In the spatial domains of urban geographies, historically, urban forms are resultant extensions of people’s way of life, and hence the growth of organic cities. The grid system as an underlying structure of urban form has been visible since antiquity but manifests itself assertively as a planning tool with colonization and subsequent modernist planning approach.

The grid is a planning paradigm, and the laying of geometry over geography is one of the most explicit expressions of human intervention, sculpting cities. The critique of this system marks the planning paradigm to be a gruesome way of treating the landscape, rationalizing a totalitarian approach, and manifesting an ungodly form, along with deliberations on its aesthetic shortcomings.

10 Benefits of the grid system in urban design
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Well, with strong criticism and resentment (that most designers connotate), one ought to fairly weigh the merits and demerits and look at the subsequent application of this system in the urban realm with appropriation in context.

Below listed are ten benefits of the grid system in urban design.

1. Idea of Democracy and an Egalitarian approach

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The checkerboard plan of the city of Miletus (Hippodamia) was designed by Hippodamos in the fifth century BC. ©quadralectics.wordpress.com
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The grid-plan of the Urartian town of Zernaki Tepe, east of the Van Lake in Turkey (Armenia) might be an eight century BC predecessor of similar (Greek-Ionian) towns built in Asia Minor in the fourth century BC. Other researchers identified the town as a Roman settlement from the first or second century AD. ©quadralectics.wordpress.com

Urban grid is believed to be originated and associated with the idea of democracy, representing an egalitarian system of land resource distribution. With equal division of land, which had administrative advantages along with systematic and controlled growth, the grid design was a ‘natural’ result of the Greek beliefs and ideologies into practice.

While, grid patterns were visible even in the ancient civilizations like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the Hippodamian grid in Hellenistic planning brought it to primacy, which became replicated across different space and time. Spiro Kostof (1991, p. 100) questioned the statement that the urban grid represented an egalitarian system of land distribution.

However, once the lots had been sold the social mechanisms of individual wealth destroyed any type of egalitarianism and ‘what matters in the long run is not the mystique of grid geometry, but the luck of first ownership’. (Kuilman, 2013)

2. Regularization of Real estate

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While the grid planning has environmental demerits if not appropriated according to context, the planning allows for real estate regularization in the city and democratic approach to land parcelization. The orthogonal geometry has an inherent merit of yielding regular plots of land in well packed sequences, which helps in maximization of land use of blocks and minimal conflicts over street fronts and boundaries.

The Manhattan grid is a prime example of facilitating the idea of buying, selling and speculating real estate trends.

3. Urban Infrastructure

Urban Infrastructure
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Urban Infrastructure is attributed to being the undercurrent or the pulse of the city, which sustains and keeps the urban realm thriving. The grid layout provides for an easy and orderly layout of the services in the city, whereby provision and maintenance is ensured. In the ancient civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, it is this very grid iron layout that facilitated the street hygiene and services provision.

4. Availability of Options: Multiplicity

Availability of Options: Multiplicity
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A Cartesian grid as a street pattern provides interconnectedness, something that makes most urbanists nostalgic and vulnerable to the idea of its adoption. With its innate quality of being comprehensible, there is a possibility of availing multiple routes to any destination. Dispersion of movement (vehicular and pedestrian) is possible as almost all streets are the same, with no rigid hierarchical constructs.

5. Fostering pedestrian movement (if appropriated)

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Frequent Intersections hamper car movement ©medium.com
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The grid layout is criticized for its facilitation of ‘transport-oriented urbanism’ and ‘design of cities for cars’, while not being pedestrian-oriented. While the grid pattern strongly does make navigation easy, it’s two innate resultants, frequent and regular intersections and the orthogonal geometry does assist pedestrian movement.

Pro-grid urbanists emphasize that these frequent intersections create an unwarranted situation for vehicular users, and create a situation of enhancing pedestrian use of streets facilitated by efficient public transport as a strong advantage of the grid layout.

