Thursday, June 16, 2011

The New York That Wasn't (But Might Have Been), part I

The Commissioners' plan.
An attempt at a more reflective piece today as a short break from garages and alleys. (Updated 6.18.11 with Urbanphoto link).

March 2011 marked the bicentennial of the Commissioners' Plan of New York, the document which laid out Manhattan's familiar street grid from the vicinity of Houston Street north to Harlem.  In recognition of this milestone, there's been a modest amount of reflection on the plan both in the press and in the blogosphere, with some praising the plan, and others thoughtfully ambivalent.

In the past, however, the critical voices have generally been the loudest. Peter Marcuse in a 1987 essay referred to it as "one of the worst city plans of any major city of the developed world;" Frederick Law Olmsted criticized it for its "rigid uniformity;" John Reps noted its scarcity of sites for public buildings, lack of enough north-south streets, and frequent intersections creating traffic congestion; others have faulted it for obliterating Manhattan's natural landscape, while Recivilization has perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase, calling the Commissioners' plan "breathtaking in its monotony."

In spite of all these critiques, there's been relatively little thought devoted to what an alternative to the grid might have looked like.  To the extent that they are discussed at all, alternatives generally take the shape of the Baroque plans of the late 18th century in the manner of L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C., with diagonal boulevards and grand circles, as one Columbia design class recently imagined.*  More realistically, Urbanphoto has an outstanding post on an earlier plan drawn up by city surveyors John Mangin and Casimir Goerck which was somewhat more more accommodating of the street networks already emerging north of the city.

*(The Commissioners had, in fact, considered such features and rejected them for ostensibly utilitarian reasons, although little more than a century later the planning departments of checkerboard cities such as Portland would note a lack of diagonal routes as a major utilitarian shortcoming of the grid).

There is another possibility, however, one that requires acknowledgment that the Commissioners' plan did not cover virgin ground, but rather overlaid and blotted out a complex network of roads, streets and paths that already covered Manhattan as early as the 1770s.  In the British Headquarters map of 1782, featured prominently in Eric Sanderson's recent book Mannahatta, not only is the former Indian trail of Broadway clearly discernible running the length of the island, but dozens or hundreds of other roads also, large and small, serving the many farmhouses and budding villages north of the city limits.  These roads were not planned by a single mind, but worn into the terrain by countless feet following a subtler intelligence: the intuitive search for the smoothest, most level and most direct paths to the most important destinations, perfected by repetition over years, decades and centuries. 

Oddly, it is this process of road and street formation -- which Spiro Kostof refers to as the organic typology -- which earns the least respect from writers on urbanism.  On New York's organic street network in lower Manhattan, dating to the days of the Dutch settlers, it's easy to find statements like these:

"Until the grid most New Yorkers were clustered below Houston Street in a confused maze of streets and lanes."

"Prior to the Commissioner’s grid plan, the city’s streets had been laid out rather willy-nilly, as befitting a city that was founded in essentially late mediaeval times..."

There seems to be an assumption that if a street network does not have obvious regularity or other indisputable evidence of direct human design, then it must be simply random and therefore, impliedly, inefficient or unsuited to the needs of the people living along it.  But was this street network really "confused" or "willy-nilly"?  Here is an adaptation of the Castello Map of New York, dating from 1660 and showing the streets and homes of the city at that time:

The Dutch origins of the city, with its canals, are obvious, but the functional logic of the streets, though evidently not formally planned, are anything but confused or irrational.  Broad streets carry commerce to and from the waterfront and gently angle northwards, reflecting the natural course of trade unencumbered by sharp right-angled turns.  Single-family homes are being built along the quieter narrow lanes running perpendicular to the thoroughfares, with the process of block subdivision reflecting the higher value of land close to the docks. 

There is an elegant mathematical order to the street network as well: each curve of the broad streets defines a shape which mimics the shape of the island itself.  This is a typically fractal pattern, defined as "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole."  (See Mathieu Helie's extensive writings about this idea in the context of architecture and urbanism.)  This particular pattern is presumably the result of accommodating a grid-like network of streets, with blocks of roughly equal size, to the constrained geography of Manhattan. 

In the following century, this initial plan was organically extended north of the wall, guided by pre-existing paths and roads.  In the following post I'll show a rendering of what might have resulted had the city of the 1790s simply decided to let this process, ongoing at that point for almost 175 years, continue to follow its natural course.


  1. The Manhattan grid was built specifically to rationalize density in the city. The Commissioners noted that unlike London and Paris, New York was hemmed by very wide rivers, and therefore had much more limited development. Future development in the city would be forced into a north-south axis, unlike the radial axes of less constrained cities; that's why the avenues are so wide, like the diagonal boulevards of Washington.

