Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from

November 9, 2019 | Articles, Blog | 97 Comments

Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from

At first, this looks like a perfectly normal
map of New York City. You zoom in and there’s
Broadway, and Bowery. But then you realize that the map is…wrong. Streets run diagonally and the map adds land
beyond the edge of the island. That’s because this wasn’t a map. It was a plan that was rejected. And this one — the one with the perfect
grid we know — was basically what we ended up with. Today Manhattan has a grid so perfect that
the way the sun shines through it is a hashtag on Instagram. But these grids were not all about beautiful
design, or even making it easier to find your way around when you come up out of the subway. The real reason one of these plans made it
and the other didn’t? It says something about how — and why — all
cities develop the way they do. This is a utopia called Philadelphia. When William Penn designed Philadelphia in
1681, he wanted to make an ideal city. His intentions reflected American ideas and
his Quakerism. The lines on his grid weren’t just right
angles, they were morally right angles. He wanted to preserve a sense of a country
town using common areas and gardens. In 1733 in Savannah, Georgia, the Oglethorpe
Plan was influenced by the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on balance and limits on
the grid’s growth. That resulted in a grid too, but with an elegant
design including common squares where all could congregate, and
commons limiting the grid plan’s reach. Pierre L’enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington,
DC, was even more ambitious, and though the city deviated from his design, some flourishes
survived, like diagonal avenues sliced across the city, circles to vary the grid’s monotony,
and grand squares for each of the then-15 states. New York was never so organized. This 1767 map shows the chaotic curved streets
and irregularities that marked the nearly 150 years of European settlement. What little order that had developed was largely
private and subject to frequent change. This 1776 map shows a planned grid with a
large square. That square belonged to the Delancey estate
(Delaney was a typo). Because the prominent New York family supported
the British during the Revolutionary War, the city confiscated their land after the
war. This 1789 map shows what happened to their
planned square. It disappeared. New York could have been stuck with this chaos. But as the 1800s rolled around, it couldn’t
afford to be much longer. It’s tough to know New York’s exact population
before 1800, but the trend was clear – massive growth, more than doubling between 1770 and
1790. Outbreaks of yellow fever that spread up and
down the East Coast heightened the urgency to build a cleaner, more orderly city. And that is where this failed plan comes in
— in 1797 the city hired architect Joseph Mangin and surveyor Casimir Goerck to map
New York. The plan showed the city as it “should be,”
not as it was. They widened janky streets and even added
to the waterfront — they proposed something graceful, but the city needed something fast
— so their plan was rejected. In 1807, the state established a new commission
to create a workable plan, and it was huge. In this map, this color shows the settled
land, and this color shows the projected areas for the grid. In their official report, they said they’d
planned for “a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” The grid made sense to hold it. They had debated “whether they should confine
themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some
of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish
a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility.” Basically, did they want L’enfant’s Washington
or a uniform grid? They decided that, “right-angled houses
are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections
was decisive.” The grid did that without screwing up existing
property-lines. It was predictable for developers. This was a different type of design. The grid seems orderly to us, but this order
was in service of cheapness and efficiency. The city needed to build to keep going. What could be more New York than that? This plan isn’t for a city, but a park. Central Park. Landscape architect Frederick Olmsted designed
that park and many other public spaces. In a laundry list of criticisms of the New
York City grid, he said that, “Still other, and perhaps even graver, misfortunes to the
city…could have been avoided by a different arrangement of its streets.” The dream plan would have been more refined,
but this? It just wasn’t practical. City plans reflect values. And then they shape culture. In 1811, New York’s values were build, build,
build. So they adopted a plan to do it. Without development, you just have the sun. The buildings make it worth looking at. Hey that’s it for this episode about grids. I’m about to read some comments from the
previous episode of this Almanac: Road trip edition. It was all about the Vagabonds. “Edison was walking around calling Harvey
Firestone dude.” Uh yeah, he was, and also one thing I wasn’t
able to mention was that Edison was really hard of hearing at this time of his life,
so basically every time you wanted to talk to him you had to yell directly in his ear. “A 2019 version would probably be in a Tesla
with Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet and Leonardo diCaprio.” I will see you next week, and I’m actually
going to be driving in this episode. So get ready and buckle up.

