City planning history, in histograms
July 11, 2018 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Urban planner Geoff Boeing has calculated some lovely polar histograms of the orientations of American city streets, and further of various cities around the world, along with explanations of the context and methods. [via mltshp]
posted by cortex (50 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Damn, Charlotte is isotropic. I am confused about how it appears to have more N than S though; Any ideas as to why?

I’d also be curious to see similar graphs for cities through time, or world cities in different eras. It’d be neat to watch eg Shanghai over the long term. Or to see how Troy compares to Pompeii.

This is a nice visual representation, but I would also be interested in some numbers; I’m having a hard time telling if Charlotte is more or less isotropic than Rome. (It is certainly more so than any of the US cities listed).
posted by nat at 4:46 PM on July 11


Any ideas as to why?

No good ones, but my best quick bad idea is there's way too many one-way northbound streets and so everybody just ends up piling up north of town until giant eagles swoop in to redistribute them. (I wonder if there's some weird vector metadata issue with the Charlotte maps. Or some even weirder actual facts about directional streets!)

For my part I'm shocked that Portland's secondary grid stuff doesn't have more weight, but I may be putting too much weight on the strange kilters of North Portland and NW compared to the sheer relative size of the rest of the metro area. I'd definitely like to dig in on the data a bit if I find the time.
posted by cortex at 4:50 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I lived near Boston for about two years and found it relatively easy to learn how to navigate. And I lived near Detroit for over a decade and regardless of how often I was in the city I never developed the ability to improvise routes between two arbitrary locations. I think a lot of it has to do with scale and sprawl: Boston is compact and densely-populated relative to Detroit, and it has a comparatively robust public transit system, so it's efficient and reasonable to travel by foot or bicycle everywhere, and you get more time to study your surroundings by traveling more slowly. In Detroit, you can't get anywhere without a car.

I've also visited Seoul and Charlotte a few times. While Seoul is very sprawly (very, very, very sprawly), it also has a very good public transit system. The neighborhoods, even if they're like mazes, are fairly compact, so after you come out of the subway station you will probably get lost on your first or second visit, but after that it's pretty easy to have memorized, since you'd walked around a bit and put some pieces together.

Charlotte is Detroit's sprawl combined with Boston's haphazardness. If it wasn't for GPS and ubiquitous navigation apps, I'd never try visiting it a second time.
posted by ardgedee at 4:52 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I love this kind of stuff. For a while I think there was an effort to standardize Spanish cities (in New World too) on intercardinal directions rather than NESW which left a legacy in some cities of a downtown core 45 degrees off the surrounding pattern. Personally I like it a lot better from both a solar exposure of homes perspective and not having blinding glare in your face while travelling.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:53 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


> Damn, Charlotte is isotropic. I am confused about how it appears to have more N than S though

One-way streets. There's no intuitive logic to them.
posted by ardgedee at 4:53 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I guess I am used to one ways that at least roughly alternate; otherwise, don’t you get eagles like cortex says?
posted by nat at 4:56 PM on July 11


Now that I've taken a second look, I've noticed that most of the southern cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Washington DC) all have more streets going north than south. East and westbound streets are always close to balanced. Other cities have unbalanced directions but they don't share the same kind of imbalance.

I wonder if this is relevant to city sprawl patterns, indicating where particular types of neighborhoods are: eg, that's where the warehouse district usually was, or the poor neighborhoods, or the rich neighborhoods, or something.
posted by ardgedee at 4:59 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


i LOVE Boston's and would love to see other old-world-style cities which are a tangle of tiny streets

update i have reached the bottom of the page and behold there they are
posted by poffin boffin at 5:01 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


Thank you for the post!!

I live in Montreal and have been talking for ages about its oh-so-weird orientation. North is North West. Actually, North is more West than North! You need to rotate the map clockwise by 55 degrees (measured on two main arteries -- St-Laurent and René-Lévesque) to get it to sit the Montreal way (check out the magnetic north indicator in the top left corner).

The whole city is organized that way -- streets have East/West suffixes, etc. Everyone pretends that West is North because... (it seems to me that) rotating it that way makes the city more horizontal, in effect a shape that's easier to take in for humans (i.e., it's more 16:9 like a movie screen than a very vertical portrait).

