Get on the straight & narrow – Manhattan grid celebrates 200

I’ll take Manhattan. And apparently so will 1,629,053 of my closest friends.

Thanks to chief engineer and surveyor John Randel’s proposed plan, known as the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the foundation for Manhattan’s future growth was put in place. The original grid illustrated 11 major avenues and 155 crosstown streets. It’s the map that made New York.

Commissioners' Plan of 1811, Manhattan street grid, Cartesian planes, Manhattan history, urban planning, rectilinear foundations

The Cartesian solution has proved extremely resilient: accommodating the transition from horses to motor vehicles and even the placement of our green, urban oasis: Central Park.

The easy-to-navigate street grid provides developers, inhabitants, and tourists with order, access and predictability.

So much happening in so little space

Manhattan is the oldest and most densely populated borough of New York, consisting of nearly 23 square miles. Here are some Manhattan facts:

  • Settled > 1624
  • Land area > 22.96 sq mi (59.5 km)
  • Population > 1,629,054*

In this NYTimes interactive graphic, you can compare John Randel‘s 1811 proposal to the modern-day Manhattan map.

Rectilinear nonbelievers abound. Henry James condemned the grid a century ago as a “primal topographic curse.” Tony Hiss, author of In Motion: The Experience of Travel, said that while the grid contributes orderliness, “I still think it distances us from our natural surroundings…”

The grid is necessary and clearly allowed the city to develop. But for me, some of the most interesting spots (and the best places to get lost and wander freely) are the off-grids: Broadway at 23 Street, Waverly and Waverly, Little West 12 Street, and West 4 Street as it crosses 10, 11 and 12 Streets. Everyone has their favorite off-grid place.

A teacher in art school always reminded me: remember the importance of “breaking the grid.”

Map image: From got geoint?
* as of 1 July 2009 census

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