Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Comfort of The Grid

For the past 10 days in Milwaukee my journey to work is a 15-minute walk from an apartment complex to the university library. It is an easy path to chart as I follow the rigid grid system of the street layout. Now the concept of the grid has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, particularly regarding the notion of an “unfortunate” triumph of geometry over geography, of an artificial human-made network with unforeseen consequences imposed on the natural landscape. And yet the grid system also has its advantages: for example, it is a great comfort to visitors in a new city, easy to understand and simple to navigate. I contrast such ease with my experience in Tunis last August, when I wandered through the tortuous street layout of the old Medina, hopelessly lost and pulling a suitcase through the crowded, narrow walkways. Arabic curses filled the air behind me as my suitcase bumped against unsuspecting legs. Disorientated, sweating profusely and on the verge of panic, I reached my hotel more by sheer luck than guided skill. In contrast to the unknowable layout of this centuries-old organic street pattern, the grid is a friend to the visiting stranger.

North Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee

My commute is along North Prospect Avenue through a neighborhood of dwellings built as the 19th century turned into the 20th. What I like about this area is the quality and quantity of usable public space. From the edge of most houses, there is a porch that extends about 10 feet, an unfenced front garden of about 30 feet and then a sidewalk, of around 20 feet. The early summery weather coaxed people onto to their porches and into their gardens. The porches and gardens are semi-public spaces, as people using them become part of the total street scene. The street reminded me of a remark by Jane Jacobs, the grande dame of Urban Studies, who noted that the more people we have on the street, the safer we feel. This neighborhood contrasts with many of the new up market areas, where despite the sinuosity of the street pattern (a contemporary reaction to the grid), the amount of public space is minimal; many affluent areas have no sidewalks, and few have the generous public and semi-public space along North Prospect.

We need more usable public space. It is not police that make us feel safe in public but the presence of lots of people going about their everyday business. Other people make us feel safe. And to use public space we have to be generous in our allocation of usable public space. We need to avoid design determinism, forms of design facilitate rather than cause human behavior. But the quality and quantity of public space does have an affect on the livability and conviviality of cities.