    The unnatural grid is nice. I walk much longer than I do in other cities, where I can get lost. (It's less true now with smartphones, but there were no smartphones in 1810 - or 1990). I walked longer distances in New York as a tourist than in Tel Aviv and Singapore as a resident.

  2. I find that, for people walking, virtually any layout, no matter how ridiculously "irrational," is fine from a utilitarian standpoint. Yes, you will have to carry a map, but that is merely a given. You would have to carry a map in New York as well if the streets weren't numbered. The reason is that you can easily look at a map while walking, and orient yourself as you go, but it is difficult to look at a map while driving.

    Here's a look at central Bangkok:

    A few large and direct boulevards can be nice, but even then it is a concession mostly to wheeled vehicles and perhaps the military. Even when going a long distance crosstown, when walking, you can get there just as fast on a 15-foot lane as a 150-foot grand boulevard, and usually the narrow lane is a lot more fun, especially if it has a few curves.

    The Manhattan grid is completely unnecessary, and in fact problematic. It is very important to distinguish between things that are done for a reason, and achieve their goals, and things that are done in an "aesthetic of rationality," the artistic sense of a mechanical engineer, which has been a strong trend over the past two hundred years. By "aesthetic of rationality," I mean things that are done as if there's a reason, but in fact there is no real need, and indeed it causes new problems. A contemporary example would be the SUV automobile, which is popular for its "utilitarian image," of being off-road capable and ready to tow your speedboat to Lake Powell, but in actual practice has negative utility, because they tend to be expensive and burn a lot of gas. In the same manner, I consider the 19th century grid to be something with a "utilitarian image" which solves no real existing problems and instead creates new ones.

  3. Don't have time to engage in an extensive discussion but can't resist adding another voice in favor of the Manhattan street grid.

    It seems to me that it has worked out very well -- especially since the eventual grid that was produced has terrific "compromises" and is thus not relentlessly monolithic, but also includes occasional other grids and occasional non-grid streets as well (e.g., Broadway, etc.). So the resulting end system, so it seems to me, is rational, functional -- and diverse as well.

    That isn't to say the grid couldn't be improved upon. A la Jane Jacobs, I think there should be more north-south street (e.g., Rockefeller Plaza, etc.) to break up the long blocks on most of the Westside of Manhattan. It would also might be better if THESE streets didn't adhere so strictly to the overall grid, and if they also led occasionally to small parks or squares. Then you'd have some "chaos" at the micro level, but you'd still have the rationality and functionality on the borough-wide scale.

    Also I wish they kept the numbering system consistent throughout the borough. For instance, Columbus Avenue should be Ninth Avenue, etc.

    And it would be nice if the numbering system was keyed to blocks, so that there might be a 42-01 Fifth Avenue (like Queens!) for a building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd St., and a 5-01 W. 23rd for a building at 23rd St. and Fifth Avenue.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, June 16, 2011, 10:45 p.m.

  4. Tel Aviv has public maps of city streets posted at various places. People still don't walk very far from the neighborhoods they're familiar with. "Carry a map with you" is the advice you'd give to a tourist who doesn't mind looking like a tourist, not to someone who lives in the city.

    If you want, I can try to dig up a study on street perception in Boston. There, people have no idea how the street networks in neighborhoods they don't live in work, to the point of not even identifying streets that continue from their own neighborhood as the same streets they're familiar with. I'm pretty sure the same should be true of Tokyo, which doesn't even bother naming its minor streets.

    It boils down to asking what those street networks are even for. Recall from Jacobs that the benefit of short blocks is that people can take a variety of paths from point A to point B. This only works when the side streets can coherently be used without staring at a map. In Tel Aviv, they can't: observe that while Tel Aviv's Old North, depicted on this map, has very short blocks, if you only count streets that you can use to get from Dizengoff to Ibn Gabirol (the two main north-south streets in the neighborhood), there are only 5-6 blocks in 1.4 km.

  5. "It boils down to asking what those street networks are even for. Recall from Jacobs that the benefit of short blocks is that people can take a variety of paths from point A to point B."

    Alon: I do think that is a key question here. As for the short blocks: although Jane Jacobs did praise them for providing multiple paths, I do wonder whether an additional and possibly more important benefit is maximizing street frontage within a given area (and simultaneously maximizing quick access to different portions of that frontage, rather than simply providing multiple paths from A to B).

    At some point you'll run into diminishing returns with this strategy, but at the outset the subdivision of blocks will greatly multiply the linear feet of street facing frontage, which will allow for a wider range of shops and stores to serve the people living within walking distance of that area. The medieval "organic" cities seem to show something like this pattern, with blocks often subdivided about as small as they can reasonably go.

