Is the “Great American Grid” Even American?: The Great American Grid Debate at The Congress for the New Urbanism’s CNU21
Susan Mudd, who has attended 20 out of the 21 Congress for the New Urbanism annual congresses and is John Norquist’s wife, explained to me that the reason why CNU has chosen to call their annual gatherings ‘congresses’ rather than ‘conferences’ is due to the serious debates that take place each year. After attending the “Great American Grid Debate” session, I can affirm that statement with confidence.
Debate resolution: “The ubiquitous Western American grid is detrimental to good urbanism.”
This session was a Lincoln-Douglass style debate. The moderator was Geoff Dyer, Director of Canadian Operations for PlaceMakers, LLC and Principal and Urban Designer at T-Six Urbanists, Inc, PlaceMakers, LLC. The affirming arguments came from Bill Dennis, Architect & Urban Designer at B. Dennis Town and Building Design and Howard Blackson, Principal at PlaceMakers, LLC. The rebuttal was offered by Kevin Klinkenberg, AIA, the Senior Planner for Olsson Associates, and Paul Knight, AICP, CNU-A, the Urban Designer and Intern Architect at Historical Concepts.
Keep in mind that these arguments are meant to be polar and an extreme application of the resolution.
Bill Dennis opened for the affirming argument, or against the grid system. He claims that the adoption of the grid “killed life” in the city. He argued that humans require a hierarchy and variety. He said that there wasn’t anything particularly American about the grid, either, referencing many other cultures that adopted a grid system long before America. He called the grid “geometric fascism.”
Paul Knight argued that the grid system is a promoter of good urbanism. He said that the grid is inherently walkable and provides basic connectivity. He argued that with a grid system, you don’t need Google Maps to find your way as the grid gives you a sense of direction due to its simplicity. He said that it’s the most efficient street layout and allows for an infinite amount of land uses. He also said that it ages well, and is easily changeable and adaptable throughout time. In my opinion, Salt Lake City has done this beautifully.
Howard Blackson argued that the grid system’s main purpose is efficiency, but that most loved neighborhoods aren’t described as “efficient.” He argued that a street system requires a human element, or a certain level of effectiveness- not efficiency. He said that the grid system is used as a vice dating back to manifest destiny, not out of proven successes.
Kevin Klinkenberg argued for a rigid grid system. He said that the grid encourages wandering and sociability- living life in public. He argued that because of the grid system’s seamlessly repeated pattern, all blocks have equal opportunities for infinite development possibilities. For this reason, he believes that it is a help to the real estate market. He argued that the grid is more affordable than other systems, both in construction and design.
Knight rebutted that everything from a book to a building is rectangular and that streets should reflect that pattern. He asked how many people lived in rectangular buildings, and most everyone raised their hands. He argued that in this sense, the grid is an organizing element. I interpreted that to mean that a typical rectangular building going into a grid system is just like a book finding its place in a rectangular bookcase or vice versa. He said that there is an equal number of ugly and beautiful grid streets. He argued that we should trust precedent and tradition.
Dennis argued that the grid isn’t any particular culture’s tradition. He asked if anyone in the room was, themselves, rectangular. Obviously, no one raised their hand that time. He closed by saying, “Our experiences should be greater than a rectangular experience.”
Klinkenberg said that frustrations with the grid system is not in the pattern, but the common implementation. He said that the grid system is definitively an American tradition. He mentioned that the grid is walkable, and that there were immense possibilities for development in a grid system. He said, “We need new urbanists to respect and defend the grid.”
Blackson rebutted that we as planners and designers must change with new generations and learn to evolve. (The Northwest Oridinance was enacted in the US in 1787. It is widely credited along with the Land Ordinance of 1785 to be the start of the ‘great western American grid.’) “1787 was not the height of American civilization,” he said. He quoted Léon Krier, saying that one must move around the grid, rather than within it.
For more on this topic, check out thegreatamericangrid.com
Do you prefer the vistas of curved streets, or rigid organization of a grid system?
Credits: Photo and references linked to sources.