Infrastructure & Environment

The Return of The Grid

After centuries of abuse, gridded streets are finally getting some respect.
by | November 2005
 

I'm looking at a postcard of Barcelona: more precisely, of the L'Eixample district that stretches north from Placa Catalunya in the center of town. It's an aerial view, and what you see from this angle is a repeating pattern of virtually identical blocks, all of them square except for the odd fact that the four corners of each one face out diagonally, making what are really octagons rather than perfect squares. From above, it looks as if someone snipped off the edge of each block so there wouldn't be any right angles.

That's sort of what happened. L'Eixample was the work of Ildefons Cerda, a 19th-century architect and planner who was fascinated by geometry and, in particular, by the grid system. In designing L'Eixample, he felt he was creating the ideal grid, not only aesthetically but in social terms as well. He called his blocks "the clear and genuine expression of mathematical equality, the equality of rights and interests, of justice itself." He saw each block as a close-knit little community, with a garden inside the walls for the residents to relax and play in. He thought that lopping off the corners would make it easier for carriages to negotiate the streets.

For more than a hundred years, the residents of Barcelona didn't quite grasp what Cerda was up to. They saw L'Eixample as not only eccentric but also boring. Each side of each block was exactly 113.3 meters long. All the regular streets were exactly 20 meters wide. Cerda seemed to many a compulsive checkerboard-maker who sought to give his city order but succeeded only in making it sterile. One of the city's most prominent architects complained of L'Eixample's "total monotony, its lack of grace, its inability to understand that life can be pleasant."

It was only much later that L'Eixample began to come into favorable reputation, both among residents and among architects and planners worldwide. As Barcelona has prospered and drawn international admiration in the 30 years since the return of democracy to Spain, the octagonal blocks and tree-lined streets of L'Eixample have become the places everyone wants to live in, although few can afford to. "It is Cerda's plan," the urbanist Joseph Rykwert wrote a few years ago, "that provided the basis for the revitalizing of Barcelona."

This all seems reasonable enough to me, because I grew up in Chicago, a city as gridded as a waffle-iron, more than 25 miles of square blocks from north to south, so many that it's hard even to comprehend their vastness. The main difference between Chicago and L'Eixample, other than sheer size, is that developers in Chicago weren't allowed to try any funny stuff like cutting off the right angles. Virtually everything is square, block after identical block. Every eight blocks makes a mile. Every mile there's a major shopping street. It all looks familiar even if you're in a part of the city you've never seen before.

I was well along in life before I realized that there was any other way to organize a city. Eventually, however, I saw not only that the grid was not universal but that there were knowledgeable writers and experts who found it dull--even oppressive. A.J. Liebling came to Chicago in the 1940s and found the layout physically stultifying: "an endless succession of factory town main streets."

It wasn't just Liebling, and it wasn't just Chicago. Grids have had a bad name almost from the day cities started putting them in. Philadelphia is usually given credit for being America's first gridded city, based on a plan William Penn drew up in 1683. A century and a half later, Charles Dickens paid a visit and wrote that "after walking about it for an hour or two, I would have given the world for a crooked street."

Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, built elaborately curving urban parkland expressly to counteract the debilitating effects of life at right angles on uniform city blocks. One of his early colleagues felt it was the duty of his profession to "help new and expanding towns free themselves from the tyranny of the grid."

Early in the 20th century, the American Institute of Architects issued a report formally denouncing grids as "tiresome" and old- fashioned," singling out hapless Philadelphia as possessing the most "unyielding and ugly rectangular system." After World War II, a major foundation study condemned gridded downtowns and neighborhoods as "rectangular islands surrounded by noise, dirt, fumes and danger," in which residents floated in a "great sea of despondency." Fortune magazine observed scornfully that "the checkerboard has even been imposed on the hills of San Francisco."

Grids were symbols of unvarying sameness in a society whose intellectual leaders prided themselves on experiment, spontaneity and a willingness to take off in new directions when the time seemed right. Grids never take off in new directions. They just go on straight, mile after mile. No spirit of adventure at all.