  6. After a series of floods, Mexico City rebuilt and rationalized its streets into a grid in the 1400's. Outlying suburbs like Coyoacán, Texcoco, and Xochimilco retained their narrow twisting streets and canals.

    As the city expanded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries each new neighborhood built its own grid. Some are more twisty and irregular than others. Each of these grids is at a slight angle to the others and doesn't line up with the streets of its neighbors. It's like a series of irregular tiles of different street grids.

    Mostly you can follow the grid to where you're going but each kilometer or two you need to reorient yourself to a new angle and new street names. Also, almost all the multi-lane streets are one way -- and not always alternating -- so that cars often have to make long detours between neighborhoods to get exactly where they're going even when it's only a block away. The narrow single lane streets are two-way so that cars have to slow down and pass each other.

    You get the advantages of a grid with easy pedestrian navigation and the advantages of a non-grid because through-traffic for vehicles is disrupted.

  7. Oh, and like in Manhattan you can see the border between modern rationalism and traditional city in Barcelona. The local version of Houston street dividing a grid with wide streets from a traditional layout is the Gran Via between the Barrio Gotico and Eixample. It's done better than Manhattan on both sides.

  8. Charlie: hmmm... I didn't think about the street frontage. Good point.

    On the other hand, it's more an issue of apartments with a street view than of a variety of commercial uses, because there doesn't seem to be a shortage of commercial space. The street walls of side streets in Uptown Manhattan and even some avenues are predominantly residential. Even the two-way streets, which have mixed-use zoning, tend to have a mixture of residential and commercial street wall. I don't know anything about Tel Aviv's zoning rules, but many of the east-west throughfares in North Tel Aviv are entirely residential, so again there seems to be no shortage of commercial street frontage.

  9. Alon,

    Carry a map. If you don't have a map, you will get lost. I always carried a map. Because, if I didn't carry a map, I would get lost. (Sometimes I would get lost on purpose, though, in which case, I would not look at the map I was carrying.) I carry a map in NYC, despite working there for five years, because then I can go where I want and not get lost.

    And also, brush your teeth and tie your shoes, and change your underwear every day.

  10. Alon: that's a good point also. Instead, maybe it's simply an issue of enabling the sale of lots on the interior of blocks -- in the 1660 map, there are still large tracts of farmland within many of the blocks. By giving up portions of this land as a right-of-way easement, or turning it over altogether as a public lane, the landowner will greatly increase the value of his remaining land for residential purposes, as it's now accessible by city streets. However -- the landowner has an incentive to donate only the minimum amount of land needed for access, which is possibly how the organic city creates so many narrow streets.

  11. Nathan: somehow I managed to visit New York a few times without ever carrying a map and was fine. To be fair, I was also fine in ungridded Paris - but only because I kept following the boulevards and didn't try to use side streets as through-streets.

    Charlie: yeah, this sounds about right. It even plays in the US a little - Houston has narrower street width standards if developers deed-restrict all adjacent properties to SFDR, and it's working like a charm at substituting for separate-use zoning.

    I'm not sure why the Commissioners chose 100 feet as avenue width, rather than 60 feet as for the streets. The plan cites Manhattan's lack of fresh air, and seems to treat all the avenues as grand boulevards on the model of L'Enfant's plan, except narrower (the Washington boulevards are 120-130' wide, if I'm not mistaken). It could just be that they expected great north-south traffic.

  12. Regarding Jane Jacobs and Small Blocks

    Thanks Alon for the very interesting information on Tel Aviv. However, while small blocks do allow a pedestrian to have multiple paths across a district, I don't think this is the main reason Jacobs saw small blocks as beneficial.

    Briefly, here's what I think Jacobs is saying (mostly) in Chapter 9: The Need for Small Blocks:

    Very long blocks create economically and socially self-isolating streets, while small blocks break down the isolation and create create economic and social pools of use.

    I think extreme fictional examples sometimes help illustrate a point, so here's mine. Imagine if Manhattan had north-south streets only on the rivers! It would be extremely difficult for stores to get customers from streets directly to the north or south. So whatever density these areas have would be virtually wasted. On the other hand, create eleven or twelve north-south streets, then getting from one cross street to another becomes a lot easier. Create even more north-south streets, and it becomes even easier still.

    In terms of commerce, small blocks increase the supply of viable storefronts and thus create opportunities for more diverse commercial enterprises.

    "The supply of feasible spots for commerce [on the Upper West Side, for instance] would increase considerably, and so could the distribution and convenience of their placement." (Page 236, "Death and Life of Great American Cities," Modern Library edition.) Jacobs also talks a bit more about this in terms of Columbus Avenue a few pages earlier.

