November 2006


The grid plan dates from antiquity; some of the earliest planned cities were built using grids. This article describes the first historical appearances of grid plans in various parts of the world.

Ancient Grid Plans

By 2600 BC, Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) was built with blocks divided by a grid of straight streets, laid out in perfect right angles, running north-south and east-west. Each block was subdivided by small lanes. Mohenjo-Daro was the largest of many grid-plan towns and villages that existed in the region from 2600-1900 BC.

Obeserving the urban planning of the Indus Valley civilization, archeologist B. B. Lal wrote, “Well-regulated streets [were] oriented almost invariably along with the cardinal directions, thus forming a grid-iron pattern. [At Kalibangan] even the widths of these streets were in a set ratio, i.e. if the narrowest lane was one unit in width, the other streets were twice, thrice and so on.”

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Bulldozers and cranes are a common sight around the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station these days. In some spots, the construction will be pedestrian- and transit-oriented in ways that are unprecedented in Prince George’s County, Md.

The story of the Prince George’s Plaza Transit District begins with its major thoroughfare, East-West Highway. When the segment was built in 1956, it was part of an inner beltway connecting Hyattsville to Bethesda. Meanwhile, Interstate 95 was planned to run from the Outer Beltway (I-495) into D.C. The intersection of the two highways would be a prime location for commercial development, and so the area was platted with a system of superblocks and collector streets. A regional, enclosed shopping mall called Prince George’s Plaza opened in 1959.

On a neighboring lot, developer Herschel Blumberg commissioned famed architect Edward Durell Stone to design a trio of office towers. The first 10-story tower was completed in 1963. (Stone won other commissions in DC and went on to design the National Geographic building and the Kennedy Center.)

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Rockville Town Square, a transit-oriented development nearing completion in Rockville, Md., was in the national news recently. It received favorable coverage in the New York Times article A Piazza for a Maryland Suburb.

Writing for the online magazine Godspy earlier this year, Paul Grenier and Tim Patitsas wrote an extensive critique of Rockville Town Square titled The Liturgy of the City Street. While Rockville Town Square has certain flaws, I felt their critique was unfair in some respects. Here is my response to Grenier and Patitsas’ article:

More power to Grenier and Patitsas’ message of the liturgical spirit, if it can bring us better-designed and more durable architecture. And godspeed to their sermon if it can bring us an economic/political system and cultural life that is friendlier and less rushed and stressed. May their words reach all those who have the power to effect such a change.

However, their article requires some refinement before I, and perhaps most new urbanists, can agree with its critique of new urbanism.

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Nationmaster is a terrific resource for world statistics and country comparisons. I was interested to compare energy use with living standards. Is it possible to maintain a decent quality of life with low per capita energy consumption? Which nations are leading by that measure?

Here’s a scatterplot of primary energy consumption per capita vs. the Human Development Index (a combination of life expectancy, literacy, education, and GDP-based standards of living).

I tend to give the HDI axis a bit more weight. The best performer, then, is Portugal. Argentina and Chile are close with lower energy consumption but also lower HDI.

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