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James Panero
The Greatness of the Grid « Back to Story

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The American city that developed in the Nineteenth Century almost exclusively is built around the grid and interesting variation overlaying it. Washington DC is basically the grid overlaid with the Hunting Gardens of Versailles. Philadelphia has its squares. Small cities have their courthouse squares and pre-planned parks, such as those in Basic City, Virginia, now the Eastern portion of Waynesboro. Harrisonburg, Virginia's Romanesque Courthouse dominates a central square and becomes iconic.

San Francisco's topography intrudes nicely into the grid and here is where true urban genius can be seen. It is the variations that make it magnificent. Intrusion is what is missing in some of the more mundane grid cities of the plains.

Hopefully there is a lesson here that might enliven our future economic development efforts. The grid was a great engine of planning and in the end created better design than a lot of our modern 'Town Centers,' which are nothing more than Brobdenagian Cul-de-sac neighborhoods with ample parking.
I understand the import of the grid system. New York would not have become the great city it is without it.
As anyone who has been there during a garbage strike can tell you the concept had only one flaw, it did not include alleys. Still The idea was revolutionary in it's time and should in no way be deminished due to the aforementioned overcite.
I will come to the great virtue of the gridiron for NY in a moment, but as a rule gridirons are a poor layout for city.

This was made clear by the greatest of all writers on urbanism, Camillo Sitte, in 1887. He did a detailed analysis of crossroads in his book, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, and showed conclusively that they are highly disruptive to traffic flows. A city should rather be planned with T-junctions as pre-nineteenth century cities mostly were.

Subsequent to Sitte’s book traffic lights were devised to help make crossroads work better but traffic engineers if they have the space prefer roundabouts which convert crossroads into a series of T-junctions and traffic flows are maximized without the need for lights.

Gridirons create nothing but crossroads and in doing so invented a new form of congestion with a new name: “gridlock”

All that said the gridiron is necessary to New York for aesthetic reasons. The overwhelming height of the buildings means that the streets at pedestrian level could be oppressive, however, this effect is successivefully negated by the straight streets without disrupted vistas

Those going East-West lead straight off the island allowing a merciful view of the horizon at each end in most cases. Where the vista is terminated by a tall building as that finishing with the Pan-Am building the effect is oppressive but such instances are relatively rare

The gridiron contributes to making New York one of the few truly successive and beautiful high rise cities. If the newer ones in Asia and elsewhere had learned this lession they too could have been beautiful.
It's a shame they didn't consult L'Enfant. More diagonals would have made the city much more beautiful.
Interesting history. As a native New Yorker, I always appreciated the staggered lights on the North-South avenues in NYC, as this speeded up traffic. I now live in SoCal, where city planners recently asked for suggestions about how to smooth traffic congestion on local streets. I suggested staggered lights. At first, they said it couldn't be done, but now, it's happening and it helps a lot, while costing little.
Absolutely right. I drive in DC or Philly and get lost. In Manhattan outside of that big man made park in the middle, it's a breeze. Really, who could ask for anything more.
But they forgot alleys. So they pile up the garbage in front. Everything has a cost.
DeGeorge Washenton March 24, 2012 at 1:59 PM
And then came Robert Moses. And that's another