OT long - Maps and sense of place

Nat Case hedberg at vermontel.net
Tue Sep 14 12:14:04 EDT 1999

What this has to do with DWJ, I don't know. We certainly do have a lot of
geographers here, don't we?

Nat Case

>On Mon, 13 Sep 1999, Melissa Proffitt wrote:
>>On Mon, 13 Sep 1999 18:24:13 +0100, Lucy Mackintosh wrote:
>>>I firmly believe that all towns are laid out in a nice, neat grid pattern.
>>Maybe most cities are...but definitely not all.
>Can anyone think of any at all in Europe? I've never been to a grid city
>but imagine them to be a little dull? Less landscape and town plannign
>history to them, and probably really boring road names???? (coo, what
>prejudice <g> I grew up with mediaeval layouts extant.)

There are some medieval towns laid out on grids in Southern France. And
there are certainly stretches of many towns with rectilinear bits. New Town
in Edinburgh is my favorite.

In defense of gridded towns:
1. I think straight grids actually give you a better sense of landscape, as
you can see more than a block at a stretch. Minneapolis (where, by the way,
I am moving back next spring... yaaay!) has some really nice vistas (my
favorite is going down Nicollet Ave in Burnsville, where the straight wide
boulevard gives you a lovely view of the whole Minnesota River valley and
downtown Minneapolis 8-10 miles away). from the tops of hills. But most of
the time, what with hills and trees, you can't really see more than 5 or 6
blocks. Now Omaha, Nebraska or Fargo, North Dakota, you can get vertigo...

2. Because there is in fact a shape to the land, gridded towns inevitably
lose their griddedness at points. Towns built on rivers often have
river-paralleling streets, and usually to climb a hill the planners gave
into the highway engineers. And often the earliest roads, which are simply
"get me to the mill from the fort" straight lines, have been preserved as
diagonal or winding paths.

3. Grids are fine in theory, but people are people. A lot of older gridded
cities did not start out orienting to true north, and so there are often
multiple grids which intersect in Byzantine ways. Even with north-south
surveys, often the size of blocks vary across a city, because of competing
developers, or because (as in Columbus, Ohio), two surveys with different
meridians happen to meet. The Northwest Ordinance, which set the grid
pattern for the United States west of the Appalachian mountains, tried to
lay a square-based grid over a spherical surface, and did some fancy
maneuvering to make it work, which means adjoining townships are often out
of sync with each other.

4. Surveyors screw up. This is rarer, but especially in iron-rich areas
(which mess up compasses) and especially rough terrain, the original surveys
have "squares" that would make the Wantchester hotel look positively

5. Finally, a lot of curvy streets have been thrown into the mix precisely
because someone didn't like straight lines. Parks and parkways from the turn
of the century and more recent "curvy streets" residential subdivisions have
broken up the grid significantly in most cities.

Enough. Back to work...
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