Cities of longitude and latitude
January 21, 2012 1:55 PM   Subscribe

What major cities have grids laid out on the North/South axis? Are there advantages or reasons for this?

The streets of Chicago, Beijing, Kyoto are organized on the N/S/E/W axis. Are there other major cities (more curious about older cities) that are similarly designed? Is there a reason these cities would be laid out like that?
posted by minkll to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Gridding a city on that axis makes it much easier to hand-map, for one thing. Rectangular grids are also typically much easier to navigate than most of the alternatives, especially for out-of-towners.

Much of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are on the N/S/E/W axis, whereas Manhattan is 30° off, due to the angle of Manhattan island itself.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:02 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seattle is also on a N/S/E/W grid, except for downtown which is slightly off due to following the waterline. It means that if you give me a street address I've never seen before, I know pretty much where it is without even hearing a suburb.
posted by jacalata at 2:04 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I grew up in the suburbs of Miami, which are definitely gridded this way, as is most of southeast Florida. I think it's natural that planners lay out major roads along the cardinal directions.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:05 PM on January 21, 2012

The historic district of Savannah, Georgia (founded 1733, so suitably old) is laid out on a grid. It's not quite N/S/E/W, because they lined it up with the bank of the river, but it is quite orderly. The city was planned out before they even landed, which is why it looks so nice. Unfortunately, this kind of all went to hell as the city expanded, and the rest is just a smattering of subdivisions and suburban sprawl.
posted by phunniemee at 2:09 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Prior to artificial lighting buildings could be built with windows facing to the south in the northern hemisphere (and facing north in the southern hemisphere) to maximize light from the sun. Ensuring streets went from east to west, and north to south by consequence, would help the effect.
posted by jwells at 2:13 PM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Toronto was laid out in 1793 on a grid. Lake Ontario was conviently south (cities to the west were laid out on grid but the edge of Lake Ontario was not south so they are skewed by 30 degrees or so. Grids are easy to impose on virgin land or cities that have been burnt down or deliberately destroyed like Paris.

Grids facilitate easy crowd control, policing (no windy streets to get lost in), fire prevention, and help standardize urban services like sewers and electricity.
posted by saucysault at 2:21 PM on January 21, 2012

Check out how downtown Los Angelas was planned in different ways by Spanish and then American developers. The Spaniard preferred building at a slant while the Americans wanted to use the cardinal directions.
posted by Winnemac at 2:22 PM on January 21, 2012

Melbourne, Australia.
The Hoddle Grid is the layout of the streets in the centre of the central business district of Melbourne. Named after its designer, Robert Hoddle, the grid was laid out in 1837, and later extended.

While the survey plan has proved, in time, to be far-sighted for public utility, serving Melbourne to this day, at the time Hoddle's instructions from Governor Gipps were more prosaic.
Land allotments for sale at public auction were to be produced as quickly as possible to deliver to the market. Gipps also insisted that all towns laid out during his term of office should have no public squares included within their boundaries, being convinced that they only encouraged democracy.
posted by Kerasia at 2:24 PM on January 21, 2012

Portland, Oregon is largely a grid, aligned N/S. As with Jacalata, if you give me an address, I pretty much know how to find it. I get lost in the southwest hills, where the grid runs out and everything goes twisty.

Here's an interesting article focusing on the drawbacks of grid-based platting, with an ensuing discussion from urban planning geeks.

See also, apparently, Miletus, Houston, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Ouagadougou, Barcelona... Wikipedia
posted by mumkin at 2:26 PM on January 21, 2012

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is laid out really elegantly, thanks to William Penn.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 2:38 PM on January 21, 2012

I alwyas thought it was an Age Of Reason thing: North American cities first laid out in the 16th and 17th centuries -- St. John's, Boston, Quebec City, Manhattan (below Houston) -- look much more European and organic (read: haphazard) in the layout of the older sections. By the time you get to the mid-1700's and onwards -- the rest of Manhattan, Toronto, Calgary, Minneapolis -- you get a much more common regular grid.

Toronto was planned out so rigidly by surveyors that the marks of the surveyors' chains linger. A chain is 66 feet long, and many of the major streets are or were 66 feet across, with minor streets being 33 feet from curb to curb. As well, the baseline of Queen Street (the former Lot Street) is the starting point for the major grid going north: Queen to Bloor; Bloor to St. Clair; St. Clair to Lawrence; Lawrence to Eglinton -- 6600 feet for each step.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:51 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is there a reason these cities would be laid out like that?

Chicago's "hundred block" system: This simple system makes it very easy to surmise where you are in relation to downtown; knowing a cross street's coordinates, it's effortless to find any address in the city.
posted by scody at 2:58 PM on January 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Philly is the king (or Queen!) of the grid.
posted by two lights above the sea at 3:00 PM on January 21, 2012

Also, the older part of Fargo, North Dakota is a near-perfect grid. I imagine that this is because it's incredibly flat, and therefore easier to make extremely straight roads.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2012

Grid layout of cities is OLD. If we start out with the Çatalhöyük which is about 6,000 BCE you can see a definite sense of layout. Now if you want major metropolis laid out with intense urban planning then nothing beats ancient Chang'An, in particular, the Tang period. Ancient Heian Kyo (Kyoto) was modeled after Chang'An.

The original layout of Spanish missions and towns were mandated by the Laws of the Indies (1500's) but grid goes back further in Spanish colonial America piror to that with Aztec city layout.

When looking at the grid and the city it is a way older pattern than previously thought.
posted by jadepearl at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2012

As a (set of) counterexamples, I do not know of a British city that fundamentally has a grid layout. But, I think one was planned for London after the Great Fire of 1666, so I guess age of the city matters.
posted by plonkee at 3:22 PM on January 21, 2012

Are you asking about the grid system, or about the practice of aligning the grid to the compass directions?
posted by hattifattener at 3:29 PM on January 21, 2012

Yes, cardinal was the word I was looking for.

