The American Grid

Aerial View of Farmland in Arizona

by Brendan Colgan

The order and arrangement of the grid serves as a manufactured replacement for the natural landscape.  It allows humans and artificial landmarks to dominate natural landmarks. The meandering course of rivers, the jagged lines of cliffs, and the limitless expanse of the prairie are replaced by the predictable, yet artificial, logic of lines in a grid. The grid fosters expansionism and territorialism. In this way, the grid’s infinitely repeatable patterns are ever-expanding, yet the spaces and places enclosed within the grid become known and quantifiable–parceled for consumption. A grid divides the urban landscape into discrete city blocks, it divides farmland into what is mine and what is yours, it encloses a finite realm of human possession while providing a framework for regulated expansion into a boundless frontier. And for these reasons, the grid is aptly suited towards the unique American conceptions of expansion and consumption.

Not surprisingly, the grid, as a pattern of land use, has manifested itself in moments of expansion throughout American history. During the Homestead Act of 1862, the expansive frontier of the American Midwest (then the Far West and eventually South) was parceled neatly into 160-acre rectangles and made available to settlers seeking ownership. During the boom times of the American Industrial Revolution, American city planners constructed checkerboard patterns for streets and avenues for city blocks in order to handle the burgeoning swell of population. In the 20th century, the grid expanded outward and upward with the advent of the reinforced-concrete and steel skyscraper. All of these notable examples mark a moment of intersection between American ideals and the uselessness of the grid.

The grid is not the only mechanism however by which Americans or other world cultures have conceptualized their relationship with their natural environment. Though the grid was uniquely suited towards American consumption of land at certain times, it has not completely dominated trends of American land use.

Not all world cultures have shared common conception of land use. Native Americans, for instance, have traditionally believed that they are stewards of their natural environment. Land is not theirs to possess, but to occupy in accordance with nature’s harmony. Cooperation as opposed to domination of nature determined human boundaries.

During the Ancient Roman Republic, Romans held a different conception of property rights than Americans but they nonetheless used the grid to foster the expansion of the ager publicus throughout the Italian peninsula. The ager publicus was publicly owned and privately occupied farmland which extended throughout the hinterlands of Rome. At various points in Roman history, strict allotments and restrictions were placed on the use of this land by individuals. Individual citizens staked possessory claims to their own tracts of farmland but the notion of public ownership meant that the productivity of all farmers contributed to the glory of Rome. Romans measured their land into precise grid like sections and boundary markers. This efficient system led to one of the most prosperous states in world history. As the Roman army conquered new lands, the grid, and thereby the lorry of Rome could be expanded.

A contrasting example of land use and organization occurs in Switzerland. The rugged terrain of the Alps is far less amenable to the grid than the Plains of the American West or the fields of Rome. The shared use of resources necessitated by the harsh landscape of the Alps prevented the Swiss and other similarly situated mountain peoples from adopting any well-defined system of land organization. Instead, herdsmen shared in common all available grazing land. In a land distribution system centered around “the Commons” property rights are held communally around a shared resource. The grid, on the other hand, fosters rivalrous consumption and territorialism.

The grid emerged out of American industry, expansion, ingenuity, prosperity, vision, and hope. Upon first arrival of settlers to the New World, the infant cities of colonial America more closely resembled the twisted alleys, ad hoc expansion and congested confusion of their European counterparts than they did the logical structure of later American cities, with their consciously designed city blocks. Consider Manhattan in pre-Revolutionary times. Edward K. Spann, a historian of urban planning, documents the “New York Plan of 1811” in his book Two Centuries of American Planning. This plan “brought a significant shift away from earlier forms of urban design, imbued with socio-political and aesthetic concerns to simpler and more utilitarian plans intended to facilitate the rapid urban development which occurred during the 19th century.” The iconism of the “simple grid-iron pattern of straight streets and rectangular blocks” established itself as the American urban form. The sights an sounds of the bustling industrialized American city must have been overwhelming for an urban resident. The grid helped both the planner and the occupant rationalize and orient themselves within an urban entity of such large scale.

This same feeling of awe must have struck settlers of the American West, though, just as with cities, the grid allowed them to conceive/perceive their new environment hopefully and rationally. In reality the American West was a great unknown, a vast wilderness. The grid provided settlers with a reference point in an otherwise alien world. Though they left behind material possessions and property of their old homes, these migrants found comfort in a square of hope and the potential prosperity that awaited them at their destination.

Alternatives certainly exist to the grid, but the grid is both reflective and a catalyst of particularly American ideals. The grid results from a thirst for consumption, an insecurity with forces beyond an individuals control, and a fear of the unknown. As with any conception born of greed, insecurity, and fear, the grid strips us of our connection to the natural environment. Instead of being bound to nature, we are bound to the grid–perhaps even grid locked.

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