Organizing Cities
March 12, 2004 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading a book about the London Underground that cites Paris as a radial city and New York as a grid city while claiming that London is unclassifiable. I'd never thought much about alternates to the grid system.

My question is, can anyone point to alternate schemes for organizing cities? Or know of/live in particular cities that exemplify one scheme or another?
posted by jeffhoward to Society & Culture (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Christopher Alexander, in a pattern language (for-fee reg req'd or check out the book) describes a system of multiple overlapping networks.

Carfree describes a streetcar-oriented topology that you might call "strings of pearls"

Houston is organized (if that's the right word) around concentric loops, but it's really more like a malignant tumor.

Tokyo's city layout is perverse: the Imperial Palace (formerly the Shogun's castle) is roughly at the center of town, and the streets were originally laid out to confuse invaders and send them past it. There are three main commuter-rail systems in the city today: The JR system has a ring route around what used to be the city limits and a central route that roughly bisects the city north-south. The Toei system has three routes that describe a triangle around the center of town, and the TRTA network is (very roughly) radial.
posted by adamrice at 11:28 AM on March 12, 2004

Moscow is a classic radial city.

Boston is interesting because it's partially a grid city (in the South End, Back Bay and Southie, which were built on fill post-1850), and pretty much adheres to London-style innavigable mess elsewhere. Even the high-traffic financial district is built around colonial footpaths.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:30 AM on March 12, 2004

Phoenix is almost a perfect grid system, and it makes it incredibly easy to get about, especially given the great distances one must travel in this sprawling city. If I may, I wrote a long post on this subject on my site.
posted by crawl at 11:33 AM on March 12, 2004

Mumbai is unclassifiable, it's got a few localised grids, but on the whole it's as bad as Boston, if not worse.
posted by riffola at 11:40 AM on March 12, 2004

Isn't Salt Lake City based around the Mormon Temple, with street names reflecting how far east, west, north or south from the temple they are?

Second Mayor Curley, Boston is laid out on the chaos principle.
posted by vito90 at 11:57 AM on March 12, 2004

In school, we went through this same issue. We came up with three divisions:
1. Organic [London, old Boston]
2. Grid [NYC]
3. Radial [Paris, Washington DC]

Most cities are built upon a variation of one, two, or all three. What is more interesting, to me, is the question: why certain cities adopted such patterns?

What really astonishes me, is that nearly every city plan can be classified by pattern type; the underlying reasons for the adoption of the pattern type is due to economic [the corporation], political [the state], or religious [the church] being in power. That is why Paris has all three types: Throughout its history, all three spheres of power have been dominant.

Organic is the name for patterns which form no sorts of cartesian "order". The aforementioned old Boston, London, Paris, many older [medieval] cities, and many 50's suburban cities etc follow this pattern. Mostly this was the result of right by might land grabs by peasants and gentry and due to long established lines of trade and transportation. This is why Broadway in NYC meanders, it is the old NYC to Boston Road. New suburbs and cities with organic form operate largely out of nostalgia for times past. See Lower Manhattan below 14th Street.

The grided city is neither new, nor revolutionary. It has roots in ancient Roman military garrisons, which is how it was spread: through Roman conquest. The widespread adoption of the grid has both celestial and economic history. In New York City, being a maritime city, its chief concern was with commerce from the very beginning. The grid is the easiest, fastest, and most expedient way to sell land. When the Some state that the grid is essentially a democratic equalizer, but it really is the opposite; it is a capitalistic tool, which reinforces the status quo. Well, there is Savannah, GA, which is really just a variant of the Grid, but which tries to de-emphasize the grid by incorporating parish parks. See also Philadelphia.

Radial cities grew out of the Renaissance thinker's obsession with geometric "purity". And the ability to move troops around to crush dissent. Paris and Rome are the results of an Organic city which had radial elements interjected into them - mostly to allow the aforementioned troop movements. Washington DC is an interesting case, because it was built upon a tabla rasa. Le Enfant, being a typical enlightened French thinker [and Jefferson, Washington, et al being largely trained in the French humanities] the radial grided plan was the perfect way to mark lines upon the earth. See also Back Bay in Boston [and the Hub].
posted by plemeljr at 12:01 PM on March 12, 2004

Not only is Calgary, Alberta (Canada) set up as a grid but the streets are all given numberic names followed by a compass direction. For example, "3456 24th Ave, N.W. is in the northwest quadrant of the city near the junction of 24 Ave N and 34 St W". Can't get much easier than that...
posted by Gortuk at 12:02 PM on March 12, 2004

San francisco, as most people are aware, is an extremely hilly city. But it had a grid imposed on top of those hills. So, what you get of course are streets at impossible angles (cf. Lombard st. which has to curve) and other unexpected good things like scenic staircases.
posted by vacapinta at 12:07 PM on March 12, 2004

