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Articulating the New York City Grid

Articulating the grid

(All images + graphics by Gem Barton unless otherwise stated.)

It is no great revelation that architects tend to look up when exploring a city. It's the best way to guage size, scale, placement, composition and detail – all the information required to process the qualities of a space or place. I have spent the last few days looking up and considering the architectural impact of the New York City grid-plan layout, taking a particular interest in the domestic scale elements that help to service the city and punctuate the rigidity.

Today I have been an urban explorer or 'flâneur' if you will – I have followed my nose, wandered the streets, taken cover from the weather, mooched the galleries, sipped the coffee and tried the locally brewed beer. This is the tasty fodder of all design-loving travelers and has provided the cultural side order to my analytical experience. I want to share with you the way my brain decodes a new city into a language that is both legible and translatable – my 'thought-soundtrack'.



The term flâneur comes from the French, to stroll or saunter. It is said to refer to those who are indirectly or unintentionally affected by designs that they experience in passing. Social critic Walter Benjamin was an avid connoisseur of the street and actively participated in the 'flâneur' lifestyle. My architecture training as well as my teaching background has helped form my analytical approach to life and the built environment. I am drawn to the adaptations people (and their existence) make to what we consider at the time of completion to be the 'perfect' built form. The very requirement for adaptation suggests it was not the 'perfect' built form but more likely the 'sufficient for now' built form. These adaptations, when considered with respect to their placement in the NYC grid begin to generate some interesting findings that I will explore with the aid of diagrams. But before I do, here's a personal insight into the 202-year-old gridiron planning system that distinctly characterizes New York City and it's 17-mile stretch of 200ft blocks.

Having never experienced a system like this I have been very aware of its presence and potential impact on other areas of design as well as societal interaction. The Manhattan grid is clearly 3-dimensional – the rectangular 'blocks' in the horizontal plane and the building elevations routinely punctuated with window modules in the vertical plane.

I look for patterns, I respond to patterns…

Their varying scale and articulation make for a rich and all encompassing experience for a girl who grew up in an idyllic West Yorkshire village, where the closest thing we had to this regularity was the terraced street. The predictability of this regimented approach is extremely useful when navigating a new city but I did find myself questioning the amount of 'discovery' available to me.

Being very aware of how the regularity of a city may limit the element of surprise desired by any traveler, I began to search out small details representative of human adaptation, and these take the form of more familiar and domestic scaled items such as air con units, water towers and taxis. Let me explain.

1 and 2I look for patterns, I respond to patterns, other people search for quirky fonts, unique graffiti or rare materials – but my brain processes contents through diagrams and patterns, or personalities, and with this information I can attain certain conclusions. The addition of a 'personal' element here is the key, because cities are all about people, our buildings and streets are the perfect canvas for expressing our personalities, and for once, I don't just mean that of the architects.

At first the brain identifies the rhythm of the brick formation and the window layouts, it is this assumption of regularity that leaves many with this very valid conclusion based on the verticality of the grid. But in identifying this pattern – the eye becomes more accustomed, searching for further geometries or perhaps more importantly, exceptions to the rule.1 and 22

It is these exceptions that become of interest and create uniquities* amongst the 'normal'. In the diagram above the air con units become the exception, even though the majority of the population in NYC have these units, their existence begins to form a powerful narrative about the life behind the services. It tells of the age of the building, pre air con ducts, hence these units are retro fitted.

It can also begin to tell where the apartment boundaries lie inside the envelope of the building – bathroom, bedroom or kitchen? But in respect of the formal qualities it adds so much value and personality to an otherwise monotonous, flat-faced façade that would disappear into a puddle of normality.


Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning says "The 200-foot-long block is short enough to provide continuous diversity for the pedestrian, and the tradition of framing out the grid by building to the street-wall makes New York streets walkable and vibrant." Straight-sided, right-angled dwellings are superbly efficient and economical, relatively speaking, as well as proportionally favorable to the eye. Sometimes the exception to the rule is an event, something hat is bright yellow, and moving – which helps to spot them.


The NYC cabs repeatedly traverse the 17mile long island every single day of the week. The grid system itself was executed prior to mass transit, so the commissioners mapped more crosstown streets (East to West) than avenues (North to South) as they assumed the majority of traffic would be traveling between the rivers – hence the rectangular nature of the blocks arrangement.


The cabs, as well as the cabbies have extreme personalities. The way they awkwardly duck in and out of the traffic and rescue damsels in distress from falling water and respond to a whistle in a whippet-like fashion is just wonderful to see. It livens up the street for all the senses. Whilst their position is not permanent in the grid (unless caught in traffic) their 24/7 presence is most reassuring. I took a 7am stroll to Central Park one morning, seeing the roads quiet was perfect, but there is always a cabbie on your heels if you halt on the sidewalk for long enough.

The experience of the yellow cab is very different once you are inside one, the banter from the driver, the jerky acceleration (and breaking), the local information not to mention the feeling of being propelled through a giant mass of activity and excitement. The cab becomes the point of reference, and the blocks themselves rise and subside like industrial waves generating a completely new pattern.

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This is thanks to the skyline, the sheer variation in the composition of the roof scapes; advertising boards, chimneys, lift shafts, streetlamps and escape stairs, but most prominent in this list is the water tower, as they too have a story to tell – the little characterful souls that perch on top of the buildings supplying them with the water pressure that they demand.


Even Rachel Whiteread saw the do-gooders fit for memorialising in resin. This domestic icon happily blends into the haphazard roof scape but it is the repetition of their form that is so quaint, no matter the size or function of the building they service, they stand tall like a guardsman on patrol, purposefully punctuating every block of Manhattan.Just as the air con units and the yellow cabs, these prolific urban icons communicate to us the anatomy of New York City, as long as we listen.

uniquities*  – due to a lack of appropriate words, I made this one up.