6. Response to human physiology

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The very fact that in street grids and rectilinear blocks, flows (human and vehicular) intersect only right angles is an important safety feature. A study shows that, whilst a user enters an intersection, the possibility that he/ she looks over their shoulder at acute angles to check on traffic flow is negligible, and this aspect of visibility is very important in street safety.

Hence, as a response to our innate human physiology, the grid’s geometry facilitates our easy movement and safety on streets.

7. Orientation and Way-finding

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Most of us, designers or not, as travelers love to get lost in the winding streets of small quaint Italian towns or Banaras, exploring new destinations and vistas at leisure. Well, it is this nostalgia which is the strongest critic of grid pattern, its inability at providing the unique experience of medieval towns and cities.

The very orderly layout fosters a sense of orientation and way-finding, with numbered streets providing easy and well facilitated origin-destination situations in everyday scenarios.

8. Myth – It is boring!!!

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Times Square Street Plan ©aasarchitecture.com
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Times Square New York. Photo by Michael Grimm ©2020 Conde Nast.

While an aerial view of the grid layout does show forth monotony and its ubiquitous nature, it would be a serious error in judgment if the blandness or fascination of a grid is attributed and analyzed according to the street layout alone. What makes a place or street interesting depends not only on the layout of those cities and spaces but on the uses, functions and associated activities.

The best cases, as in Manhattan the layout on ground has fostered conditions for great activity mix and building forms facilitating them, into the creation of an end number of destinations in a five minute walk radius, thereby creating interesting experiences in spite of being a grid layout.

9. Creation of Walkable neighborhoods

Creation of Walkable neighborhoods
Creation of Walkable neighborhoods. ©www.fastcompany.com

A variant of the grid system, the fused grid is a model combination of geometric city grids -rectilinear blocks and conventional loops and cul-de-sacs. This combination of continuous grid of roads for connectivity and discontinued inner grid for neighborhood creation is a win-win scenario emerging out of the merits of the grid system.

The inner interconnectedness of streets facilitated by pedestrian friendly elements turns the urban realm to a walkable and safe neighborhood and super-blocks, facilitated by mixed use functions and land intensification speculations, which further provides adaptive densification solutions.

10. Sustainable: Ability to adapt to change

Sustainable: Ability to adapt to change
Amount of space freed for pedestrians by changes in the grid use. ©www.fastcompany.com

The grid system has in it the inherent ability to accommodate land use and functional changes, constantly and effectively, with blocks and plots of usually equal size and share, changes can be plugged in to the existing infrastructure with minimal difficulties. A rectilinear block is the most effective as it allows for maximum flexibility with the least amount of surface availability.

For example, in the Manhattan grid, the same rectilinear block has adapted and accommodated different uses from a farm to skyscraper. It is this ability to adapt to the changing needs of the human populace, at an unprecedented rate than before which makes the grid system viable and economical for most cities, where it can be appropriated.

“The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.”  Josef Müller-Brockmann

References

  • Quadralectic Architecture – A Panoramic Review by Marten Kuilman, Word press. Posted on 26 Aug 2013
  • Effects of street pattern on frequency of traffic crash: a case study of Gainesville, Florida by Dixue Li
  • The Sustainability of Australia’s Country Towns: Third National Country Towns Conference 2010 Centre for Sustainable Regional Communities, The Faculty of Law and Management, La Trobe University, Bendigo Campus, 29-30 September 2010
  • Streets & patterns, Stephen Marshall, 2005.
  • Colonial and Counter-Colonial Design Methodologies: The Instrumentalization of Grids in the Public Interest, Timothy J. Applebee – Theodore R. Sawruk, University of Hartford
  • Genealogy of Theories of the City: Spatial Components as an Index of Socioeconomic Capitalism Zachary Grewe.
Shiza Christie
Author

Shiza Christie is a Masters in Urban Design student at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. She is an observer of the phenomenon of time and forever enchanted by the power of words. These days she spends her time deliberating on urban complexities, its constituents and place making.

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