I got so much enamored/curious with this idea of "cities that aren't magnetically pointing up north" that I registered a domain name and had an idea for a small poster project. I haven't started working on it yet, but I promise to share it as a MeFi project once it's done (this FPP is a great motivator!). Hopefully some polar-mapping fans will appreciate.

P.S. You can rotate the street map on the mobile version of Google Maps, but not the desktop version of the site (i.e., the regular web site). I would really really like to rotate it sometimes!
posted by vert canard at 5:04 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Oh weird. The chart of international cities also show a northern bias in nearly all of them. Moscow is the only city with a discernible south-direction bias.
posted by ardgedee at 5:05 PM on July 11


Gotta love Boston with its “fuck you, fuck wherever you’re going, and fuck the horse you just rode in on”. Being in Copley Sq for dinner on a night the Sox plays reminds me why I try to avoid the city at all costs.
posted by Definitely Not Sean Spicer at 5:33 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


Missoula MT is a horror of non-congruent grids intersecting in difficult ways.

Even my little town of Cheney WA has three grids that come together in ridiculous ways.

My hometown of Las Cruces NM is a wandering mass of non-gridded streets.

How towns evolve is fascinating to me.
posted by hippybear at 6:09 PM on July 11


I promise to share it as a MeFi project once it's done

yessssss
posted by cortex at 6:40 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I was just going to post this. Curse you, cortex. I have a good post idea like once a decade. Welp there's always 2028.

I love the Rome one. And now I really want to visit Charlotte despite having no actual reason to visit Charlotte.
posted by Justinian at 6:50 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


The best fried chicken I've ever eaten is in Charlotte. But if you're into NASCAR, there's that too.
posted by ardgedee at 6:54 PM on July 11


These are fun.

Detroit's two orientations come from its history as a French town in the 17th and 18th century. The long roads that are perpendicular to the river are where the old French strip farms were. These gave each settler access to the river, and their long length gave them the acreage they needed. In 1805, after the Americans took control of the place, the city burned and the city replatted by Augustus Woodward, who oriented it along Woodward Avenue (known then as the Saginaw Trail) as an orientation line. At the same time, of course, he was laying out subdivisions on land he owned...all along Woodward Avenue.
Further north where the streets begin to align north/south - east/west, the Federal land survey system was imposed, and the land platted out in square townships - a township is 6 miles square, divided into 1 mile square sections. Along the section/township boundary lines they laid in roads. And that's how the "mile road" system of Detroit came into being.

There. Now you know more about Detroit's streets than anyone else you know, and you can thrill your friends at parties with this exciting story with no plot and no good characters.
posted by disclaimer at 7:13 PM on July 11 [12 favorites]


I love the Rome one[...]
posted by Justinian
Eponysterical!
posted by DigDoug at 7:23 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]


I would have liked to see if Pittsburgh's is a better or worse than Boston's. I mean the central business district which is only 400 acres has two grids of its own at 45% angles to each other. And then every single other neighborhood has its own grid in some random orientation or none at all.
posted by octothorpe at 7:24 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Two items to note about Charlotte:

1) It's on the southern border of North Carolina, so all of its southbound streets have a set end point. I mean the roads themselves may continue, but they are suddenly in Rock Hill, SC, not Charlotte, NC.

2) It is the largest metropolitan area not on a navigable waterway or coast, so in any direction that is not south, it has no impediment to sprawl, nor constraint to whatever grid the designers wished to impose upon the land.

These two items will not explain everything odd about that city, but will explain its somewhat odd graph.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:59 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


2) It is the largest metropolitan area not on a navigable waterway or coast

Wait, what? Phoenix is much larger. What are you talking about?
posted by hippybear at 8:11 PM on July 11


On google, the Gila and Salt used to be navigable.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:23 PM on July 11


Navigable to go where, exactly?

I assure you they were never shipping channels for anything of consequence. They're not waterways now, and even when they were, they weren't.
posted by hippybear at 8:29 PM on July 11


It's like a list of cities I can live in because they have an appropriate cardinal grid! (Even an diagonal one fucks me up so I can't find my way anywhere.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:08 PM on July 11


Seattle is clearly wrong.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:52 PM on July 11


> I live in Montreal and have been talking for ages about its oh-so-weird orientation....

