Most American towns and cities have been laid out with a grid pattern comprised of streets and side streets crossing at right angles (Figure 1). Such a simple network of orthogonal streets that intersect in a regular manner creates rectangular or square city blocks. The rationale of city planning to shape the urban environment with this pattern of vertical and horizontal streets lies in increased connectivity: the possible routes between any given two points is maximized. Short of diagonal connections (which are missing in a rigid grid layout) the distance between the starting point and the destination is minimized, diversifying the transportation options and
improving the transportation system. In contrast, with the hierarchical traffic pattern found in more recent development such as urban sprawl, trip lengths increase because the residential streets with few connections feed into arterial streets that move traffic out of the neighborhood. In this model, a trip across the neighborhood is very difficult, while a trip around the neighborhood is very easy and fast. Thus, the grid is the geometric form of choice for a planned network with high connectivity for efficient movement of goods and services.
The origin of the gridiron has its roots in ancient settlements since biblical times. Modular grid patterns were used 3000 B.C. in Assyria and Babylonia for military camps and city designs and the temple complex of Zoser at Sakkara in Egypt was laid out orthogonally in 2650 B.C. (Kostof, 1985). The discipline of rational city planning has been attributed to the architect Hippodamus of Miletus (498-408 BC). He is credited with designing orthogonal towns including Olynthus, Priene, and Miletus; for example, he designed the Mediterranean harbor town Miletus in such a way that the sea and mountain winds could freely breeze through the city blocks and bring relief during the hot summer months. The orthogonal design was used by the Greeks for solar architecture to fully capture the sun rays during the winter but to escape the full solar impact during the summer, when the angle of the sun has shifted. These ancient methods to fight the urban heat island effect are remarkable in light of persistently high heat-related mortality and morbidity in urban centers today, that are entirely preventable. (Semenza, et al., 1996; Semenza, et al., 1999). The Greeks also invented the Phalanx, a rectangular arrangement of soldiers, and exported the grid city to their colonies as a tool of military control.
The Romans imposed a rigid quadrilateral structure over the conquered land and allocated square subdivisions to war veterans; they introduced the castrum to urban planning in their colonies, a fortified legionary camp with a predetermined grid pattern. At the heart of the ancient Roman city planning is the crossing of the two main streets, the east-west oriented decumanus and the perpendicular north-south cardus. At the center of the castrum was an institutional building or temple with the two mayor perpendicular crossroads extending through the fortification into the landscape. The forum in the center was thus able to control the traffic passing through the gates of the walled rectangular castrum.
European settlement of North America was characterized by towns with a concentric layout with a common meeting house in the center and public squares. Population growth and immigration necessitated more land acquisitions and the rectangular grid plan was adapted as the organizing theme. For example, New Haven, Connecticut or Savannah, Georgia, were laid out on the grid with a central public square for the church or a public square for the community. The National Land Ordinance of 1785 dictated that the westward expansion from the existing colonies be divided by a rectangular grid pattern, which was also applied to the planning of cities and towns (Kostof, 1985). Such a subdivision assured an efficient way to effectively plan and sell new acquisitions (Maholy-Nagy, 1968). Furthermore, the uniform distance between sections and blocks facilitated transport of people and goods. Inherent in the principle of the classic grid design applied to the city is the uniform distribution of traffic circulation: there are no major arterial roads that are at the top of the hierarchy of high volume traffic and conversely there are no residential streets that are spared the high volume travel of cars. Residential neighborhoods can therefore fall victim to a constant stream of through traffic which negatively impact the quality of urban life (APHA, 1948). Unlike the cities in the east such as, New Haven and Savannah, the National Land
Ordinance did not provide for public centers, parks, or open landscapes since it carved the land into squares of private property and virtually omitted the public realm, except streets. The monotony of the rectangular pattern did not consider topography or the natural curvilinear layout of the land and was imposed over the undeveloped landscape to neutralize the environment. The lack of open space deprived the urban population of recreational sites with fresh air and abundant light, and fostered monotonous housing standards. Furthermore, the omission of public squares, ceremonial places, and public structures as nodes of community life was a serious limitation of the relentless grid design; it could potentially be the source of social isolation and alienation in urban centers. The grid layout fulfilled a number of technocratic goals, but fell short to take into account a number of human qualities. Aristotle criticized the Hippodamian approach to city planning stating that every city core should have a haphazard arrangement and he stressed the importance of tradition and habit in making city residents orderly and law-abiding. Indeed, cultural identity may be stronger in an organically evolved city plan with historic and artistic landmarks.
The intervention described here aims to retrofit the layout of the grid city by integrating public gathering places into the public realm. These gathering places aim to reinstate the town commons that historically had been the geographic glue of community stewardship. These restorative public places with interactive art installations are intended to inspire a sense of belonging and identity, trigger conversations among strangers, spark creativity, cultivate civic capacity, and even stimulate local economic vitality. These commons are essential parts of the democratic process to facilitate collective responsibility and tolerance. The approach has been implemented by the local non-profit organization The City Repair Project, and has been field-tested and evaluated at numerous sites.
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