Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from


At first, this looks like a perfectly normal
map of New York City. You zoom in and there’s
Broadway, and Bowery. But then you realize that the map is…wrong. Streets run diagonally and the map adds land
beyond the edge of the island. That’s because this wasn’t a map. It was a plan that was rejected. And this one — the one with the perfect
grid we know — was basically what we ended up with. Today Manhattan has a grid so perfect that
the way the sun shines through it is a hashtag on Instagram. But these grids were not all about beautiful
design, or even making it easier to find your way around when you come up out of the subway. The real reason one of these plans made it
and the other didn’t? It says something about how — and why — all
cities develop the way they do. This is a utopia called Philadelphia. When William Penn designed Philadelphia in
1681, he wanted to make an ideal city. His intentions reflected American ideas and
his Quakerism. The lines on his grid weren’t just right
angles, they were morally right angles. He wanted to preserve a sense of a country
town using common areas and gardens. In 1733 in Savannah, Georgia, the Oglethorpe
Plan was influenced by the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on balance and limits on
the grid’s growth. That resulted in a grid too, but with an elegant
design including common squares where all could congregate, and
commons limiting the grid plan’s reach. Pierre L’enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington,
DC, was even more ambitious, and though the city deviated from his design, some flourishes
survived, like diagonal avenues sliced across the city, circles to vary the grid’s monotony,
and grand squares for each of the then-15 states. New York was never so organized. This 1767 map shows the chaotic curved streets
and irregularities that marked the nearly 150 years of European settlement. What little order that had developed was largely
private and subject to frequent change. This 1776 map shows a planned grid with a
large square. That square belonged to the Delancey estate
(Delaney was a typo). Because the prominent New York family supported
the British during the Revolutionary War, the city confiscated their land after the
war. This 1789 map shows what happened to their
planned square. It disappeared. New York could have been stuck with this chaos. But as the 1800s rolled around, it couldn’t
afford to be much longer. It’s tough to know New York’s exact population
before 1800, but the trend was clear – massive growth, more than doubling between 1770 and
1790. Outbreaks of yellow fever that spread up and
down the East Coast heightened the urgency to build a cleaner, more orderly city. And that is where this failed plan comes in
— in 1797 the city hired architect Joseph Mangin and surveyor Casimir Goerck to map
New York. The plan showed the city as it “should be,”
not as it was. They widened janky streets and even added
to the waterfront — they proposed something graceful, but the city needed something fast
— so their plan was rejected. In 1807, the state established a new commission
to create a workable plan, and it was huge. In this map, this color shows the settled
land, and this color shows the projected areas for the grid. In their official report, they said they’d
planned for “a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” The grid made sense to hold it. They had debated “whether they should confine
themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some
of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish
a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility.” Basically, did they want L’enfant’s Washington
or a uniform grid? They decided that, “right-angled houses
are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections
was decisive.” The grid did that without screwing up existing
property-lines. It was predictable for developers. This was a different type of design. The grid seems orderly to us, but this order
was in service of cheapness and efficiency. The city needed to build to keep going. What could be more New York than that? This plan isn’t for a city, but a park. Central Park. Landscape architect Frederick Olmsted designed
that park and many other public spaces. In a laundry list of criticisms of the New
York City grid, he said that, “Still other, and perhaps even graver, misfortunes to the
city…could have been avoided by a different arrangement of its streets.” The dream plan would have been more refined,
but this? It just wasn’t practical. City plans reflect values. And then they shape culture. In 1811, New York’s values were build, build,
build. So they adopted a plan to do it. Without development, you just have the sun. The buildings make it worth looking at. Hey that’s it for this episode about grids. I’m about to read some comments from the
previous episode of this Almanac: Road trip edition. It was all about the Vagabonds. “Edison was walking around calling Harvey
Firestone dude.” Uh yeah, he was, and also one thing I wasn’t
able to mention was that Edison was really hard of hearing at this time of his life,
so basically every time you wanted to talk to him you had to yell directly in his ear. “A 2019 version would probably be in a Tesla
with Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet and Leonardo diCaprio.” I will see you next week, and I’m actually
going to be driving in this episode. So get ready and buckle up.

100 thoughts on “Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from

  1. Center park was called Senegal village. they killed the blacks and push them out with no compensations. you can still find a statue dedicated to African Americans in the park

  2. Who on Earth would ever think 2 dimensional orthogonality would be an effective core design principle for a metropolis?

  3. 2:33 wow remember when we used to punish people for supporting and aligning themselves with hostile foreign governments?