I love that it's almost exactly the same grid as Manhattan—just rotated 90°! So Montreal "north" is Manhattan "west", Montreal west is Manhattan south, and so on. The world is weird…
posted by vasi at 11:39 PM on July 11



I live in Montreal and have been talking for ages about its oh-so-weird orientation. North is North West. Actually, North is more West than North! You need to rotate the map clockwise by 55 degrees (measured on two main arteries -- St-Laurent and René-Lévesque) to get it to sit the Montreal way (check out the magnetic north indicator in the top left corner).


'And, worse than all that,' he insisted, 'is when you turn the goddamn maps upside-down.' '
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:30 AM on July 12


Seattle is clearly wrong.

In many ways (no pun intended).

W/r/t these charts, I thought the same thing, especially when looking at Phoenix. But then I read the fine print, and the length of the lines is a count of the number of streets with the orientation, not the length of the streets. So all the individually maddening tiny streets have similar orientations.

It would be interesting to somehow include length as a weighting factor. Otherwise a street like Pike (Seattle) ends up influencing the chart the same as Thomas (Phoenix), even though Pike is like 3 miles long and Thomas is like, 587.
posted by Gorgik at 6:35 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


OK, but how are they to live with? I'd like to see these correlated with driver happiness or accident rates or average trip time or average pizza delivery time or something like that.
posted by pracowity at 6:52 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Brooklyn would be interesting. I don't think it would be as blobby as Boston, but you've got a bunch of grids (Bushwick, Park Slope, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Bensonhurst, Midwood) at odd angles to each other.
posted by whuppy at 6:54 AM on July 12


I don't get what the cluster of streets in the middle of the NS/EW oriented ones is supposed to represent. Is it like the ratio of NorthSouth vs non-NS?

And I'm guessing these are only the 'city' streets', and not the loops and highways which would make each one look like Boston.
posted by The_Vegetables at 6:58 AM on July 12


I enjoy (and am entirely unsurprised) Toronto’s notably orderly alignment on the international page: it is canted slightly off of true to account for the shoreline’s slight WSW to ENE angle but apart from that it is Grid City, baby! Something I heard from multiple sources in my tour guide days is that the original plan was ordained by Simcoe’s military engineers: a surveyor’s chain is 66 feet, so all the major routes were 66 feet wide, all the side streets were 33 feet, and the distance between major roads – Queen to Bloor, Bloor to St. Clair, St. Clair to Eglinton (and so on through Lawrence, York Mills, Sheppard, and Finch) was ordained at 6600 feet (or 100 chains) apart.

Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City opines that the original plan’s grim determination to ignore natural features in favour of an orderly grid gave Toronto the happy accident of the undeveloped* ravines, where one can walk for an hour in the middle of the biggest city in Canada and not see a single building.

*Undeveloped since 1954, anyway, when many of Hurricane Hazel’s fatalities were among the few who lived in houses in the ravines.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:02 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Wait, what? Phoenix is much larger. What are you talking about?

Dangit. That's true. By a factor of three, no less. I stand corrected. Wikipedia claims the rivers were used for trade with the tribal peoples in the area, but I was thinking much more of industrial trade and commercial navigation, so I'll downgrade my fact to mere trivia and give Phoenix the crown. So let's back up and punt:

(ahem)

2) Charlotte is the largest metropolian area east of the Mississippi River not on a navigable waterway or coast, so in any direction that is not south, it has no impediment to sprawl, nor constraint to whatever grid the designers wished to impose upon the land.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:19 AM on July 12


You know, there are practical reasons for keeping the streets curved and twisty.

In the old days, laying the roads out to be level (and thus twisty) was kind on the horses. In the US, there was more reliance on ox teams than horse carriages compared to Europe, so that allowed for straighter layouts, but still, a broken carriage hitch is more excitement than you want on a steep straight street. If you really want to see it, visit San Francisco and see BOTH stretches of Lombard Street:

On one side of the hill, Lombard Street is straight and steep, and even today you regularly see morons who don't know how to maintain control of their vehicles try to climb the slope and almost get themselves and others killed. Then on the other side, you can see exactly why Lombard Street's switchbacks were an important municipal asset in the days of Model T Fords and no power brakes.

