You can tell a lot about a place by its layout. How the streets are arranged tells the history of a city. Stories of slow growth of cramped medieval forts to booming modern cities. Or from farmland or prairie to grid.
There are the medieval European cities with their high walls and twisty narrow streets. You can tell they just grew organically, the buildings huddled together, defended by the ramparts. They were designed by fear.
And not just in Europe: look at the Wall Street area in Manhattan.
Wall Street’s wall was built in 1653, by African slaves, to keep out Indians.
As these towns grew, the modern parts became more open, optimistic.
It’s easy to pick out the romantic European grid and the pragmatic American one.
Some people say that San Francisco is the most European of American cities.
It would be even more so if the post Earthquake plan by Daniel Burnham had been adopted:
San Francisco’s layout ignores hills and even water.
The heart of the Financial District was under water.
The city exploded during the Gold Rush, and the exuberant disregard of obstacles is reflected in the streets.
The patterns of our streets are our cities’ tree rings. They are the fingerprints of the urban past.
And somewhere, on them: you.
Republication: Published first on David’s own blog, with minor variations here.
Burnham San Francisco Plan 1905 from David Rumsey Map Collection under Creative Commons license.
1847 Lower Manhattan map Wikimedia Commons public domain
Barcelona Plano map Wikimedia Commons public domain
Urban Grid comparison, from Beyond Density, Dan O’Reilly Jan. 26, 2008, The Star by generous permission of The Star.
Daniel Burnham San Francisco plan 1905, David Rumsey Map Collection under Creative Commons license.
1849 Map of San Francisco, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain, number 76695582