  4. Chicago's grid is even better, aligned with the compass, more square lots, and all the numbered streets are parallel to each other.

  5. Uhm, the circles and diagonals in the DC layout were defensive points for cannon fire. The actual cannons on display at DuPont Circle and the actual fact that the circle held out until the British left in the war of 1812.

  6. You should do a video on Haussmann's renovation of Paris. It's awesome and revolutionary for urban planning at that time and at that scale and it still is even for today.

  7. The “cheapness” of building to keep the city going remind me of racism in early America and we can see that in the settlement houses of queens and Brooklyn while Manhattan is for the rich and wealthy with skyscrapers.

  8. As a town planner students. I must say some country like mine are still agains the rectalinear and rectangular streets. Because of safety reasons . Altho i must say the design of Manhanttan is definitely satisfying to look at. It was one of my favourite city design.

  9. You could blindfold and drop me anywhere in Manhattan and I could tell you what neighborhood I am in within seconds. I love nyc

  10. Look up William Light's 1836 plan for Adelaide, South Australia. The city is a square grid surrounded by parkland with 5 squares inside at the center of the 4 quadrants and in the middle of the city itself. Adelaide still holds to this plan.

  11. I know it's efficient but it's boring. One of the best things input living in a city is finding little streets and areas that are hidden. Little surprises. A grid pattern designs that joy out of the city. Architecture and planners MUST remember that people LIVE in cities. Joy and fun are key to enjoying life. A grid doesn't design that in.

  12. I think we are missing certain points. Grid pattern road layout is not that bad , its the complete abscence of green spaces altogether that creates problem. A good design should combine both. Residential areas with schools can be more organic in design whereas industrial/commercial areas flourish well in grid pattern.

  13. Vox, could you please explain how is it healthier or easier to support a larger population with that other 'graceful' robotic plan as opposed to any normal or sane development like the one we saw in the old street arrangement?

  14. They didn't mention how slot of the inspiration for Manhattan's grid system was taken from Glasgow , Scotland because many Scottish immigrants settled and done well on the city.

  15. I find it interesting that they mention China in their description of the size of Manhattan. Ancient China used a incredibly avant garde grid system that this seems based on.

  16. I remember when I went to New York, flying in it was so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In the UK the roads, city’s and towns are all a complete mess of winding turns and roundabouts. I do prefer it like that over a grid, feels more natural

  17. For more video on city planning, you guys should check out the Youtube channel City Beautiful
    He's a city planner and makes informative essays on the different aspects of city planning

  18. the grid layout is so boring….i love walking around European cities with little streets that twist around each other…..you go to a part of a city you have not been before and its like a whole new city….much nicer to walk around too

  19. I come from a Brazilian city called mirassol and the every road is square it so easy to walk around the city i wonder why every city isn't like that

  20. well u see it was just stomped out of the ground, in europe most cities were not planned with a masterplan… the historical part in the centre is allways unique in its shape and arrangement, but the roman empire was planning everything in rectangular shapes too, especially their castra

  21. NYC grid system made it so easy to navigate the city when I was a Bike messanger in my college year, late 90's…. Want to head North, watch the street numbers go UP!!!!!

  22. This was awesome – more content about urban planning and landscape architecture would be really cool. I love Vox's take, and crisp video editing.

  23. Can you please make a video on the migrant worker crisis in Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistani, and Bangladesh workers move there for work and end up getting their passports seized and they do not get paid, and they cannot leave in anyway. It would be highly appreciated if you could make a video on this as this needs more awareness! Please like so they see this!

  24. "In 1797, the city hired Architect Joseph Mangin…., but the city needed something fast so their plan was rejected." "In 1807, the state established a new commission to create a workable plan." Huh…10 years later….and the city needed something fast?

  25. I find the grid pattern extremely boring, I prefer the winding streets of natural development combined with the Parisian style grand boulevards. Looks amazing, always try replicating it in city skylines. And in going about making a city with that method you never know what you're going to end up with. You end up with lovely spaces.

  26. Olmsted helped to create the parks and park system in Louisville Ky. Other than the Downtown Metro much of Louisville is made up of winding streets some of which Olmsted himself helped design.

  27. you: stars circles and ovals add atmosphere to a city
    me, an intellectual: grid system cheap, easy, make money fast

  28. All business run off the network ! Meaning if something goes wrong on thier grid the whole business is ducked! It happens to banks! Or would be a shame if a computer nerd knocked you off the Grid

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