Grid is good: Keeping the faith with the classic street patterns

Grids are the urbanists' power tools, Lee Sobel told Friday afternoon's session on "The Great American Grid." They help build great places quickly. They're efficient for planners, developers, and builders. They're democratic. They're flexible. So then why is it that some New Urbanists, at least, don't like grids for greenfield projects?

In this context, they complain that grids can be boring, that they go on forever, and that they often disrespect local topography - as in San Francisco. What's going on here?

Sobel introduced Kevin Klinkenberg of 180 Degrees Design Studio, a self-described "unabashed enthusiast" for regular street grids. He reviewed and rebutted four main critiques of regular grids:
1. That they limit creativity.
2. That they create streets that are long and boring.
3. That because they are open-ended, they make projects harder to phase than more organic shapes.
4. That traditional grids don't work well with today's building types and parking needs.

But, flashing slides of places like New York and Boston's Back Bay, he urged his listeners to "examine the places where people really walk, bike, take transit - they're dominated by the regular grid." And a working with a traditional grid, he added, no more limits creativity that working with traditional architecture.

Jonathan Ford of Morris Beacon Design took an engineer's perspective on grids and staked out a centrist position between the pro-grid camp and the "organic blocks" camp. For him, it all starts with the ecology and hydrology of a site. Get those wrong and the whole project is in trouble. Some attempts to force water - rivulets and such - to obey an orthogonal grid lead to developments with wet basements.

Moreover, a traditional grid can be problematic for sloping terrain - especially in areas that have to contend with ice.

Doug Allen of Georgia Tech then gave a presentation on the grid in the city of Savannah. Twenty-two of its 28 squares are still intact, and what's made it so successful, he suggested, was the flexibility of its geometry. The regular pattern allowed for modular changes in response to new needs. "Savannah survived as well as it did because it allowed options for the future that Oglethorpe could not foresee."


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