For 200 years, we denounced the grid system as sterile and oppressive, all the while installing it in virtually every city we created. Why did we do that? Because grids are a fantastically efficient way to sell real estate. You just divide the land into identical parcels, put a price on each acre, and look for a buyer. In 1811, when the New York City commissioners planned the city's expansion, they abandoned the picturesque narrow streets of lower Manhattan and went for a grid all the way to the northern tip of the island. "As an aid to speculation," a 20th-century critic jibed, "the commissioners' plan was perhaps unequalled."

To 19th-century designers such as Olmsted and 20th-century writers such as Lewis Mumford, the link between grids and real estate speculation was one more good reason to denounce them. Mumford called parcels of land in an urban grid system "abstract units for buying and selling." Mumford, one of the most influential of all urban critics from the 1930s to the '80s, loved the quirkiness and irregularity of the narrow, winding streets of London and Boston. He deplored the mercenary rigidities of gridded cities.

But what could be done about it? Boston was essentially a medieval town coping awkwardly with the demands of the modern era. No planner or developer was going to create another one of those. The grid system may have been crass and monotonous, but it was practical. Nothing else was.

In the years after World War II, however, something else did become practical, or at least feasible: planned developments organized around highways rather than streets and sidewalks, with suburban residential clusters ending in cul-de-sacs; office parks emptying out onto arterial roads; and free-standing urban high-rise buildings in "superblocks" largely inaccessible except by automobile. Postwar planners managed to accomplish one thing, at least: They got rid of all those boring straight lines. Suburban subdivisions curve and twist their way to dead ends with scarcely a straight line anywhere. The cloverleaf was a brand new geometrical construction that had been unimaginable in the "tiresome" and "old-fashioned" gridded city.

The anti-grid urbanists got what many of them wished for. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out to be what they had envisioned. The gridded city, rigid and monotonous to walk in, had been replaced by car-dominated suburbs in which it was scarcely possible to walk at all.

And so the pro-grid backlash was born. In the 1980s, revisionists such as John B. Jackson and William H. Whyte began arguing that gridded cities had virtues that previous generations of critics had failed to notice. Jackson observed that "the grid layout, universally condemned by the postwar generation for its unfeeling rigidity, somehow managed in San Francisco to produce a wonderful juxtaposition of contrasting neighborhoods." Whyte wrote that "the tight grid and short blocks may be rigid, but the pattern maximizes pedestrian activity." When the New Urbanist movement was launched in the early 1990s, it made the preservation--or reimposition--of grids a key article of faith.

None of this is to say that there's any magic about grids, as Cerda thought there was, or that they have been implemented in the most attractive ways. Even writers who like grids concede that they work best when they are broken up by parks, plazas and diagonals-- variations that Jane Jacobs called "visual interruptions." Most cities didn't do this. Chicago ignored Daniel Burnham's recommendation to intersperse gridded rectangular streets with Parisian-style boulevards; what the city ended up with was a ubiquitous grid pattern. Residents of Barcelona have been complaining for 150 years that Cerda didn't put enough squares or parks in L'Eixample.

Still, the evidence of the past decade pretty much speaks for itself. Third-world cities all over the globe have laid down conventional grids to replace the maze-like squatter neighborhoods that grew up on their outskirts in the 1960s and '70s. Dozens of American suburbs are laboring to create gridded town centers to replace regional malls from the past generation that closed or are failing. And, in a display of what might be called artistic justice, every year at least one major university or museum offers an exhibition dedicated to Ildefons Cerda's projects and ideas.

The grid is no ideal solution to any problem, but it's alive and well after close to two centuries of abuse. Perhaps one might say of it for designing a city what Winston Churchill said about democracy: It's the worst possible system, except for all the others that have been tried.Even proponents concede that grids work best when they are broken up by "visual interruptions," such as parks, plazas or diagonals. Most cities don't do this.

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