Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from


Vox Aug 2, 2019

Manhattan is famous for its grid — so famous that people take pictures of the way the sun shines through it. But the origin of that grid wasn’t always certain — and not everybody is a fan.

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In this episode of Vox Almanac’s Road Trip edition, Phil Edwards explores the history of the New York City grid, with detours to Philadelphia, Savannah, and Washington, DC. Early city planning around the turn of the 19th century was a contentious and undecided discipline with lots of options and disagreement.

New York City was particularly chaotic and unplanned at the time, after years of catering to developers and, at the same time, ignoring their requests for a more sane city plan. That made the introduction of a new plan in the 1800s a more urgent matter — and a reasonable time to introduce a plan that lacked many of the artistic flourishes of contemporary city plans.

New York was all about building, and building fast — and it’s still that way today.

Want to learn more? The two most helpful papers we found were these:
“The grid as city plan: New York city and laissez‐faire planning in the nineteenth century” by Peter Marcuse and “The Greatest Grid: the New York Plan of 1811” by Edward K. Spann.

You can also find copies of a lot of early maps of New York via the Library of Congress and New York Public Library.

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