My submission to the Urban Omnibus’ Unfinished Grid: Essay Competition that sought entries to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Manhattan street grid.
Walking the Grid
To me, the Manhattan street grid represents possibility. The possibility of personal urban adventures and the possibility of inspiring new urban futures.
In 2003, I was a young and inspired urban planning student from Australia and it was my first time in Manhattan. I had studied the grid pattern before my trip, and as the taxi rounded the corner, the city began to make sense to me. I had never been there before. However, it was in these first few moments, that I had a very strange sense of familiarity. It felt like it was a place I had already known or had visited before. Perhaps I had seen it in a previous life, or (more likely) perhaps it was just so iconic to me for it had been romanticized in so many popular books and Hollywood movies. The taxi reached 90-something Street and I watched the street signs and the street numbers descending. The grid gave me reassurance and comfort. It was the grid itself that told me I was heading in the right direction – towards my destination on West 73rd St. It inspired me and guided me, and it would continue to do so in the years to come.
After that first trip to New York, I ended up back there again in 2010. I had run away to mend a broken heart and to go fight for the dream of “making it” in New York. A wondrous sense of possibility defined the city for me and I was there to chase it.
I feel like every person in New York is there to chase some part of his or her own happiness and fulfilment – to find their own possibility. What makes people happy and how do our architecture and our urban environment support that?
In Willard Spiegelman’s book “Seven Pleasures. Essays on Ordinary Happiness” he outlines 7 activities that will naturally lead to well being:
5. Listening (music)
Walking as a ‘happiness activity’ is certainly defined by the street grid and by urban design. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs wrote about her block in Greenwich Village. More importantly, she also wrote about the street grid, the lengths of street blocks, and the urban form that supported vibrant urban street life. To this day, urban design theory still talks about walk-ability, connectivity, permeability and accessibility. The grid pattern has been fundamental in defining this theory. Walking continues to define people’s experiences of all cities and it raises important design issues such as safety, access, public spaces, building frontages, footpath quality and the importance of street trees.
As a visitor and a newcomer, I felt my willingness and urge for long walks and urban exploration was heightened. The grid and its key streets like Broadway, 14th and Houston, hug the boundaries of diverse neighbourhoods and these became my prime destinations.
For me, walking was fundamental to my New York experience and to finding my own possibility. On some days I walked the 4 miles from Central Park to my home in the East Village. In other cities, I would have found that exact same distance to be too far or too unpleasant to walk. I theorise that the walking distance appeared shorter because the grid allows for more interesting journeys and possibilities. On the grid, there was always someone or something to observe. I found much peace when walking by myself, especially at night, as I moved through both busy and quiet patches of districts. It was during these times when the grid was my exploration and partner in crime.
The grid offers many intersections and therefore many different possible routes to take. The city and its grid became my guide. I had a game that I often played with myself that was based on being guided by the traffic lights. When arriving at an intersection, I would cross at whichever light would change first. The game was to just follow the “green walking man” to see where I ended up. I used to tell myself it was “the universe” showing me my next destination – a place I had to go and experience.
Often the ‘universe’ led me to welcome breaks and intersections on the grid and these became my favourite places and urban spaces. The breaks in street pattern were created by the diagonal angle of Broadway or created by parks (such as Madison Square Park or Union Square). These places were points of respite and points where footpaths and subways also converged. I greatly admire the work of the Department of Transport who in recent years have taken advantage of these breaks and intersections to redefine them. They have transformed Broadway, added plazas and increased pedestrian priority. These initiatives are both groundbreaking and refreshing. It is an example of where the street grid itself is expressing its own possibility for its future – a more inspiring urban future where walking and pedestrians matter most.
In many cities, it seems that proposed changes to streets and parking are universally contentious amongst communities. People voice concerns about worsening traffic patterns and chaotic congestion. However such negative reactions (and perhaps overreactions) underestimate the adaptability of human behaviour and the capacity of the street grid to accommodate different routes. Spaces in the grid can be reclaimed without the city falling apart and the plaza work of the Department of Transport clearly demonstrated that possibility and that reality.
The plaza work which involved temporary initiatives to reclaim streets, such as moveable chairs, planters, and painted ground surfaces, were high impact yet were relatively low risk and low cost. The temporary nature of these initiatives are low risk and non-threatening as they can technically be removed. This is successful and it works because it directly tests and shows a new possibility for community spaces. This is where the magic happens. Once aware of a new possibility, communities fall in love with these new reinvigorated spaces and the emerging culture demands these spaces stay permanently. It is in these moments of intervention where the grid stops being just “the space between” the activities and buildings and it becomes more powerfully, “the space to be in”.
The use of such interventions and strategies (also known as “tactical urbanism) is a radical and effective trend that is now inspiring other cities. It takes some determination and boldness to reclaim the grid and change patterns as the Department of Transport did. It is also this same tenacity and spirit that I sensed most during my time experiencing the city, and the people that live and walk amongst its grid. I used to tell people it had to be “a city full of dreamers” and I chased my own happiness and possibility to be one of them.
When drawn on a paper plan, the grid imposes an almost unremarkable uniformity, yet on the ground, it is anything but that. The blocks within the grid can be and are filled with almost anything. From different buildings and uses to a variety of interesting lives that play out beyond the street, and on the street itself.
The vast possibilities and the life moments that occur on the street grid is what defines the city, and indeed it defined my own life. I still remember –
Stopping at 49th St and Broadway, where I was first “wowed” by the lights of Times Square;
Walking on West 72nd St, on the morning after, of that big night before;
Wishful thinking on East 7th St where he never turned up;
Hugging a friend on the corner of 1st Ave and 9th St; and
Pausing on 42nd St where he kissed my cheek for the first time.
I just wouldn’t be who I am today without having had these experiences and memories. Just as New York wouldn’t be New York without the street grid. This pattern of simple rectangle blocks holds the place together, defines the city’s past and opens it up to a wonderful future of possibility.
Thanks to PT and RY for the editorial help.
It was a good exercise to do and it was challenging to keep a mix of urban design + personal story. For all the wonderful personal memories I truly do have, it holds many sad and bittersweet feelings too. The city doesn’t hold the same ‘possibility’ as it once did in my heart.