Ok, so that was about 7 years studying the city distilled into a few paragraphs. For more info read:

Flesh and Stone - Richard Sennett
[How religion, state, and economy changed how we move in the city]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Jane Jacobs
[seminal book about the american city]

Delirious New York - Rem Koolhaas
[NYC in the 1970's and obsession with bigness]

The Image of the City - Kevin Lynch
[How we view the and interact with the city]

Geography Of Nowhere - James Howard Kunstler
[discusses the suburbanization of America after WWII]
posted by plemeljr at 12:13 PM on March 12, 2004

Check out misc.transport.road. It has a bunch of people with a passion for such things. I can't find it now, but I remember somewhere saying Kansas City is one of the last traditional east-style cities. I haven't traveled enough on the West Coast to verify this but I'm guessing (with the exception of modern Southwestern cities) this is probably true. You can take the numbered streets (east-west) from one side of the city to the other, and the named main streets from downtown till they end in some cow pasture way south of the city. Well I've only tried it on a few streets. Grid streets are so easy to figure out, you can never really get lost (Oh on 119th? Take it west till you figure out where you are). I hate Southern style make no sense streets. But interestingly, a southern gentleman visiting from whatever town he was from got really confused with the layout. More so with the whole "one-way" thing, I guess they don't have a lot of those in the South.
posted by geoff. at 12:33 PM on March 12, 2004

Response by poster: What? No links that would allow me to directly read the books? For *shame* plemeljr.

Seriously, that's awesome.

I'm certainly interested in the WHY behind city layouts. I just moved to Pittsburgh, and am struck by the way the topography so obviously dictated the layout of the streets and neighborhoods. Three rivers, mountains, tunnels, bridges. I'm from a small town in the midwest so it's taking a while to get used to roads that run parallel to streets they also intersect.
posted by jeffhoward at 12:33 PM on March 12, 2004

Amsterdam is another example of a radial city (though half-circle rather than circle). The parts that are further away from the city center are more organic - they're a combination of existing villages, getting incorporated in the ever-expanding city, and newer buildings.

My stab at an explanation would be:

Radial: a settlement comes into being near a spot like dam in a river (as is the case with Amsterdam) and starts to expand.

Organic: existing villages and settlements that get incorporated into the city; natural features like steep slopes that the city developers have to 'work around'; different social or ethnic groups within the population that live in separate areas; different functions within the city (business, shopping, governmental buildings) that require different types of buildings and different levels of accessibility.

Grid: rational thought at work.

(Obviously plemeljr knows much more about this stuff than I do.)
posted by rjs at 12:36 PM on March 12, 2004

Radial [Paris, Washington DC]
Dallas, Texas is radial which was designed for the farming communities access.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:57 PM on March 12, 2004

The legend is that Boston' s streets follow former cowpaths. In the book Salt, the author says that many of our roads are laid out along routes the local wildlife took to the local salt lick.

(By the way, go read Salt if you're interested in having your worldview completely change -- it's incredible)
posted by acridrabbit at 1:06 PM on March 12, 2004

Latinamerican cities mostly have a small, tight, spanish-built orthogonal nucleus (typically 12x12 blocks, with a Plaza de Armas (originally the last line of defense against the natives) in the center), and then all hell breaks loose around that as the city metastasizes, swallowing up outlying villages and seeking to satisfy the populace's never quenched need for new living space. It's quite a spectacle.
posted by signal at 1:07 PM on March 12, 2004

If you're interested in this subject you need to read Spiro Kostof's books The City Shaped and The City Assembled (which are more directly on the topic than plemeljr's excellent reading list, plus they're gorgeously illustrated).
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on March 12, 2004

Qosqo's center maintains the streets and building foundation layed out by the Inkas, Tiawanuku and who knows who before that. They didn't use the wheel for transport, so it's not uncommon for a street to become a staricase without warning.
posted by signal at 1:12 PM on March 12, 2004

San Francisco actually has two grids, that collide rather inelegantly at Market Street, the main street downtown. (Ironically, Main Street is not the main street.) And in some parts of town (like the Sunset district) the street names are in alphabetical order.

The real crookedest street in San Francisco is Vermont Avenue, in Portrero Hill. ("Portrero" is Spanish for "between two freeways.")

