The Beauty of the Contrasting-Chaotic City Form

Lisbon’s Praca do Comercio from the Tejo (Tagus) River

As urban planners we have a tendency to emphasize the importance and efficiency of the traditional grid street pattern. Compared to the disconnected neighborhoods and subdivisions constructed over the past 75 years, the traditional street grid is far and away the most effective and efficient form of city layout, allowing traffic to be dispersed more uniformly and quickly, while also providing non-motorized refuges from congestion and clutter. But, in our adoption of the grid pattern as the choice du jour, are we overly restricting ourselves in an all-or-nothing quest for an efficient form? And in doing so, are we relegating the modern city to a boring and uninspiring future?

I wish to make the argument that the traditional urban grid pattern alone may not be the best city form, but instead a hybridized design incorporating the regimented grid and a whimsical and/or chaotic intersecting street pattern is a better form. In making this assertion, I would like to point to two (2) classic cities who have successfully developed in such a contrasting manner – Lisbon, Portugal and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Lisbon (Lisboa):

For Lisbon, Portugal it was a cataclysmic natural disaster that led to its hybridized street pattern. In 1755, an estimated 8.5-9.5 earthquake shattered the city on November 1st (All Saints Day). The date is significant because many residents were in church at the time and there were candles lit throughout – the earthquake led to many fires throughout the damaged or destroyed many parts of the city. If these two (2) disasters weren’t enough, they were followed by a tsunami which inundated and devastated many of the lower-lying portions of Lisbon. Only the hilly neighborhoods, like the Alfama and Bairro Alta, with their winding, narrow streets, were left largely unscathed by the tsunami. The staggering estimates of casualties in Lisbon range from 10,000 to 90,000 dead.

Centro Lisboa’s varied topography – Source: lisboa.topographia.jpg

Following this triple catastrophe, the lower-lying areas of the central city situated between the hills were rebuilt in a grid pattern. Today, the mix of old and new urban patterns is simply breathtaking. One cannot adequately describe the sense of awe instilled by Lisbon when visiting the city, as I did late last month. As an urban planner, I have never been more impressed by a city and among those key features that impressed me most were the contrasting city forms found between the lower city and hilly districts.

Santos’ Pombaline Plan for Centro Lisbon, Portugal – Source:

Neighborhoods felt like real neighborhoods, where each has its own unique flavor, identity, and composition. The pedestrian is paramount, as the narrow, hilly, and winding streets of the old city naturally slow vehicles down. Stairways, elevators, electric trams, and funiculars enhance the sense of a place for people. You see people chatting, socializing, or just going about their daily business throughout.

National Theater in the Baixa district’s Rossio Square

Even in the busy central business district and along commercial corridors, the pedestrian is treated with respect, as a number of streets/lanes are vehicle-free, filled with shops, outdoor restaurants, and performing artists. The patterned ceramic and intricately stone-laid sidewalks are wide, busy, and jaw-dropping. For vehicular traffic, the speed limits are kept low, while the varied mix of vehicles contributes to the lower speeds.

Tram 28 winding through Lisbon’s Alfama district

Furthermore, the chaotic street pattern of the old districts creates unique and unparalleled vistas, fun and whimsical building designs, shaded courtyards, hidden gardens, and a true sense of place on the micro-level. The more regimented pattern of the post-1755 Lisbon city design found in the Centro district of Baixa (Lower Town) and parts of Chiado not only allows for commerce, but also great placemaking on a grandiose scale with plazas, squares, patterned pavements, boulevards, monuments, public edifices, elegant Pombaline-style architecture, and other public gathering spaces.

The magnificent Elevador de Santa Justa (1902)

Knitting together the chaotic contrasting forms of Lisbon is an amazing array of public and private transit options, including its underground Metro subway, commuter rail, electric trams, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, bike-sharing, stairways, ferries, funiculars, and outdoor urban elevators. And it all works!


