Blocks, Superblocks and the Making of Cities
The familiar grid has its detractors, but it also has strengths. Could an eccentric Spanish architect from the 1840s teach us how to do it right?
San Francisco, America’s most famously hilly city, chose more than a century ago to run a grid system up and over its steep hills, almost as if they didn’t exist. Some local leaders thought this was crazy, but it created the delightfully quirky place San Francisco has been ever since.
Most older American cities have a much different history. Boston took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries essentially as a medieval market town, with an irregular warren of narrow, winding lanes. Most cities of a comparable age got started that way.
But they couldn’t stay like that. By the early 19th century, most cities decided that narrow medieval-era streets were a hindrance to commerce, as well as an insult to any urban sense of order. We see many of the few remaining narrow-lane neighborhoods in this country as quaint and charming tourist attractions, but that’s not what most of the people who had to use them thought of them.
In 1811, New York City redrew its street map to abandon its narrow streets and lanes and impose a grid system on the entire island of Manhattan north of Greenwich Village. The grid pattern was easier to understand and much friendlier to commercial traffic. We have lived with it ever since, and so have virtually all other cities.
But wherever it was imposed, the grid generated a nearly universal complaint: It was boring. Charles Dickens visited gridded Philadelphia in the 1840s and wrote that “after walking about it for an hour or two, I would have given the world for a crooked street.” One prominent architect proclaimed that it was the duty of his profession to “help new and expanding towns free themselves from the tyranny of the grid.” A few decades later, the American Institute of Architects issued a report formally denouncing grids as “tiresome” and “old-fashioned,” singling out Philadelphia as possessing the most “unyielding and ugly rectangular system.” A foundation study went so far as to proclaim that Philadelphia’s gridded residents floated in a “great sea of despondency.”
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. Grids never took off in new directions. They just went on straight, mile after monotonous mile.
SO BY THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, it was inevitable that an alternative to the grid would emerge from the urban planning establishment. And one did: the superblock.
Superblocks were part of the modern architecture movement, but they were even more an attempt to marry city planning with the automobile. Le Corbusier, the architect most clearly associated with superblocks, conceived them as long stretches of pavement around which he could place skyscrapers in parks, the streets surrounded by arterials whose only purpose was to permit cars to move faster. The city was to be composed of isolated superblock clusters, with commerce and housing entirely separated. Fortunately for all of us, no major cities were ever bulldozed to meet Corbusier’s specifications, but the superblocks took hold in an entirely different context: They were used to design public housing projects all over America, sterile high-rise developments that erased poor but viable neighborhood communities and replaced them with dehumanizing towers that rapidly became seedbeds of delinquency and violence.
It took the genius of Jane Jacobs, writing in 1961, to expose to a mass audience just what an insult to urbanism these superblocks — and overlong blocks of any sort — really were. “Superblock projects,” she wrote in The Death and Life of American Cities, “are apt to have all the disabilities of long blocks, frequently in exaggerated form, even when they are laced with promenades and malls.” In her view, endless blocks without intersections “are meaningless because all their scenes are essentially the same.”
Jacobs’ tirade was enough to put an effective end to any notion of superblocks as an improvement in the quality of urban design. But what would be an improvement? Strict grid systems had had their day, and remained an object of derision. There was no way we could go back to gridded planning.
Or was there? To answer that question, we need to take a look at Barcelona, a city that began experimenting with grid systems nearly 200 years ago.
IT WAS IN THE 1840S that Ildefons Cerdà, an eccentric Barcelona architect, designed and created L’Eixample, an entire neighborhood of blocks exactly 371 feet long and 65 feet wide. The aspect of Cerdà’s handiwork that focused the Spanish city’s attention wasn’t the blocks’ length, however. It was the fact that each of the blocks was rounded at the corners. He thought that lopping off the corners would make it easier for carriages to negotiate the streets. No one had ever seen anything of that kind before, in any city. Most of the city’s leadership thought Cerdà was crazy, that he was a compulsive checkerboard maker. One prominent architect complained of L’Eixample’s “total monotony, its lack of grace, its inability to understand that life can be pleasant.”
In fact, though, making life pleasant was exactly what Cerdà was trying to do. The most important thing to him wasn’t the shape of the blocks, but what could go on inside them. He saw each block as a close-knit little community, with a garden within the walls for the residents to relax and socialize and play in. He called his blocks “the clear and genuine expression” not only of mathematical equality “but of the equality of rights and interests, of justice itself.”
L’Eixample was something of a joke in Barcelona for almost a century, but in the last 40 years its rounded streets and internal courtyards became fashionable, so much so that only the wealthy could afford to live there. A couple of decades ago, the architect Joseph Rykwert wrote that “it is Cerdà’s plan that provided the basis for the revitalizing of Barcelona.”
Now the city is going back to Cerdà’s vision, all except the round corners. In the last five years it has built six new superblocks, each slightly more than a quarter-mile long, and wants to establish 21 of them by 2030. Inside each superblock is a network of nine streets limited to pedestrians and very slow-moving vehicles. In words familiar to today’s planners, the goal is “to recover space for the community, improve biodiversity, move toward sustainable mobility and encourage social cohesion.” The interiors of the superblocks contain parks, playgrounds and fountains, and lots of trees. Anticipating a decrease in mobility for automobiles, the city is adding more than 40 miles of bus lanes. One long-term goal is to ban automobiles from the interior of superblocks altogether.
WHAT BARCELONA IS DOING has attracted acolytes among like-minded architects all over the globe. “Barcelona is turning into a giant superblock,” one urbanist wrote recently, “and the world is rooting for it.”
Well, not necessarily the whole world. As soon as the contemporary superblock movement got underway in Barcelona, merchants doing business within the enclaves began to complain that the system would cost them business, since it would be more difficult for cars to come inside and for delivery trucks to bring supplies. So far, this does not seem to be a critical problem. But the controversy continues.
One might argue that the entire long-running debate about grids and superblocks is a debate over freedom versus order, in the eyes of some an order so rigid that it interferes with personal liberties. But unless you are a dogmatic libertarian, you understand that true freedom exists within communities, in places where people have the opportunity to express their desire for regular sociability. The freedom to drive your car through endless traffic jams isn’t much of a freedom at all. The current generation of Barcelona planners is trying to create a freedom born of physical order and contiguous community. It is too early to predict how successful this will be. But it seems appropriate to wish them luck.