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.”
A workers’ village at Giza, Egypt (2570-2500 BC) housed a rotating labor force, and was laid out in blocks of long galleries separated by streets in a formal grid. Many pyramid-cult cities used a common orientation: a north-south axis from the royal palace, and an east-west axis from the temple, meeting at a central plaza where King and God merged and crossed.
Hammurabi (17th century BC) was a king of the Babylonian Empire who made Babylon the world’s first great metropolis. He rebuilt Babylon, building and restoring temples, city walls, public buildings, and building canals for irrigation. The city was razed and rebuilt several times over the next 1,000 years and there is some archeological dispute about the original date of Babylon’s grid layout. Certainly by the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) the major avenues of Babylon were built wide and straight, intersected approximately at right angles, and were paved with bricks and bitumen (a tar-like substance derived from crude oil).
The tradition of grid plans in China dates from the 7th century BC at least. Guidelines put into writing in the Kaogongji (possibly during the Spring and Autumn Period of 770-476 BC) specified a canonical form for the ideal capital city: “When designing a capital city, it should be laid out in a square grid measuring nine by nine li (about 4.5 kilometers) per side, with three gates on each of the city walls. There should be nine streets and nine avenues, each wide enough for nine horse carts to pass abreast. The palace should be in the center of the city, with the ancestral temple on the left, temples to the deities on the right, office buildings in front, and a marketplace behind.”
The first planned Greek city was probably Miletus, built after 479 BC. Its gridded design has been credited to Hippodamus (although this is probably apocryphal), a Greek intellectual associated with the Pythagoreans. The grid plan was often used by Roman city planners, based originally on its use in military camps known as castra (singular: castrum). One of the best-preserved can be found in the ruins of Timgad in present-day Algeria. The Roman castrum is characterized by a precisely orthogonal grid, traversed by two axial streets called the cardo and the decumanus that cross at right angles at the center.
Grid planning in the ancient Americas was less established, but the tradition of orienting buildings to specific compass directions resulted in many cities, villages, and building complexes having an orthogonal pattern. Teotihuacan, near modern-day Mexico City, was in its time one of the largest cities in the world, a center of industry and culture. At its height between 150 AD and 450 AD, the city’s orthogonal pattern covered eight square miles.
Asia from the First Millennium AD
As Japan and the Korean peninsula became politically unified in the 7th century AD, those societies adopted Chinese grid-planning principles in numerous locations. The ancient capitals of Japan, such as Fujiwara-kyô (694-710 AD), Nara (Heijô-Kyô, 710-784 AD), and Kyoto (Heian-Kyô, 794-1868 AD) used grid plans. So did Kyongju in Shilla (present-day Korea), also of the same era. The grid-planning tradition in Asia continued through the beginning of the 20th century.
Europe and Its Colonies
New European towns were planned using grids beginning in the 12th century, most prodigiously in the bastides of southern France that were built during the 13th and 14th centuries. Medieval European new towns using grid plans were widespread, ranging from Wales to the Florentine region (present-day Italy). Many were built on ancient grids originally established as Roman colonial outposts.
The Roman model was also used in Spanish fortification settlements during the Reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella. The military town of Santa Fe near Granada took the form of a castrum, but was modified with the addition of a central plaza.
That modified form may have been the prototype for new cities established during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, beginning with the founding of La Laguna (on the Canary Islands) in 1496. In 1573, King Phillip II of Spain compiled the Laws of the Indies to guide the construction and administration of colonial communities. The Laws specified a square or rectangular central plaza with eight principal streets running from the plaza’s corners. Hundreds of grid-plan communities throughout the Americas were established according to this pattern, echoing the practices of earlier Indian civilizations.
By and large, ancient grid plans were expressions of military organization, colonial conquest, or political/economic domination. Grids were most often used when there was a large amount of territory to occupy in a short time. They were also used to establish formal order and spatial focus on particular functions of urban life — civic, religious, governmental, etc. In many cases, the orientation of the grid and placement of structures had cosmological, religious or other symbolic meanings.
Picturesque or naturalistic urban plans, with street maps that resemble a field of cracked mud, are the antithesis of grid plans. The historical record shows that they developed through generative and iterative processes over longer periods of time. For that reason, they are sometimes called organic plans. I’m not aware of evidence that naturalistic plans were ever designed all at once, or imposed by authoritarian leaders.
However, it is erroneous to make a causal link between particular urban plan patterns and particular political systems or ethical standards. Grid plans have been used for ruthless military operations as well as peaceful and democratic small towns. In Europe, naturalistic plans developed under feudal oppression, but also nurtured the medieval self-governing guilds and the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Kostof, Spiro, The city shaped: urban patterns and meanings through history. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Lopez, Maria, et al., Transformation and Current Use of Traditional Grid Pattern Cities. 8th International Conference of the Asian Planning Schools Association, 11-14 September 2005.
Mieroop, Marc Van de, “Reading Babylon”, American Journal of Archaeology, Issue 107, No. 2, April 2003, pp. 257-275.
Morris, A.E.J., History of Urban Form Before the Industrial Revolution (Third Edition). Prentice-Hall, 1994.
Nara Women’s University, Jô-Bô System of Heijô-Kyô – City Planning in Ancient Japan. Noboru Ogata of Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University.
Reps, John W., The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Stanislawski, Dan, The Origin and Spread of the Grid-Pattern Town. Geographical Review, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1946), pp. 105-120.
Vance, James E. Jr., The Continuing City: Urban Morphology in Western Civilization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Note: I wrote a slightly different version of this article and posted it to Wikipedia in December 2004/January 2005. Wikipedia is an open source document, so any text posted there is subject to both improvement and degradation over time.