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  1. Dan Ellis-Jones

    I know it's efficient but it's boring. One of the best things input living in a city is finding little streets and areas that are hidden. Little surprises. A grid pattern designs that joy out of the city. Architecture and planners MUST remember that people LIVE in cities. Joy and fun are key to enjoying life. A grid doesn't design that in.

  2. nested bird

    I think we are missing certain points. Grid pattern road layout is not that bad , its the complete abscence of green spaces altogether that creates problem. A good design should combine both. Residential areas with schools can be more organic in design whereas industrial/commercial areas flourish well in grid pattern.

  3. Lily Bingham

    In my city we had roundabouts every five mins. I wish our city were this organized

  4. leofreaking

    2:25 Feels like something you could say about a democratic candidate

  5. Sushma Gayathri

    Whats the name of music playing background for wee time at 03.05 and continue at 03.20

  6. To the Horror

    The application of Feng Shui in property development.

  7. Marek Siciński

    'chaos', 'chaotic curved streets', 'stuck with', 'order'

    lol the distinctly ridiculous air of superiority

  8. Marek Siciński

    You can have perfectly huge and healthy city without right-angles lol

  9. Marek Siciński

    Vox, could you please explain how is it healthier or easier to support a larger population with that other 'graceful' robotic plan as opposed to any normal or sane development like the one we saw in the old street arrangement?

  10. MortalZeus

    Is it good or bad?

  11. Elementic 01

    They didn't mention how slot of the inspiration for Manhattan's grid system was taken from Glasgow , Scotland because many Scottish immigrants settled and done well on the city.

  12. Aayush Rawat

    Influenced by the Indus valley civilization, to the core

  13. Farhan Tanvir

    Meanwhile Dhaka is one of the most densely populated in the world and still doesn't have a plan in 2019 lol

  14. Andi Collins

    I find it interesting that they mention China in their description of the size of Manhattan. Ancient China used a incredibly avant garde grid system that this seems based on.

  15. darf Vador

    Man they had good handwriting back in the day

  16. JustGame

    I remember when I went to New York, flying in it was so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In the UK the roads, city’s and towns are all a complete mess of winding turns and roundabouts. I do prefer it like that over a grid, feels more natural

  17. Ian Ian

    That was fantastic.

  18. PixiiBoii

    Why do you describe curved streets as chaotic? Grids are boring.

  19. Count_Butter

    Well I think driving in that perfect view of the sun would be terrible

  20. World Wide Wong

    For more video on city planning, you guys should check out the Youtube channel City Beautiful
    He's a city planner and makes informative essays on the different aspects of city planning

  21. Joonha Shcal

    Yes, how very American.

  22. Jon

    Didn't even mention Neil Degrasse Tyson's name…. smh

  23. Cesar Sojo

    hwo did you go the entire video without mentioning Barcelona?

  24. Ivan Stamato

    Cachotic? You should visit Sao Paulo.

  25. Mark Youneva

    lived in NY most of my life and I still get fkn lost even with a grid map.

  26. Michael Devaney

    the grid layout is so boring….i love walking around European cities with little streets that twist around each other…..you go to a part of a city you have not been before and its like a whole new city….much nicer to walk around too

  27. Youssef M

    Nice polo

  28. mila

    I come from a Brazilian city called mirassol and the every road is square it so easy to walk around the city i wonder why every city isn't like that

  29. kk84 kk84

    Love that this is a series and not crammed into one vid. It keeps me coming back for more.

  30. Jamie Behun

    All big cities should copy the Manhattan street grid.

  31. Citavalo

    Interesting to learn about a place I’m never going to.

