“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.