    In other words, it seems to me that one beneficial result of small blocks is that the high paying chain stores, etc. can locate on the heavily trafficked (sp?) avenues, while the additional viable storefronts midblock and along new streets could house enterprises that are pushed out of the prime "through" locations.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, June 17, 2011, 10:40 p.m.

  13. Benjamin -- thanks for going right to the source to show that one of Jacobs' main points all along had been the increase in street frontage. I usually try to be very careful about not misconstruing her arguments and quoting her directly where possible, but I suppose I'd forgotten that that essential element of Chapter 9, and then presented the same argument as my own in the comments.

    I do think it is possible to further develop her observations, though, in terms of efficient subdivision of urban space as I suggested in my 9:26 comment. Jacobs hinted at this process on p. 241: "In city districts that become successful or magnetic, streets are virtually never made to disappear. Quite the contrary. Where it is possible, they multiply. Thus in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia and in Georgetown ... what were once back alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting them, and users using them like streets."

  14. I'm not sure why the Commissioners chose 100 feet as avenue width, rather than 60 feet as for the streets. The plan cites Manhattan's lack of fresh air, and seems to treat all the avenues as grand boulevards on the model of L'Enfant's plan, except narrower (the Washington boulevards are 120-130' wide, if I'm not mistaken). It could just be that they expected great north-south traffic.

    Alon: the New York enabling law which created the Commission and set out its powers and responsibilities required that all streets be at least 60 feet wide. It apparently did not even contemplate alleys. Why they required that minimum, I do not know. Possibly it had to do with health concerns, but in their written report on the plan the Commissioners went out of their way to downplay those concerns in explaining why they provided so little (non-street) public space.

    As to whether they expected a lot of north-south traffic, you may be able to make out that the original plan only provides five streets running in unbroken fashion from Harlem down to lower Manhattan, even though there are as many as 14 running parallel at various points mid-island. Six of these dead-end into various points along the shore, since the planners refused to bend them around even the smallest obstructions, and three others are interrupted by the "Parade Ground." Transportation is hardly mentioned in the report, and in fact the great market place planned in the map (which was never built as far as I know) is not served by a single north-south street. To the extent commerce is mentioned, it seems to have been expected that most would be ship-borne.

  15. Charlie wrote:

    I usually try to be very careful about not misconstruing [Jacobs'] arguments and quoting her directly where possible, but I suppose I'd forgotten that that essential element of Chapter 9, and then presented the same argument as my own in the comments.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    That's OK. I think it's pretty common for people to either a) believe something is their own, when they likely read it "a while back" in Jacobs or b) believe an idea is Jacobs,' when it is in fact really their own. It's certainly happened to me. (Plus, there is always the possibility that someone has thought of something independently, too.)

    But two reasons I like to cite Jacobs frequently these days:

    1) A lot of people seem unaware of what Jacobs has actually written, and instead accept as gospel what others have said that "Jacobs said."

    2) Oftentimes people seem to mistakenly think that Jacobs was, essentially, an airhead "boulevardier" (there's another better word for this, but I can't think of it now) who wrote mostly about, loosely speaking, subjective likes and dislikes or "aesthetics" (e.g., which is how people seem to mistakenly interpret the ballet of Hudson Street), when in fact she was a hard nosed realist with much of her writing (even in "Death and Life . . .") being about functionality and economics.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., June 18, 2011, 10:50 p.m.

  16. Charlie: well, New York did have a lot of landfill, even in 1811. The natural shoreline is Greenwich Street; this had already been extended to West Street. The commissioners said nothing about it, but presumably they fully intended for landfill to make First, Tenth, and Eleventh Avenues continuous, as indeed happened.

    Also, I don't know whether the intention was to have north-south traffic in general, or Lower Manhattan-bound north-south traffic. The dominant CBD is a recent invention, and didn't really exist before railways enabled high-capacity transit; pre-rail cities today are overall dense but have diffuse employment. The plans to have people commute long distances from the north of Manhattan to its south are from the second half of the 19th century, when steam was gathering for slum clearance and railways made this proto-suburbanization feasible.

  17. Good point about the landfill, Alon. The Goerck-Mangin plan from a few years earlier appears to specifically mark out areas to be landfilled, so by 1811 it might simply have been considered too obvious to mention. I think it was also understood that much of the material excavated for the new street system was to be used for that purpose. The street width issue remains a mystery, though, particularly since the Commissioners made clear the goal of maximizing the amount of land to be sold.

  18. The grid is fine, except for lacking some wider east west roads.