gridded streets regulating neighborhood form: beyond history

Today’s Planner’s Web has an interesting piece on the Origins of the Street Grid, referencing another short article by Laurence Aurbach at Ped Shed. This inquiry is a compelling aspect of the history of urban form, and last year merited a personal dust-off of “Streets Regulating Neighborhood Form: A Selective History”, something a younger myurbanist penned as Chapter 7 in Anne Vernez-Moudon’s Public Streets for Public Use, originally published by Van Nostrand-Reinhold in 1987.

The Chapter took history a step farther, and said that the sometimes-maligned grid would be back, working with other measures, to regulate streets away from single mode use. A myurbanist entry from January 1 provided summary thoughts from the Chapter, consistent with the histories referenced above:

As noted on May 7 and May 14, [the quest for locally walkable and transit linked communities and redefinition of the role of the automobile] is often expressed primarily in design terms, with a de-emphasis on particular land uses in favor of desirable and appropriate building forms for a given urban sub-area.

Let’s not forget that public rights of way, (particularly streets, underlying and adjacent infrastructure and how they relate to surrounding uses), are also at the center of our attempts to tame automobile dependence and bring European pedestrianism and transit-oriented centers to Puget Sound. Many urban designers conclude that the key focus rests with wide and malleable sidewalks as the precursor to successful redevelopment.

Indeed, throughout recorded history, governments have used streets as a versatile private property management tool. With utilities flanking and buried under streets since ancient times, such conduits have often been seen as more important than the property on both sides.

Scholars trace the role of streets as the central regulating determinant of surrounding land use to Greek boundary stones which defined public space with inscriptions such as “I am the boundary of the agora”, to the layout of Roman military camps. Similarly, the reappearance of the wheeled vehicle and public marketplace in medieval times demanded, in modern parlance, adequate surrounding infrastructure. The industrial revolution demanded rectilinear transit patterns and yielded the late nineteenth century Garden City precursor to today’s green ideals.

Early twentieth century American planners struggled with how to assure new alternatives to simple gridded urban development. The neighborhood unit theory and examples from the New York City region in the 1920’s and 30’s were rediscovered in the past 20 years and spurred renewed debates about the value of curvilinear streets v. gridded streets, and neighborhoods which look inward on themselves with an internal open space focus.

Today’s planners must continue to use the street as a legal and planning tool to govern neighborhood form and appearance but also assure a functional layout that integrates pedestrians and multiple types of vehicles. Topics for continued consideration and merger include determination of: 1) desirable and appropriate building forms and interaction with public rights of way; 2) hierarchies of public rights of way; 3) the appropriate separation of pedestrians and vehicles; and 4) how to manage speed and noise with traffic control devices, public education, law enforcement and vehicle redesign.

We remain at a literal and figurative crossroads as we struggle to preserve quality of life and safety, and to achieve energy conservation and offset climate change.

Stay tuned for more on the “new”, post-curvilinear life of the the grid.

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