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I wouldn’t say that the city is dominated by grids, although areas with a gridded street network do pop up here and there. Perhaps because they can be amusing (although a bit tedious) to draw, perhaps because they create nice urban environments, perhaps because I want to create numbered streets and see how high I go can, or perhaps because they’re really excellent streets for running public transport through.

Here’s an example area: North American cities are perhaps most famous for their street grids, at least in the kind of “near perfect” form that you can see in the image above. The grid on Manhattan Island, north of 14th street in particular, is particularly famous. The map below shows a section of the Upper East side: avenues running north-south, streets running east-west, streets generally alternating in direction although some being extra wide and operating two-way. Vancouver is another city with a very extensive grid: The street pattern in Vancouver (as well as New York, although subways are more prevalent in New York) makes running a legible bus network far far easier than would otherwise be possible: For a while I couldn’t make my mind up about whether grids were a good thing or a bad thing for urban areas. On the one hand there are all the rational positives: the legibility, the connectivity, the different options, the dispersal of movement, the potential for logical public transport routes, the clean-ness. But on the other hand, at times it does just seem a bit dead boring. The same street pattern over and over and over and over again creates a risk of ending up promoting urban spaces which aren’t memorable and could be replicated in a million other locations.

But, having visited New York and Vancouver, and many other places with street grids (particularly San Francisco comes to mind), I probably tend towards my positive thoughts about grids. In a way, a street network acts like the bones of a city, structuring it, holding it together and having an enormous impact on how that city will work. But it’s what you do with the network that will end up determining whether a place is interesting or whether it’s dead boring. The Canadian town of Prince George has a grid and is dead boring, but I don’t think it’s the street grid’s fault for that – it’s just a boring place. While there’s something inherently interesting about the intricate street networks of downtown London or Paris, I don’t think New York suffers in comparison because of its gridded network (although what it does with those streets may have a lot to do with comparisons).

Of course, it’s not a total black and white choice between a perfect grid and a higgledy-piggledy mess. Somewhere like Balmoral, here in Auckland, has what you might think of as a “deformed grid”, a mixture with some aspects of a grid but other streets that don’t hook up, and certainly a bit more variety in the network than you might see in the above cities – but without losing the accessibility, the connectivity and the legibility: Perhaps a deformed grid can provide the best of both worlds? Or perhaps we need to think about how we can make supposedly bland regular grids more interesting through slowing down some streets or really focusing on the built environment created around the bones of the street network.

Overall though, I must say I quite like grids. And I quite like the fact they seem to come in many different shapes and sizes.