Washington, DC supposedly has weird Masonic symbols (map) built into its grid. DC's grid is actually radial and a grid, which makes for some confusing street patterns. My theory is that the avenues that are named after states point at the states they are named after.
The District of Columbia is 67 square miles and divided into 4 quadrants: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast. The U.S. Capitol building marks the center where the quadrants meet. Numbered streets run north-south. Lettered streets run east-west (there are no J, X, Y or Z streets), becoming 2-syllable names, then 3-syllable names as you travel farther out from the center. Avenues named for U.S. states run diagonally, often meeting at traffic circles and squares. (USA State Directory)
Washington, DC was founded on land ceded from Maryland and Virginia so that the seat of government wouldn't be in any one state. Most of DC's Southwest quadrant was given back to Virginia in the early 1800s and is now Arlington, Virginia.

the ability to move troops around to crush dissent

Which is why the boulevards are wide. Easier to move lots of troops, harder for the rabble to barricade.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:09 PM on March 12, 2004

Albuquerque is both organic and gridded. On the west side of the freeway, you have "Old Town" and the industrial section, both of which are organic. East of the freeway is a grid, if a somewhat inexact one at the north and south ends of town. The two sides are very different in terms of character.

In contrast, Santa Fe is a lovely example of a purely organic city, one that grew directly out of the original layout of the oldest city in the US. This map, while incomplete and not to scale, gives a good impression of how totally bizarre Santa Fe streets are. Note that Paseo de Peralta crosses several streets in two different places. Another interesting feature of the layout is that many of the same streets have two names, depending on where you are on them. Not shown are the major intersections at which you may not make a turn to either the right or the left, for no good reason. It's fun to give directions in Santa Fe.
posted by vorfeed at 2:16 PM on March 12, 2004

my hometown in central CA has a downtown grid with streets parallel to the Railroad tracks, which then mash into streets on a north-south grid. Makes for some of the craziest 5-way intersections.

The Railroad alignment is pretty common i guess here in central CA.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:18 PM on March 12, 2004

One highly gridded city is Gainesville, FL (at least off the UF campus and outside of one subdivision).

Avenues, Places, Roads, and Lanes go east-west, Streets, Terraces, and Drives go north-south, and Boulevards go diagonal.

There's University Avenue and Main Street, and everything else is rigidly numbered relative to those. If you need another road in between 45th St and 46th St, that's where you put 45th Terr. The thing that newcomers and visitors find confusing is that there are NE 16th St, NW 16th St, SE 16th St, and SW 16th Street.

Makes finding things in Gainesville proper really easy -- all you need is an address, and a knowledge of the through streets. It breaks down around the older city limits though, that have been swallowed up by recent development.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:36 PM on March 12, 2004

Chicago is a variant of a good grid system. You can use the addresses to figure out exactly where you are: in which direction and how far out from the city center.

There are also strip cities, along a river or such...but that is more about the directions it developed and not how the streets are laid out.
posted by Vidiot at 2:50 PM on March 12, 2004

Beautiful Milton Keynes (UK) is very much grid based. Here's something about how it was planned. Essentially, the place was developed for large scale car use. Interestingly, the design of the town is often referred to as being American.
posted by biffa at 2:53 PM on March 12, 2004

Cool urban web projects: Chicago Mile by Mile, a photo at every intersection, and Subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale.
posted by plemeljr at 2:58 PM on March 12, 2004

What an interesting thread! Thanks especially to languagehat and plemeljr for the book links. My wish list just got a little longer.
posted by yoga at 3:08 PM on March 12, 2004

Nagasaki, Japan, I think, is an example of a "string-of-pearls" city; the city's dominated by its streetcar lines, and at every streecar stop is a neighborhood cluster.
posted by Jeanne at 3:16 PM on March 12, 2004

Here's a map of Mumbai showing some of the major roads, not all. Here are some detailed area maps showing the main roads.
posted by riffola at 5:12 PM on March 12, 2004

"Isn't Salt Lake City based around the Mormon Temple, with street names reflecting how far east, west, north or south from the temple they are?"

Indeed it is, and it's absolutely logical. If I tell you to meet me at the corner of 104th South and 32nd West, and you're on 5th North and 3rd East, getting from there to here is easy.

It also helps to have this giant mountain range here. You ALWAYS know where east is.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:22 PM on March 12, 2004

I remember being told on a school trip to Washington DC/Georgetown--and we stayed in Silver Spring, Maryland, if that helps any--that the street names in the area (not the avenues) go from A to Z with one syllable, then A to Z with two, then three, to designate how far you are roughly from the Washington Monument. For instance (pulling random presidential names off the top of my head here) Polk Street (one syllable) would be closer to the center than Monroe Street (two) which would be closer than Jefferson Street (three).

Is this true? If so, it seems awfully neat.

Also, give props where props are due: good ole Philadelphia had the first grid system.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:48 PM on March 12, 2004

The only problem with numbered grids is that one's address feels more like a prison cell block number than "home".

posted by silusGROK at 8:49 PM on March 12, 2004

Not only is Calgary, Alberta (Canada) set up as a grid but the streets are all given numberic names followed by a compass direction. For example, "3456 24th Ave, N.W. is in the northwest quadrant of the city near the junction of 24 Ave N and 34 St W". Can't get much easier than that...

