In a Land of Cul-de-Sacs, the Street Grid Stages a ComebackHistorians in the News
tags: suburban history, transportation, Land use, planning
America has long been a nation of grids.
In 1682, surveyor Thomas Holme began to assemble one of the first major street plans in North America for the new city of Philadelphia, producing a grid of wide streets, consistent blocks and regular parks. That formula rapidly spread across the colonies. In 1811, New York City would adopt its now-famous grid plan across Manhattan island. As therailroads pushed westward, a grid that centered around the train station became the street plan of choice.
And no wonder: With high levels of connectivity and easy legibility, street grids make cities easier to navigate and boast many benefits to mobility. The raw efficiency of such plans lends a high degree of certainty to urban growth. As urban planner Alain Bertaud argues, grids allowed planners to define the public realm in advance of growth. This meant that not only streets, but also parks, transit, school sites and utilities could have a dedicated home before new development arrived, avoiding a scramble to widen streets or buy up public land later.
But in the 20th century, American planners lost touch with this tradition. In the post-war period especially, a new street design paradigm of winding roads and blossoming cul-de-sacs — aggressively promoted by the Federal Housing Administration and later enshrined in local subdivision ordinances — came to rule the day. Where cities once mapped out comprehensive street networks, the concept of a “street hierarchy” now prevails, with planners mapping out wide arterials and collector roads and leaving the rest to the ad hoc proposals of subdivision developers.
The result is the winding web of curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs that now define suburbia, in the U.S. and beyond. The spread of this style of anti-urban planning is a global phenomenon: According to one recent study, since 1975, the disconnectivity of street networks, both in terms of new cul-de-sacs and lengthening distances between intersections, has increased dramatically — not only within American suburbia but across much of the developing world. It’s a space- and resource-hungry pattern that has long attracted criticism.
But the Great American street grid may be staging a comeback, and from an unlikely place — the wide-open exurbs around Texas boomtowns.
As Robert Steuteville noted in Public Square, a growing number of Texas towns are rediscovering the wisdom of gridded street layouts. Back in 2017, Laredo — America’s largest trade port and consistently one of the fastest-growing cities in the country — adopted Plan Viva Laredo. The comprehensive plan envisions a dramatic expansion of Laredo’s historic grid as the city expands outward, creating a framework for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods rather than the siloed sprawl which has characterized much of Texas’ recent growth.
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