a straightforward way that was easy to navigate. Its wide streets allowed for a fluid transition to the advent of street cars and when the dawn of the automotive era demanded more real estate, elevated trains and subways followed. Throughout the past 200 years the grid has facilitated the movement of billions of people. However, the rational perfection of the street grid is largely to blame for its success in providing such universal access to transportation, though possibly at the expense of pedestrian mobility…

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