Eccentri’city’ of place – celebrate whimsy!

“Get rid of the strict grid” may sound like fighting words to many urban planners and engineers, but please let me first explain. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a gridiron street pattern when it is employed in the appropriate context. In any area of a city with level to slightly rolling land and few distinctive features, it may be the perfect layout. It is when a solitary gridiron pattern is strictly imposed upon the natural setting and thereby altering it practically beyond all recognition, that I do not like its use.

Cities are far more visually interesting and appealing when they enhance their natural environment and topography instead of blitzing right through them. It is the eccentricities that define all cities. You remember the whimsical not the traditional. Could anyone imagine San Francisco without multiple street grid patterns that allow for amazing vistas of the bay? Chicago without Lake Shore Drive? Manhattan without Broadway angling through it? Indianapolis without Monument Circle? Countless rivers, lakes, mountains, valley, streams, forests, ridges, hills, and other natural features have been altered strictly for the sake of a strict gridiron pattern. meanwhile, it may be the whimsical streets that we enjoy and celebrate the most.

Monument Circle - Source:

Monument Circle – Source:

No, I am not saying that lifeless cul-de-sacs or spaghetti bowl street patterns are the solution to a boring gridiron pattern. But, perhaps a radial street pattern, interconnecting curvilinear streets, multiple grid street patterns at varying angles, whimsical streets that don’t follow form, the use of tunnels and bridges, parkways, or other spatial design elements can accomplish a safe and efficient vehicular movement while also preserving the eccentri’cities’ that make each place uniquely special.

I also have a problem with forcing uncompromising right angles in a gridiron pattern. A number of cities around the world have impressive street networks that do not solely or strictly rely on one uniform pattern of sharply defined, 90 degree right angles. In the United States, Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit, and Washington are four of the best examples. Granted, they may not always be the easiest places to circumvent, but that’s also part of their charm.

Woodward's Detroit - Source:

Woodward’s Detroit – Source:

There are other cities including parts of New York City, Grand Rapids, Brooklyn, Detroit, and San Francisco where inconsistent patterns are employed successfully. One of the most famous buildings in New York City, the Flatiron Building, would not exist or captivate millions of visitors if the city were totally laid out like a blah tic-tac-toe board.

Flatiron Building - Source:

Flatiron Building – Source:

In my hometown of Indianapolis, the original mile square included four radiating avenues at 45 degree angles from the center of the city – Indiana (NW), Massachusetts (NE), Virginia (SE), and Kentucky (SW). Unfortunately from a spatial design perspective, the first block of two (Indiana and Massachusetts) and the first three blocks of another (Kentucky) have been lost to major development projects including the convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium. Fortunately, some of the city’s most appealing historic, commercial, residential, and entertainment districts have re-energized both Massachusetts and Virginia Avenues.  Part of their appeal is the unique street and building angles.



Former Coca-Cola Building along Indy's Massachusetts AVenue

Former Coca-Cola Building along Indy’s Massachusetts Avenue

A strict, right-angled grid pattern may be the least complex and most efficient spatial form for moving traffic, but it has a tendency to lack any charm or whimsy. For urban planners, economic development specialists, architects, engineers, artists, and design professionals, it is imperative to enhance and employ those unique attributes that set one place (city) apart from another. Avoiding the bland strictness of the gridiron is a key element in accomplishing this goal. We must embrace the eccentri’city’ of place, not alter it. Once its eccentri’city’ is lost, it is awfully hard to recover or replace.

For this urban planner, unique and non-conventional angles spark interest and curiosity. That is what I enjoyed about the spatial design aspects of my hometown of Indianapolis, which largely lacks topographic or natural features of interest. It is also what I also find so delightful and inspiring about Grand Rapids, Michigan – where Louis Campau’s uniquely angled downtown streets, the Grand River flowing through the very heart of the city, and the surrounding wooded hills charm the absolute daylights out of you.



To me, good spatial design always requires some sense of humor (or whimsy). Otherwise, the sense of place (or image) evoked could be perceived as uniform and bland rather than eccentric and delightfully unique. In our competitive modern world, uniform and bland simply won’t cut it.

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7 Responses to Eccentri’city’ of place – celebrate whimsy!

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Indianapolis without Monument Circle would not be “Indianapolis”…nor would New York City be New York City without Broadway..(formerly Bloomingdale Road, a road connecting New York City below Greenwich Village to the then rural community of Bloomingdale, near another community, Manhattanville, at 125th and Broadway) .even Bowery Avenue was Boston Post Road at one time…and Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without Lakeshore Drive…and Grand Circus defines Detroit…and Cliff Drive defines Kansas City, MO…


  2. John Wallace says:

    I agree with many of your points, especially not trying to impose a grid land that has rolling topography. I grew up in Detroit which used radial arterial streets extending out to the suburbs from downtown. These streets were imposed on a grid system. These radial streets many times offered a more direct route to a destination than using the grid, however they also created less than desirable street intersection angles. As with all design you have to decide what features you desire when you are making trade offs.

    I also lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan which is also primarily designed with a grid street pattern, however the I-196 Freeway as it comes through town follows the topography and creates some beautiful views. Taking I-196 into Grand Rapids from the west offers a particularly striking view of the downtown.


  3. In my opinion, the 1st requirement for laying out streets is to do the least harm to the natural environment, and take advantage of the natural ecosystem, especially the hydrology, to get things done. For example, reduce flooding costs by staying out of the floodplains. Minimizing roadcuts will route roads around hills. Etc. The 2nd requirement is functionality for the people. The book “A Pattern Language” has a lot about streets & roads in it. I don’t go with 100% of it, but it’s okay even by the authors. I have my own schematic approach to designing communities up to about 1,000 households; I learned Geography well enough to know that the idealized schematic has to be tweaked to fit the real landscape and ecosystem, which, if it were the “featureless plain,” would be uninhabitable.


  4. Very nice write-up. I certainly appreciate this site – Eccentricity of place celebrate whimsy! | Panethos. Keep it up!


  5. Bill Compton says:

    You left off my hometown of New Orleans where the bend of the Mississippi River imposes itself upon the street grid leading to such eccentricities as street running parallel in one part of town and crossing each other at right angles a few miles away; not to mention the fact that the Mississippi River Bridge leading to the west bank of the river runs almost due east!


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