Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

The Great American Grid Debate

At CNU 21 in Salt Lake City we finally got to have a lively, fun debate about the merits of the western grid, common in some form to about 2/3 of the United States. It’s a debate that myself and several colleagues have wanted for years. Steve Mouzon of the Original Green called it “the most entertaining session he thinks he’s ever attended at a CNU.”

We admittedly created a set of polar opposite points in order for the debate format to work. The question debated was,

Resolved: the ubiquitous western American grid is a detriment to good urbanism

On the pro side were Howard Blackson of Placemakers and Bill Dennis of Bill Dennis Town Design. On the con side were Paul Knight of Historical Concepts and myself. Paul also has a nice website called The Great American Grid. Lee Sobel, Real Estate Development and Finance Analyst for US EPA Office of Sustainable Communities moderated.

The debate was not just a fun format, but also a serious attempt to raise a number of important ideas and points. We each got our shots in, but the free-flowing discussion afterwards also showed that there’s much, much more to consider related to this topic.

Personally, I think it’s a vital topic for New Urbanism and for designers in general. The “Jeffersonian” grid covers a vast swath of the continent, and rightly or wrongly has influenced city and town design for over 150 years. As our country continues to rediscover walking, biking and especially our oldest neighborhoods, we will run head-on into design and placemaking issues associated with the grid. We need our best and brightest minds working on this, rather than wishing for town patterns that exist elsewhere.

Map of town patterns courtesy of Prof. Douglas Allen of Georgia Tech University
Map of town patterns courtesy of Prof. Douglas Allen of Georgia Tech University

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a great deal more about this topic. I’ll expand on some of the “pro” grid points that I made, and respond to a number of the points Howard and Bill (and others) raised. I do hope they and others respond. In particular, Howard made a number of excellent points in regard to the lack of quality public space in his home of San Diego and other gridded cities. I’ll share some thoughts on that in general, and respond to his case in particular.

As a personal aside, I sure wish more conferences and more sessions were set up in a true debate format. It’s far more fun and challenging, and beats the hell out of 3 speakers droning on with self-promoting power points.