In Edinburgh, the mix of city forms didn’t arise from a disaster, but from the desire to relieve overcrowding in Old Town and to modernize the city. As a result, when you visit Edinburgh, as I did in 2009, you soon become aware of the differences between Old Town and New Town. One would not think they would compliment each other, but the dichotomy works, and works well – so well, in fact that New Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

While Edinburgh doesn’t have quite the variety of public/private transportation options that Lisbon enjoys, the contrast between the efficient grid pattern of New Town and the intersecting and interconnecting chaos of Old Town creates many of the same benefits for residents and visitors alike. Here again, the pedestrian is treated as royalty rather than a nuisance.

Central Edinburgh, Scotland – Source:


There are certainly other examples of cities around the world with contrasting forms that mix chaos with regimentation. Here in the United States, probably the closest example for a large city is Pittsburgh. Other cities here contain aspects of chaos, but not enough to instill the sense of wonder and awe shared by Lisbon and Edinburgh.

1859 map of Pittsburgh – Source:

One recommendation I would like to emphasize is if your city is fortunate enough to have an area, neighborhood, or district that is laid out in an intersecting, yet whimsical or seemingly chaotic manner, preserve it at all cost. This area, neighborhood, or district can be the focal point of great urban planning, as its uniqueness can serve as the vanguard of great things to come.

Ralston’s Plan for Indianapolis – Source:

My birthplace of Indianapolis had a certain amount chaotic whimsy when Alexander Ralston laid out the diagonal streets in the original Mile Square. Sadly, one (1) of these four (4) street corridors has been largely lost by mega-projects (Lucas Oil Stadium and the Convention Center). But, the other three (3) corridors that largely remain intact with Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Ave) and Virginia Avenue seeing some of the best and brightest revitalization efforts in the city.

Woodward’s 1807 Plan for Detroit – Source:

One reason I love Woodward’s inspired plan for downtown Detroit is the arcing/radiating streets that allow today’s remnants to provide unique opportunities for vistas and building designs. Similar to Lisbon, the plan resulted from a disaster – the 1805 Fire. Likewise, but on a smaller scale, the chaotic placement of Monroe Street and Lewis Street at a 45 degree angle to much of the city’s street overall pattern makes downtown Grand Rapids so much more fun than 90 degree angles every at block.


Too often when I look at maps of modern North American cities, they are simply a surveyor’s dream of Utopia, with nothing but square blocks for as far as the eye can see. Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Oklahoma City are all fine examples. But where’s the whimsy in that? Where’s the fun? The inspiration? The desire to create a human-friendly land form?

The gridiron city form of Phoenix – Source:

That’s why I strongly believe that a contrasting-chaotic city land form is the best compromise between free-form (chaos) and function (regimentation). The era of the cul-de-sac, the gated community, and disconnected neighborhoods should be put to rest, hopefully never to be revived. But, that does not mean cities must be strictly regimented into straight lines and 90 degree angles. The whimsy, fun, and inspiration contained in a chaotic, yet intersecting street pattern lends itself to good urban planning. Mixing these in a contrast of styles and purpose allows a city to grow in a manner that both benefits the needs of the people and those of commerce, without sacrificing one for the other. Far too often in today’s North America, the car is king, when it is the pedestrian who bring life to the city and who should be treated as royalty.

As noted earlier, if your city is fortunate enough to have an area, neighborhood, or district that contains a whimsical or chaotic urban form, preserve it and enhance it at all cost. With nurturing and protection, this can become a focal point for great placemaking; for artistic inspiration; and for enhancing community identification and pride.


This entry was posted in books, Cars, Cities, culture, density, downtown, Europe, geography, government, health, historic preservation, history, infrastructure, land use, Maps, North America, pictures, placemaking, planning, Portugal, spatial design, sprawl, topography, tourism, traffic, transit, transportation, Travel, urban planning, zoning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Beauty of the Contrasting-Chaotic City Form

  1. The only landscape where grids are perfect is the hypothetical “featureless plain” of the geographer. The closest real-world approximations are sediments deposited at the bottom of ancient lakes, like modern playas. The Llano Estacado is said to be very nearly flat, and huge. Not so inhabitable, though. In the real world, the natural topography and hydrology should be respected, not obliterated, as they were on Chicago’s lakefront, central area; Boston’s Back Bay; and Washington D.C..About the latter: many people call D.C. a “swamp” but the natural area was more of a marsh. Though buried by landfill, it’s still outgassing.


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