|Miletus' "Hippodamian" Plan|
None other than Aristotle had rather uncomplimentary things to say about him and his ideas, calling him "a strange man, whose fondness for distinction led him into a general eccentricity of life," (Politics, Book II part VIII), and regarding Hippodamus' apparent plan for a third of city-dwellers to practice agriculture, reasonably asking "what use are farmers to cities?"
Aristotle did, however, tentatively endorse the so-called "Hippodamean" grid, writing that "[t]he arrangement of private houses is considered to be more agreeable and generally more convenient, if the streets are regularly laid out after the modern fashion which Hippodamus introduced." Politics, Book VI, part XI. Left unasked was the question of whether there was a relationship between Hippodamus' social proposals, which Aristotle denigrated, and his choice of the checkerboard grid. Although some have credited the grid as an egalitarian choice for city planning, Hippodamus' evident plan for a top-down, class-stratified society run by a military caste (in a city designed by none other than himself) hardly reflects a democratic preference.
In fact, rather than being an embodiment of egalitarianism, the grid's emergence is most closely associated with the rise of powerful and centralized states (see The Dark Side of the Grid), although other motives may factor in as well. China's imperial capitals, for example, employed a grid not for convenience of wayfinding but as an imperatorial aesthetic of sorts intended to reinforce the order and centralized authority of the emperor. In the Renaissance, the grid embodied an rarefied aesthetic of uniformity and rationality. For others, such as the expansionist Greeks of the 6th century B.C. and 19th century Americans, the grid was an enabler of land speculation in newly-settled territory.
The City Shaped on the fate of gridded Roman cities in the medieval period:
"The grid is inflexible in terms of human movement. We are not inclined to make right-angle turns as we go about from place to place unless we are forced to do so. With the impairment of municipal controls in in the post-Roman city, natural movement soon carved shortcuts through the large rigid blocks of the grid." (p. 48).
This process is apparent in the ancient town of Rimini, at left, where the current street network, in black, is shown overlaying former Roman grid. The grid's failure to provide direct routes to the central market (other than the Roman Cardo and Decumanus) has been partially addressed by diagonal pass-through alleys; overly large blocks have been bisected; sharp turns have been smoothed in an emerging concentric pattern, and (not visible in the diagram) many streets were narrowed from their Roman proportions.
The New Urbanists seem to have retreated from their initial praise for the "hypertropic" 19th century American grid and today advocate more complex street patterns with a hierarchy of streets. The lessons of the grid, though, in a broad historical context, may not yet have been fully appreciated.