Chicago's grid is easily navigable. It also means a bullet fired down the street stays on course for miles without hitting any brick walls. And the wind has no obstacles. At least Chicago's terrain is uniform enough that the street grid wasn't expensive. In cities with lots of hills and rivers, the insistence on a grid gets expensive because of culverts and bridges. Iowa's grid means they need lots more bridges than if they laid out the roads to converge on more convenient river crossings.

I;ll take Boston over those messes any day.
posted by ocschwar at 7:48 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I could swear I saw this exact same visualization like 5 years ago.

I think part of what's going on is Charlotte is old by American standards. Rational street grids started being a thing in urban planning in the 19th century. (The idea is older but not common, cities like DC are exceptions). I'm guessing most of its streets were laid out long before anyone thought to impose a rationalist grid on the city.

Boston is the other American city well known for an organic street layout. You see a lot more in old non-American cities; see London, Moscow, Rome, Paris. I'm less clear what's going on with Hong Kong, Seoul, and Dubai: naively I'd think their growth would have happened in the era of street grids.
posted by Nelson at 7:56 AM on July 12


Two items to note about Charlotte

It would be interesting to know exactly what the extent of the Charlotte streets he measured was, because:

1. I also initially thought about the SC border, but I'm not sure it really impacts the situation at all. There isn't much of Charlotte itself that actually hits the border, and given the way the border jogs around there, the city is actually mostly northeast of it.

2. Downtown Charlotte (called "Uptown") is on a pretty strict grid canted 45 degrees (though streets and stuff are called "North", "South", etc. with "North" being northwest) and it is surrounded by fairly typical sprawly hub-and-spoke development with a few major and minor ring roads. The slight variance for roads heading north might be because Rt 77 enters from the north and has a number of roads parallel to it, but leaves to the southwest?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:58 AM on July 12


Nelson, you probably saw Neil Freeman’s take on this same idea.
posted by migurski at 8:09 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


"It's on the southern border of North Carolina, so all of its southbound streets have a set end point. I mean the roads themselves may continue, but they are suddenly in Rock Hill, SC, not Charlotte, NC."

This seems insufficient to explain the issue, as several of the other cities are also located along borders or coasts that impede development in at least one direction. E.g., St. Louis is on the eastern border of Missouri, and anything crossing the Mississippi River to the east would be in ESL, Illinois. Anything going west out of Los Angeles would be in the Pacific Ocean.

Personally, I was surprised by Washington. It's famous for its diagonal streets, and they loom pretty large when you're there walking around, but this shows that, overall, they're not a big deal.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:11 AM on July 12


The one for Washington is deceptive - it's true that there are not a lot of streets oriented at an angle to the regular grid, but they make for some really confusing intersections. Shit, there was even a MeFi post about one of them!

A word of advice for visitors: the avenues named after states run diagonal to the easily navigated numbered and lettered grid, so avoid them unless you know where you're going.
posted by exogenous at 9:56 AM on July 12


This is delightful.

I'd also love to see a version weighted by road area or traffic. Or one that uses polar coordinates instead. (I suspect Moscow and Paris would seem a lot more coherent.) I'd also love to see some notable less-industrial cities. (Cusco, Ulaanbaatar, etc.) In short, can the person who made these just spend the rest of their life making more? Please?
posted by eotvos at 10:25 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


I'm less clear what's going on with Hong Kong, Seoul, and Dubai: naively I'd think their growth would have happened in the era of street grids.

Hong Kong at least is understandable -- being built on a bunch of islands with fairly hilly terrain, there just isn't that much flat land for a globally consistent grid to be built, and where there are grids they tend to be only locally consistent.

If you look at the strip of Hong Kong that's built on the north end of Hong Kong Island, for instance, zooming in usually reveals a local grid, but the dense strip of settlement curves around the peak and hills of the island so there's no consistent grid across the island. Kowloon has larger areas of settlement with lots of local grids (larger than that on Hong Kong Island), but they're oriented in all different sorts of directions.
posted by andrewesque at 10:29 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Charleston, SC and its suburbs have a similar noodly sprawl to Charlotte, but that's explained easily enough by the multiple rivers, peninsulas, salt marshes, and swamps that make up its vicinity. The fact there's an explanation did not make it any easier to get a hang of for my midwestern mind raised on endless straight cardinal direction streets.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:02 PM on July 12


> I'm less clear what's going on with Hong Kong, Seoul, and Dubai: naively I'd think their growth would have happened in the era of street grids.

