Woven across Manhattan Island is a vast tapestry of street and block that has been so successful in organizing the forces of urban development, it’s often hard to see the simple pattern that exists below the city’s skyscraper forest. Manhattan’s street grid is potentially the most powerful city building tool ever created. It has forced all new growth to integrate itself into the rest of the city, linking new into the old through interlocking blocks that have formed a geometrically simple yet complex urban structure. A structure that has fueled the island’s dense, mixed use, walkable, and transit friendly form that so many other cities try yet fail to achieve today.
What has been lost in the ignorance and rejection of the core principles of the Manhattan grid, to the detriment of most cities in the western world, is the ability to establish the physical pattern that new growth and development will take in order to integrate itself into a connected urban whole. Even after years of study and research; after the late great Jane Jacobs brought to light the vitality of interconnectedness and neighbourhood mish-mash; after all the ideological experiments for real urbanism have remained sterile; the Manhattan street grid has remained forgotten.
Known as the Commissioners Plan, the grid plan was adopted in 1811 and established the block pattern from 14th to 155th Street, some 11 miles away. Thick veins that would become the city’s future avenues ran parallel to the Hudson and East Rivers, and connected new Manhattan with the jumbled roads of old downtown. Streets would bisect the avenues every 200 feet, forming shallow blocks. The grid plan was laid down atop hill and plain, forest and farm, cut through houses and paved over rivers.
What has been lost in the ignorance and rejection of the core principles of the Manhattan grid is the ability to establish the physical pattern that new growth and development will take in order to integrate itself into a connected urban whole.
Yet even as late as the 1890′s, many portions of the island remained under construction. Unfinished neighborhoods were still being produced along unfinished streets; slowly and piece by piece. Manhattan’s population at this time was still expanding northwards along with the all important subways lines and avenues which fed commuters downtown. But the grid prevailed, nearly one hundred years after it was originally conceived, and continued to as the blocks grew fuller and denser.
These blocks were created as new streets were layed down, one after the other; orderly New York growing in orderly fashion according to that all-encompassing grid plan. Looking at a map with the numbered street names and seeing the rigidity of square and rectangle would give the illusion of dull and banal expanses of city. The whimsies of London’s ancient curves relinquished. How can endless straight lines of a presupposed repeating pattern allow the diversity of uses and needs a city requires in order to function and prosper?
It was the spaces within the grid, carved out in piecemeal fashion as speculators developed their properties over time. While the Manhattan’s grid was imposed across the island at a city-wide scale and from a top-down perspective, individual parcels took shape and developed themselves over time according to their individual values and needs. This hyper-local building pattern within the block gave Manhattan small scale variety within its larger block context. Even though each block was the same shape and size as the next, within those blocks there could be different building types, styles, uses and ages. Jane Jacobs’s described these variables as some of the key ingredients that foster a neighbourhood’s diversity and subsequently improve its long-term economic health.
This micro diversity was however still predicated on the comprehensive and unwavering implementation of the grid pattern. The grid’s macro-scale immediately connected newly developed areas into the existing urban fabric without interruption or segregation. There was an equal playing field for the speculators who sought to develop their properties for maximum return, with each block as connected to the rest of the city as the next. As a result, there was certainty – certainty that there would be a new urban areas created beyond your individual parcels that would feed the forces of agglomeration.
Blocks were created and filled in as needed with brownstones, apartment buildings, offices, churches, parks, schools, factories, bakeries, butchers, cafes, and every other store, shop, home, and workplace they needed. The grid was there for their use. The grid was their building block, but did not tell them what was needed inside. Market forces and the needs of the locals dictated that. Today, the vibrancy of these blocks remains, with the diversity of uses spilling out of every gridded street corner from Union Square to Washington Heights.