I get the grid system, and it's not surprising that many cities listed here are North American, ie less than 300 hundred years old. But I'm looking for older cities that are on this specific axis.
posted by minkll at 3:31 PM on January 21, 2012

Cities in the tropics are laid out in grids 5-15 degrees off due North to take advantage of the tradewinds. I doubt if many tropical coastal cities will follow the strict N/S/E/W grid you are looking for, regardless of age.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:40 PM on January 21, 2012

Chang'An takes the cardinal points. Take a look at the layout and the history. The cardinal points were part of the design.
posted by jadepearl at 3:43 PM on January 21, 2012

Most of the flat part of Portland, Oregon is laid out on a N/S/E/W grid.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:43 PM on January 21, 2012

Wikepedia has an article on grid plan,with examples going back to 2600 BC.

In many cases, the actual orientation of streets is probably linked to geographical features, such as the orientationof the island in Manhattan. It's the same here in Montreal. The "east-west" streets in Montreal run parallel to the St. Lawrence river, which actually runs SSW to NNE. So "east" in Montreal is actually closer to N than E, and "west" closer to S than E, but we stick to the "east-west" out of habit and convenience.
posted by bluefrog at 3:49 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chang'An and Kyoto are good examples of what I'm looking for. The answer to why they ended up that way in those cases being "Imperial decree".

halfbuckaroo's comment was interesting too.
posted by minkll at 3:55 PM on January 21, 2012

Angkor Wat is laid out on a strict E/W axis, in line with religious beliefs.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:02 PM on January 21, 2012

The centre of Glasgow is laid out as a grid. Map
posted by stuartmm at 4:02 PM on January 21, 2012

Roman colonies were typically laid out along the Cardo and Decumanus - the Cardo running north-south, the Decumanus running east-west, with the city/colony/camp laid out in a grid around their intersection. Lots of cities the Romans fonded still have that layout somewhere at their centers - like Turin.
posted by LionIndex at 4:03 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The design of Chang'An is a combination of the practical and the mystical, in particular, geomancy. Where it starts to get interesting is the incorporation of zoning and regulated movements. You see where travel is constrained by rules of geomancy e.g., Tale of Genji where a person could not travel certain directions due to fortune's decree, in regards to Kyoto.

The sources in the Wikipedia article are actually quite good and relevant to your question on why the city was laid out the way it was through historical time.
posted by jadepearl at 4:04 PM on January 21, 2012

Finally, take a look at Lhasa, Tibet, which seems to have gone to great pains to maintain the E/W axis in some pretty tough geography since 822 C.E.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:30 PM on January 21, 2012

Older cities such as Kyoto retains its pre-modern Imperial grid, derived in turn from China. In this, the north-south axis had cosmological significance - it's the celestial pole about which all the stars revolve - and it's probable (although I have not looked into this in the specific case of Kyoto) that the original city was a model (on earth) of this celestial sphere, and the imperial palace was located at the center of this symbolic world, generating a link between the Emperor and the heavens above. Well it's probably a lot more complex than that, but you get the idea.
posted by carter at 5:39 PM on January 21, 2012

A lot of the 'world axis' theory of cities dates back to the work of Mircea Eliade. There is also some scepticism about applying it wholesale. There's an online paper here which mentions this from page 30 on.
posted by carter at 5:53 PM on January 21, 2012

There is, of course, Washington DC as well. L'Enfant used a grid plan here, though it's modified by the diagonal "grand" avenues, state streets, and traffic circles.

Still, if you know an address in DC, you can figure out where it is pretty nicely. First the quadrant tells you where you are relative to the Capitol. Then numbered streets are N/S and lettered E/W. When you run out of single letters, you move onto 2-syllable words (Adams, Bryant, Calvert), then 3 (Brandywine), and finally the "4"s which are botanical (Aspen, &c).

Finally Eastern, Western, and Southern Avenues all border the District against Maryland.
posted by Fortran at 6:11 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Calgary (as mentioned previously) and Edmonton, Alberta.

The weird thing about Edmonton, is that instead of having 0,0 downtown, they had 100, 100 - to try and "eliminate" quadrants like Calgary has (NW, SW, NE, SE)...
posted by jkaczor at 7:16 PM on January 21, 2012

Salt Lake City is so rigidly NSEW gridified (not a word) that hardly any of the streets have names, and the Wikipedia article has an entire subsection ("Layout") extolling its virtues/specifics. Admittedly this is in part because there's a whole legend about the layout of SLC (such that I didn't visit SLC until I was 27, or have any relatives who lived there, but I learned about it when I was a kid.)

The only annoying part is that a bunch of the other cities kept the system going, but at points (seemingly random to me) the numbers start over. So you always want to know the ZIP code if you're given an address.
posted by SMPA at 7:22 PM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the US, west of the Appalachians, the grid system is much more common. This is largely a result of the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Northwest Ordinance and the Public Land Survey System, which required a survey and creation of a grid system to facilitate land transactions and thereby development.
posted by dhartung at 9:37 AM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mention of Washington DC (my home town) reminds me of Mannheim, in Germany, which also has a central grid with similar numbered and lettered streets, along with required NE SE SW and NW quadrants in any address there.
posted by Rash at 11:46 AM on January 22, 2012

The uptight, mercantile WASPs who laid out Minneapolis, MN, were pretty consistent with their grid, though the scappy settlers who put Pig's Eye (later renamed to St. Paul) on the map were more organic. Yay, Tangletown!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:09 AM on January 25, 2012

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