density&diversity: The Resurgent Grid

There's a nice article in this month's Governing about how the street grid is making a comeback. This should be music to the ears of anyone who grew up in the suburbs, like I did, where you had to drive around endless cookie-cutter homes for miles just to go visit a friend. Not to mention how difficult it was to go shopping...

Here's a highlight:

For more than a hundred years, the residents of Barcelona didn’t quite grasp what [19th c. city planner Iledefons] Cerda was up to. They saw L’Eixample [his street grid plan] as not only eccentric but also boring. Each side of each block was exactly 113.3 meters long. All the regular streets were exactly 20 meters wide. Cerda seemed to many a compulsive checkerboard-maker who sought to give his city order but succeeded only in making it sterile. One of the city’s most prominent architects complained of L’Eixample’s “total monotony, its lack of grace, its inability to understand that life can be pleasant.”

It was only much later that L’Eixample began to come into favorable reputation, both among residents and among architects and planners worldwide. As Barcelona has prospered and drawn international admiration in the 30 years since the return of democracy to Spain, the octagonal blocks and tree-lined streets of L’Eixample have become the places everyone wants to live in, although few can afford to. “It is Cerda’s plan,” the urbanist Joseph Rykwert wrote a few years ago, “that provided the basis for the revitalizing of Barcelona.”

Now I have a lot to say on this topic, because I think the grid has limits. Jane Jacobs, in her vital Life and Death of Great American Cities talks about the need for short blocks, to allow for alternatives and choice. The grid, oppressive as it may seem, is actually liberatory. It allows for all sorts of possibilities when it comes to a corner.

At the same time, streets that eschew the grid (like Broadway in New York or Hennepin in Minneapolis or W 7th in Saint Paul) become centerpieces, and those intersections are inevitably alive. That's what I think, anyway.

Oh, and one more thing... Death to the cul de sac!

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