Why I Love the New York City Grid
"If you get out of the subway and you’re lost, just look at the next street. If you can see the next street sign, then you are on the streets and you know you are facing north or south. If you can’t see the next street, then you are on an avenue and you are facing east or west.” This was the advice of a New Yorker to me and my travel buddy Nicole on our recent trip to New York.
“Could it be that simple,” I skeptically thought while he spoke. It turns out, yes. He was completely right and it is that simple.
I have written before about the grid in NYC, inspired by the recent exhibit The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 at the Museum of the City of New York. But it wasn’t until I experienced the grid for myself that I really started to appreciate it.
Here are a few benefits of the grid that really sunk in while I was on my trip:
Navigation and Order
In a city as chaotic, intense and unrelenting as New York, it’s comforting to have some semblance of order in the form of the grid system. Even when there are street musicians performing on one side of the street, hot dog vendors on the other, panhandlers sitting up against a building and throngs of people rushing at you like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, you at least know where you are and where you’re heading thanks to the grid. The streets, that run east west, are about 200 feet apart, and the avenues, that run north and south, are about 922 feet apart. You can see the length of a block if you’re traveling north south, but you can’t if you’re traveling east west. This instant tool of orientation brings order to a city can otherwise be full of surprises and unpredictability.
Our Harlem tour guide told us that if we walked 3 miles north on Broadway, we’d be back in the Upper West Side where the tour started. Three miles is equivalent to about 80 blocks. That’s a long way to walk, but if you chop it up into 80 little milestones, it doesn’t seem so bad. Even though every block is relatively the same size, each is a little different and unique. As Michael Kimmelman points out in his article about the exhibit, the sameness and predictability of the grid has created a foundation for uniqueness and variety when it comes to life on top of the grid.
It’s very pleasant to walk in New York, even in inclement weather. It’s pleasant because the size of the blocks is scaled for walking and there’s so much to see! The density and the variety of buildings, shops, businesses and streetscapes will keep your interest piqued to the point where walking 3 miles feels natural instead of a burdensome chore. Plus, using the grid as a tool to navigate the city alleviates the potential stress of getting lost.
This article is not about comparing New York to Phoenix because the two cities are so radically different, it’s hard to compare them in a useful way. But it bears mentioning here how the opposite is true in Phoenix, a city that is also on a grid. It’s very unpleasant to walk in Phoenix, but it’s very pleasant to drive here. Our blocks are a mile wide in some cases, about the size of 26 New York blocks, but perfect if you’re going 45 miles an hour. And because of empty lots and blank building facades (that might not register when you’re in a car) there’s not much to look at for pedestrians beyond the question, what the hell am I doing walking and not driving??
The New York grid was designed in 1811, well before the first factory-made car in the world hit the streets in 1897. It was clearly designed for walking, a mode of transportation that has survived to this day in New York and many major cities around the world. In Phoenix, the walking culture that existed before WWII did not survive the advent of the car. Our walkable downtown was effectively killed in the 1950s when developers started banking on people’s love of the car. And so as our city boomed in size and in population, the car became the basis of the Phoenix grid, not the pedestrian, and that is why we have a highly drive-able grid but not a walkable one.
The 200 foot x 922 foot grid also lays the foundation for population density. According to Kimmelman, historically, the population growth of New York wildly exceeded even the most boosterish predictions, and the grid was the perfect flexible fabric on which this growth unfolded and took root.
On my trip, I was just blown away at how dense New York is, but that might be because I’m coming from Phoenix, where even our Downtown looks like a desolate country road compared to a typical New York neighborhood. The five boroughs of New York City cover 302 square miles and hold a population of 8.2 million people. The city of Phoenix is 517 square miles and has a population of 4.2 million. So New York houses almost twice as many people as Phoenix in an area that’s a little over half the size. That’ll give you an idea of the population density in New York, where every square inch of land is maximized to accommodate the droves of people who live, work and play in the city. This density contributes to the interest and variation and the loads of cool destinations available for pedestrians.