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Insights Why did the grid system become an important element of city design in the US?

A grid layout is a feature of many US cities. When you walk around these districts, you might be thankful for the easily navigated streets and a numbering system that should make it near-impossible to get lost. Alternatively, you might wonder why the architects and urban planners who laid down the blueprint would choose a layout without the character and charm you find when meandering down winding lanes.

Some of the earliest planned cities took on this gridiron layout, where streets intersect at perfect right angles and follow a hierarchy from busy boulevards to residential lanes. In more modern grid systems, town planners will establish a network of arterial and collector roads and then leave it up to subdivision developers to decide how the city takes shape from there.

Around 81% of the US population live in cities and urban districts, and many feature this grid layout, but why was it favoured over other patterns?

graphic of a grid system city

The development of US cities

Cities can often seem like a labyrinth of streets. You only have to walk around a metropolis of the Ancient World to understand just how chaotic these public spaces can be. So when town planners were faced with the decision of how to design new US cities, is it any surprise that they chose a pattern as orderly and reliable as the grid?

William Penn—the founder of Philadelphia—chose a grid system because it ensured that each lot and block were uniform, enforcing his belief in equality and brotherhood. Named the ‘City of Brotherly Love', Philadelphia features a rectangular pattern with broader streets designed to accommodate both commerce and transportation. When you first think about designing the layout of a city, you might imagine a team of creatives, including architects, landscape architects and urban planners. Also on the scene will be engineers, whose role is to assess the feasibility of the design. This includes water engineers and transportation engineers—civil engineers that specialize in the design of roads, railway and bus systems.

Around the same time, settlers arrived in New York but it wasn't until 200 years later that the city’s street commissioners implemented a plan that would manage traffic flow within the sprawling city and map out a modern water delivery system and sewage system. It’s no different for today’s design and engineering teams, who need to present plans for forward-thinking urban ecosystems. What might these look like?

What are the benefits of a grid system within city development?

As they have in the past, urban planners need to consider water supply, transportation routes and public welfare. On top of this, modern urban planning must now factor in air quality, population growth and accessibility. Urban accessibility means creating an inclusive space where the most vulnerable residents can access the services they need. Since a grid system allows for high levels of connectivity, this layout can help to improve the quality of people’s lives.

The logicality of a grid might be mistaken for simplicity, when in fact, there are iconic city grids across both the Old World and the New World that are considered works of art. With more data and 3D modelling software at our fingertips, grid systems can take on more complex forms and provide answers to some of the most pressing challenges we face, like growing populations.

A well-organized space means that planners can do more with less. Grid plans promote sustainability and lay down the foundations so that cities can grow as their population grows. Planning these spaces in advance means that parks, schools and transit routes have a dedicated space before development begins. This prevents any rush to find a place for buildings, infrastructure or green spaces, and faces the challenge of overcrowding head-on.

There’s a place for you at Atkins

Urban designers are visionaries. Whether they're designing a new city or a slice of an existing city, their masterplan needs to show the economic, social and environmental benefits of their proposals. Lead urban designers will guide a team of graduate architects, qualified architects, urban planners and engineers, who will work with local planning authorities to make sure their ideas will work for the community.

At Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis Group, our teams use 3D modelling software to design and manage multi-disciplinary urban development projects. Not only that, but they also get to contribute to bids and proposals, meaning they can be involved in every stage, from conception to construction. Being a globally recognized business, our cities and development teams will work on large scale projects spanning America.

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