  32. Markus Goog1e

    well u see it was just stomped out of the ground, in europe most cities were not planned with a masterplan… the historical part in the centre is allways unique in its shape and arrangement, but the roman empire was planning everything in rectangular shapes too, especially their castra

  33. Yaser Khan

    Please do an episode on duderand line

  34. DonQuichotte

    'city plans reflect values' is such an American way of thinking

  35. Tikus Keriting

    I WISH Jakarta was like that!

  36. Vithursan B

    I hate curved streets with a passion, the struggles of living in a suburban area🙄

  37. Flames on Feet


  38. Chris Banana

    "City planning" when a group of people think they know what is best for everyone else

  39. Max Power

    NYC grid system made it so easy to navigate the city when I was a Bike messanger in my college year, late 90's…. Want to head North, watch the street numbers go UP!!!!!

  40. Colin Martin

    And Seattle's roads are just paved over goat paths laid down by the Roman legions.

  41. Thomas Polinze

    I thought they were talking about New Yorks failing power grid

  42. Jillian Gazillion

    This was awesome – more content about urban planning and landscape architecture would be really cool. I love Vox's take, and crisp video editing.

  43. Dammas Hoogendijk

    What about the Beemster? Was the system not from the Netherlands?

  44. Rawal Baloch

    Make video on imran khans struggle if you want

  45. Maksimilians Pīrs

    As efficient as the grid may be, the grid ain't for humans living in it

  46. r s

    Can you please make a video on the migrant worker crisis in Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistani, and Bangladesh workers move there for work and end up getting their passports seized and they do not get paid, and they cannot leave in anyway. It would be highly appreciated if you could make a video on this as this needs more awareness! Please like so they see this!

  47. Aniviper

    "In 1797, the city hired Architect Joseph Mangin…., but the city needed something fast so their plan was rejected." "In 1807, the state established a new commission to create a workable plan." Huh…10 years later….and the city needed something fast?

  48. Daniel Jim A. Opolot

    I find the grid pattern extremely boring, I prefer the winding streets of natural development combined with the Parisian style grand boulevards. Looks amazing, always try replicating it in city skylines. And in going about making a city with that method you never know what you're going to end up with. You end up with lovely spaces.

  49. Jackie Isaacs

    Olmsted helped to create the parks and park system in Louisville Ky. Other than the Downtown Metro much of Louisville is made up of winding streets some of which Olmsted himself helped design.

  50. Aman Singh Bhadauria

    Please make one about Indian cities. You'll never complain about it, ever again.

  51. Ramya Ranjan

    I think Barcelona as a city is more grid like 🤔.

  52. Jhon Kenth Delfin

    Can you make a video about the president of the Philippines?

    Because he is sooooo cooolllll!!!

  53. ziair williams

    Philly…. you guys steal everything from us.

  54. Love Charlotte

    you: stars circles and ovals add atmosphere to a city
    me, an intellectual: grid system cheap, easy, make money fast

  55. Burn With Fire

    Manhattan's rejected city plan: bad
    Jakarta and many other cities: hold my blueprint

  56. Melchizedek Phuah Siow Jin

    Very interesting. Thank you!

  57. jef lafortune

    Buildings make the sun worth looking at?

  58. Tracey Benna

    All business run off the network ! Meaning if something goes wrong on thier grid the whole business is ducked! It happens to banks! Or would be a shame if a computer nerd knocked you off the Grid

  59. Marco Testolin

    Savannah home of the GOAT. Real ones know who I'm talking about…

  60. MH5tube

    is this the only time "Philadelphia" and "utopia" have ever been used in the same sentence

  61. Laurence Kim

    i much prefer the nyc grid over the demented one way streets and circles of DC, but i also believe it is designed that way to control mobs of people in case a riot breaks out.

  62. Chelsea Bennett

    Yikes, this just ruined everything I was taught in school. I was told that the grid system in America was to reflect the grid system in many UK towns. Parts of Whitehaven (in Cumbria where I live) are in this format. But I guess British colonialism teachings strikes againg

  63. Ms. Daniela M. Delyusto

    "Road Trip"
    Nope, just a toll.