...until you get to the 'burbs, where pretty much each neighbourhood is its own self-contained "organic" fingerprint-swirl, with street names often maddeningly similar and named after the district, i.e. Rundle has a Rundlehorn Drive and a Rundlehorn Crescent, and woe betide the poor traveller who fails to note the difference.
posted by arto at 9:01 PM on March 12, 2004

Wow, what a great thread. Well worth the time checking out a lot of these links.
posted by anathema at 9:40 PM on March 12, 2004

Yes, this is a fantastic thread. Might even be worth somebody compiling links into a Metafilter post.
posted by Hildago at 10:36 PM on March 12, 2004

On the subject of SLC, many Utah towns have really wide streets, supposedly so that they were big enough for a team of oxen to turn around in. The Utah numbering system does seem kinda...dorky at first, but you really come to appreciate it.

I heard Washington DC's traffic circles (as in, "to create") were included to slow down invading armies. Just traded that place for Santa Fe, and after 3 days of driving around looking for a place to live, I have to agree with vorfeed. The city - which is not all that large - is a frigging maze. Thank God there's one of us to navigate and one to pilot.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:08 PM on March 12, 2004

Oakland, California, is another city with multiple grids smashing into each other at bizarre angles. To the west of Lake Merritt, this occurs because the city platted different areas at different times. To the east of Lake Merritt, this occurs because the city annexed the town of Brooklyn, which had its own grid; the two were separated by San Antonio Creek before the city began filling the estuary. (And even in what was once Brooklyn, there are multiple grids--I believe this is because Brooklyn already had annexed the town of Clinton.) If you have access to a library that carries the Journal of Urban Design, the June 2003 issue has a great article about this history, written by a planning professor and doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley. I can't get the online version to load right now, though, so this is all from memory.

And don't forget that suburban streets have their own distinct morphology. Michael Southworth, another planning professor at Berkeley, has identified patterns in East Bay suburbs that he describes as "fragmented parallel" (San Lorenzo), "warped parallel" (Livermore), "loops and lollipops" (Pleasanton), and "lollipops on a stick" (Pleasanton again). See his most recent book, Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, for more information. (Full disclosure: I'm one of Michael's students.)

Finally, if you're interested in this stuff, take a look at Allan Jacobs' excellent Great Streets, which analyzes the physical characteristics that make streets work well. There's a section in which he shows street layouts from radically different cities at the same scale. The whole book is well worth reading.
posted by Hegemonic at 9:17 AM on March 13, 2004

London is partly an agglomeration of previously existing nucleated settlements that were absorbed as the city expanded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While this might make little sense at the macro scale, you can still find the original settlement plans at local scales by looking for 'High Streets" and then observing the main thoroughfares that intersect there, and the churches, pubs and greens, and so on. On top of this are other patterns, e.g. those generated by the spread of mass transit and so on.

Oh, and great links and book suggestions, y'all.
posted by carter at 10:23 AM on March 13, 2004

Asparagirl: I think Kyoto's grid may predate Philly's by, oh, 900 years or so. And Kyoto's is based on Nanjing's, I think.

Austin is kind of funny because (somewhat like SF) it has two grids that collide at an odd angle. My theory is that the university area laid out it's own grid, and the capitol area likewise, and they just grew until they bumped into each other.
posted by adamrice at 5:04 PM on March 13, 2004

Okay, well, Philly's got the first grid system in the US then. :-)
posted by Asparagirl at 6:08 PM on March 13, 2004

Kyoto's is based on Nanjing's, I think

Nanjing's way too young. It's based on a much older capital of China:
Like Nara, its predecessor, Kyoto was modeled after the Tang Dynasty Chinese capital of Changan: rectangular, with straight, bisecting streets and the imperial palace in the northeast corner. But unlike Nara, a limit was placed on Buddhist temples to keep them from overwhelming the capital (one of the possible reasons the emperor moved the capital from Nara to begin with).
But the grid pattern goes way back beyond that: "The regular grid plan for cities in the Greek world was perhaps an invention of the 7th century BC, as a means of laying out new colonies evenhandedly, and using simple instruments and eyesight." It was popularized by Hippodamus of Miletus in the 5th century BC.
posted by languagehat at 6:26 PM on March 13, 2004

An alternative, though to my mind stupid, topology is the Union Jack of Khartoum. See also Faisalabad and Martinborough
posted by m@ at 6:46 PM on March 13, 2004

Response by poster: I really appreciate everyone's help. I spent a huge chunk of time in the library this weekend looking for all the books everyone's recommended. The personal observations are also particularly helpful, in that they show the world outside Pittsburgh with a quality I'm not likely to find on a map.
posted by jeffhoward at 8:39 AM on March 15, 2004

« Older Expenses & benefits of a stick shift vs an...   |   How do I install a new OS on a laptop with no... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.