Saturday, August 2, 2014

Living on the Grid

There is something deeply appealing about a city built on a road grid. Not just because of my love of order and planning, either. You can arrive there and navigate your way around pretty easily, because most places can be accessed without making more than a couple of turns. I always like that in a place I’m travelling to. Not the fastest route, but the route I'm least likely to screw up.

It also gives rise to the wonderful phenomenon of numbering addresses by block. Growing up in Australia, the assumption that consecutive houses would be two numbers apart if on the same side of the street was one of those things so baked into your way of thinking that if I’d lived a thousand years, it would never have occurred to me to do it differently. I think this is how it always is. Everybody thinks of technological change as making an IPad or something, they rarely look for improvements in something mundane and simple like how addresses are numbered. But in a grid city, you can do much better than consecutive numbering, by making the numbers go up by 100 each block, and just rank order arbitrary numbers within the blocks. Manhattan is the epitome of this. When every street and avenue has a number, ‘312 E 28th St’ tells you exactly where the building is – between 3 and 4 blocks east of the dividing line of 5th Avenue, on 28th street.  If the city had a definite lower left point, you wouldn’t even need the extra knowledge of the dividing Avenue. In Chicago, the numbering tells you one dimension, but the streets themselves have names. So you have to, for instance, know that the downtown streets are named in order of the presidents. Well, except for Jefferson, who’s somewhere else. And that pesky thing that there were two ‘Adams’ presidents within the space of five presidents (it’s Quincy Adams who gets the street, not Adams). Hey, nowhere's perfect.

The knock on grid cities is that they’re boring from a design point of view, but I’m not so sure. From high above the city at night, the lights on Roosevelt Ave stretch out in a line to the far horizon, fading off as if they go on forever. Without contours in the ground, it feels like living in the mathematician's depiction of parallel lines on an idealized infinite plane. Eventually, the lights on the two sides of the street must converge to a single point. Theoretically, this happens only at infinity, but I’d wager that somewhere in Nebraska ought to be far enough.

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