thoughts on our urban future

History of the Grid

Roman grid visible in modern Florence

In the past month I have had two conversations with different people about urban grids.  One, an almost architect who has taken another path said:

“Prior to the advent of animal-drawn carts, for example, many cities didn’t have streets – they had agglomerations of courtyards, access via staircases and ladders, that sort of thing.  Bringing animal drawn carts didn’t solve any problems; it created them, ultimately resulting in the destruction of that kind of urban form.”

The other, a complete layperson when it comes to issues of design was speaking to me about Seoul in South Korea and was expressing how much of it’s original ‘Asian-ness’ was lost, as the city was rebuilt by Americans and that how it was entirely obvious that it was built by Americans because it works on a grid system and everyone knows the grid system is an export of American urban ideology.

Really?  People, people – I think a bit of a history lesson is in order.

In my own architecture education I learned about Hippodamus, the “Father of City Planning” and his plan for Miletus.  Hippodamus was Greek and lived around 400 BC.  I’ve talked about Priene with students explaining how the grid is set to work with the topography so that water runs down the streets although this made certain travel methods impossible or complicated due to the use of steps.

The Etruscans and later Romans embraced the Greek gridded plans and added new dimensions to the idea of a grid- mainly the north/south and east/west axial roads known as the decumanus maximus and cardo maximus respectively.  The Romans also developed a standardized plan for the castra or military settlements.  In fact there are many parts of the world where the grid of the ancient Roman settlement is still visible in the urban plan today, like in the image of Florence I’ve picked to go with this post.

Now as much as I would like to move forward in history from this point, a general gander at Wikipedia shows me what I already knew.  The Greeks and the Romans were certainly not the first of the ancient people to use a gridded urban plan and sometimes our western education should try to be a little more worldly focused.  In 2600 BC, the Indus Valley Civilization was using gridded urban forms in what is now Pakistan.  Most notably in the cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.  A worker’s village at Giza in Egypt was laid out in a gridded pattern around 2500 BC.  When Hammurabi rebuilt Babylon around 1750 BC the plan was generally at right angles and gridded.

Moving forward in time, Koreans and the Japanese were influenced by Chinese urban form and adopted the grid around 700 AD.  The bastides in southern France were built with grids in the 13th and 14th centuries AD.  This was really a common trend from the Greeks onwards- the urban form was part of the colonization and settlement process.  When you arrived wherever you were going, you needed to know how to set up shop.  This was exemplified by the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Laws of the Indies which prescribed a gridded settlement.

So I hope this brief reminder clarifies that the urban grid is not an American invention.  Although it is certainly a widely used adoption for American cities.  The grid spread out over America in a way and on a scale that had never been seen before, in particular through the use of the Public Land Survey System originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson and started in the late 1700s.

Which brings me to the second point to address- that somehow the urban grid is anti urban.  Or that it distorts urban purity over ‘wrongly’ prioritized transportation.  Transportation is, unarguably, critical to the success of any urban form.  Once individuals depend on goods and services coming in, as well as waste going out, how those goods, services, and waste moves becomes fundamental to the functionality and sustainability of the place.  I simply don’t understand the argument that ‘horse drawn carts’ destroyed some abstract purity of urbanism.  After all, before horse drawn carts there were people drawn sledges.  The use of animals was beneficial but by no means particularly novel in regards to the relationship between the transportation and the city.  I would accept that the use of wheels led to a move away from steps.  But I can’t imagine anyone making the argument that a stepped city is somehow more pure in form.  After all, that would completely depend on the topography of the place and not human nature.

I suppose what is clear from this investigation is that ‘the grid’ is a charged and powerful form.  It can invoke feelings in people that may not be intended.  There is great variety in the use of the grid from block size to road width, and from pure right angles to circular arrays.  The grid is logical and ordered but can also be restrictive and monotonous.  Good urban design understands all of these issues and uses the appropriate measure for the corresponding task.  As with most design challenges, there will never be one right answer.  But an urban designer would do well to understand the history of the grid- understand how it can be used, where it has been successful and where it has not.

At the very least, it will give you the facts you need when someone in your presence says something incorrect about the grid, and you choose to correct them.  Or maybe that’s just me.

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  1. Interesting read. However, I would suggest if someone wants to credit America with the grid, we take it!

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