  64. Starbucks Coffee


  65. Joy G

    The buildings DO NOT make it worth looking at.

  66. Dornelas Dinh

    I honestly wonder why your episodes feel unfinished…it always gives me the impression there's a part two to tie up the subject.

  67. DT

    I had no idea I would be so fascinated by the history of how a city was planned and built. This was so cool!!!

  68. MechaMicro

    That is what it called “Optimized city”

  69. Carmen XD

    Grand Master La Vallette designed Valletta, Malta as a grid city in

  70. Mossy Cross

    This is my most favorite vox video and it just tells me the history of my own city and how it became what it is today

  71. MrPittsburghJ

    Pretty funny, grids that is. Put a person from the east out to Las Vegas where it's pretty much all gridded and they get lost so easy.
    Next, do DC. Masons might not let you dig too deep on that story.

  72. Sorabh Pant

    Big deal. Mumbai is also a perfect grid. We just haven't lined the streets and roads in line yet.

  73. Amanda Schwartz

    *laugs in Boston

  74. FedoraMiaza

    Hey Vox!
    Can we please have a schedule from you for the different series you upload (Ex. Darkroom every X day or Almanac every Y day). Thankyou!

    Btw, love your videos.

  75. helios396

    I used to get confused when in cop TV dramas set in New York the characters are always saying things like, "suspect was last seen between 15th street and 19th avenue" or something like that.

    I was like, New York uses numbers for street names? How boring…
    It does make finding addresses much much easier if you think about it.

  76. Daniel Epps

    Pittsburgh is just one big triangle. Everything ends downtown at the Point

  77. Bob Mwangi

    I wish this was longer. There's so much to learn about New York. Make a part 2!😀

  78. Cheerios Gaming

    I enjoy every single vox video I click on but this ones my favorite

  79. Liz Paterson Gauntner

    Could you do one on the grid in Ouagadougou?

  80. mahwahlax27

    Took you 6 minutes to say that they built manhattan on a grid because right-angled houses are cheaper.

  81. Chris Licata

    No mention of New Haven, CT the first grid city in North America which Philly got its idea from. Maybe first grid city ever, designed by John Davenport.

  82. rrbaggett7

    Excellent & fascinating, Phil! I frequently paused the video in order to zoom in to pore over the interesting maps & photos. Well done, young man!

  83. Jeremy Weaver

    That was a terrible final sentence, before you answered the question.

  84. Robert Perrett

    It must be hard to drive when the sun is setting and/or rising in New York City, trying to avoid looking at the sun while driving isn't fun, but annoying.

  85. The Cereal Guy


  86. first last

    So what was so great about the other plan?

  87. hank jones

    I used to be confused as a kid watching movies and everyone's like 'it's two blocks that way'.

  88. kid kurmudgeon

    grids are so intuitive, for people without a sense of direction like myself

  89. William Ceurvels

    "Without development you just have the sun, buildings make it worth looking at." Seriously?

  90. Aldo Raine

    You guys should cover Chicago's city plan. Urbs in Horto Magico.

  91. Aldo Raine

    Lol hey New York how do you like having no alleys? Lol. Plus the building henge sun thing isn't just a thing in new york.

  92. AlphaMikeFoxtrot 101

    Your editor deserves an Oscar

  93. AndroidDoctorr

    Man that ended way too soon, I was totally invested. I want to know more

  94. keith m

    The grid system is mind numbing, i love the way the uk street plans are chaotic.

  95. RAtHOR

    To me grids are just yuck . Curvy roads for everyone!

  96. Naveen Mallikarjuna

    "Without development, you just have the sun. The buildings make it worth looking at." Ugh!

  97. Cyber_King

    Grew up in the UK. Streets are more natural and cities feel smaller (even if they're actually massive).

  98. MsBea 345

    This helped me with class. Thank you

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