Regarding Seoul, I wonder what the results would have looked like if Seoul north of the Han River, and Seoul south of the Han River, had been mapped separately. South of the Han River, growth did happen in the era of street grids, as development didn't take off until the late 70's. The area north of the river was the original Seoul, which had been known as Hanyang during the Joseon dynasty and was the site of its capital since 1394.
posted by needled at 6:34 PM on July 12


Everyone pretends that West is North because...

I like to think it's because of the St. Lawrence. It flows to the east coast, so my mental map has anything oriented along the river as east-west.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:37 PM on July 12


I was just visiting some friends in Boston (well, Somerville, but I think the same thing holds throughout the close metropolitan area there) and it is so blatantly apparent that what they now call "streets" are just reified cow paths. I will say that such a layout is really amenable to purposeless meandering on foot, which is actually a really wonderful thing in contrast to the car-optimized layouts of so many other American cities.
posted by invitapriore at 11:03 PM on July 12


I was just visiting some friends in Boston (well, Somerville, but I think the same thing holds throughout the close metropolitan area there)

The Calf-Path by Sam Foss (who, by the way, was at one point a Somerville librarian)

I.

One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;

But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.

II.

But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day,
By a lone dog that passed that way;

And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade.
Through those old woods a path was made.

III.

And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about,

And uttered words of righteous wrath,
Because ‘twas such a crooked path;

But still they followed—do not laugh—
The first migrations of that calf,

And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

IV.

This forest path became a lane,
that bent and turned and turned again;

This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load

Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.

And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

V.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;

And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;

And men two centuries and a half,
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

VI.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about

And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.

A Hundred thousand men were led,
By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;

For thus such reverence is lent,
To well established precedent.

VII.

A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;

For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,

And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.

But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.

Ah, many things this tale might teach—
But I am not ordained to preach.
posted by pracowity at 4:09 AM on July 13 [6 favorites]


Migurski kindly reminded me of Seth Freeman's visualization of street orientations. But that's not the one I remembered. I think it was Seth Kaddish's, which has the polar histograms as well. The result is so similar I sure hope Boeing accidentally recreated this and didn't just forget to give proper credit.

Kaddish did some followup visualizations of orientations other places, see this article. He also did a bunch of orientation visualizations of other geographic objects. National borders, football fields, religious buildings, marathon routes. These all date to about 2014.

For a different visualization of street orientation, these maps by Stephen Von Worley color street by orientation. The visual grouping that results on the map gives you a good sense of the history of growth of the city. San Francisco totally reveals how different neighborhoods were developed in different chunks, for instance. Boston has more structure than you'd think.
posted by Nelson at 7:28 AM on July 13 [6 favorites]


Denver is a lot more regular than I would have expected, although I suppose the rest of the city damps things out.

See, for historical reasons, part of the original Denver is canted at a 45-degree angle to the other, later parts of the city. (You can see it by looking on a map for Confluence Park and then going southeast from there.)

I haven't been back in years, but I remember there was one intersection where multiple streets came in at odd non-ninety-degree angles, and people were never entirely sure which set of traffic lights to follow. There was a church over on one corner. My friends and I called it "Our Lady of the Five-Car Pileup".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:43 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Neil Freeman's visualization, sorry to get the name wrong.
posted by Nelson at 7:51 AM on July 13


Someone else did a copycat visualization of Dutch cities. He helpfully links that Boeing, the original artist, published his work as a Jupyter notebook. So it's easy to look at the code and modify it for your own goals / data.
posted by Nelson at 7:55 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Now you know more about Detroit's streets than anyone else you know

Since I know a lot of Detroit historians, not quite!

But Detroit's street layout has one more factor that you alluded to...Woodward's proposed plat was a true radial plan laying out the town on bases of equilateral triangles that could be replicated outward as the city grew. The intersections of the triangles would create "circuses" with grand avenues radiating out diagonally. While only a portion of the plan was implemented in the downtown area before later planners went back to the orthogonal grid, it has forever after created headaches for people trying to navigate downtown streets (not improved by 20th century planners implementing one-way streets). Oh the plus side, it has given us Grand Circus Park and some very interestingly-shaped downtown buildings.
posted by Preserver at 8:26 AM on July 14


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