Report on NPR about car-free families

The Falkowski’s “Bike Dozer” comfortably carries three. From

I heard this story on NPR this morning and had to share it. It comes from NPR and Newsworks’ Elizabeth Fielder, and follows families in Philadelphia that are living without a car, even with two kids. They are getting around by safer and more eco-friendly forms of transportation: transit, bike, and on foot. Steven Falkowski modified his bicycle to be able to carry his two children, and Nate Hommel takes the bus with his daughter.

Up until a few months ago this was me and Holly. I broke down and got a car because my two-hour-one-way transit commutes to Wilmington were making it such that I was getting home at 7:00 and had maybe two hours before Lars had to go to bed. We considered moving to Wilmington, but since the Mormon church there isn’t transit accessible we would have had to buy a car anyway. We try and use the car just for commuting (or for picking up larger items like our Christmas tree), and within the city we still mostly walk and take transit. I like that I now get home before 5:00 most days and can spend more time with my family, but if I were ever to find myself not working in Wilmington, the car would be gone. For me personally, driving is stressful, with the constant risk of causing serious injury to myself or strangers, let alone the significant costs of repairs, gas, etc., and the fact that it’s near impossible to find parking on the street after 6:00. I’d just as soon take the bus and be able to spend time focusing on my kid rather than on not crashing into things.

Which street pattern represents your continent?


When I was two years old, my family moved from the Bay Area to Northampton, Massachusetts. My earliest memories are from there and it is one of the three or four places I usually claim as my hometown.

My family loved Northampton, and even after moving away, we would make regular pilgrimages back every few summers or so. I really wasn’t sure what I liked so much about it until I went to urban design school, but now I know part of it was the organic street grid. Each block feels distinct, and the slight curves of the streets create outdoor rooms, while the density of the street network allows multiple ways to get to your destination.

Unfortunately, the organic street system, common in other parts of the world, is a rare thing in the US and Canada. I decided to take a look at the major cities of Anglo-America and see where I could find organic cities. But first, here are the general characteristics of the street patterns I found:

All Grids


Gridiron streets are among the simplest to design. Simply lay out a series of streets at right angles, forming either square or rectangular blocks. Often, but not always, the blocks are all the same size.

Grids represent power and organization. Whether that power is political, as is the cases of the Roman colonies or cities of the Soviet era such as Almaty, Kazakhstan; religious, as in the cases of Philadelphia or Salt Lake City; or commercial, as in the case of hundreds, if not thousands, of towns laid out in grids parallel to a railroad track or radiating from a central factory, grids almost never arise piecemeal.

Many cities with grids at their center may have non-grid patterns outside of their centers, whether these be the organic slums of the developing world or the suburban cul-de-sacs of Anywhere, USA. By the same token, many cities with other patterns at their center may also have gridded areas, such as Boston’s Back Bay. One example I like to discuss is Pittsburgh (one of my other hometowns), where extreme terrain keeps a grid from being applied all across the city, but they developed in each neighborhood, such that Downtown, the Cultural District, Strip District, the Bluff, and most other neighborhoods all have their own grids which sometimes collide in interesting or confusing  ways. In Pittsburgh, when a street curves, you know you’re entering a new neighborhood.


Organic streets go every which way. They start and end, seemingly at random. They curve back and forth. Ideally they still form a dense grid of streets, but not always.

Organic streets can come from disorganized, fast-paced development, as is common in today’s slums: or it can grow slowly over time, as one plot of land is divided and streets are built over the new boundary, like many of the old towns of England and other European powers. However, in The City Shaped, Spiro Kostof makes a point that organic cities are not necessarily unplanned. Far from it; they are planned most sensitively, one building or parcel at a time. Kostof also points out that the seemingly random lines of organic streets may actually be anything but: they may follow contour lines, political divisions, watercourses, or other features.

Loose Grid

The loose grid is sort of a compromise between the two systems above. Streets mostly come to four-way intersections as with the gridiron, but they may curve and shift gradually as with the organic.

The loose grid fills the spectrum between gridiron and organic. In many cases, it is a sort of transitional form that goes both ways. A city that starts on a strict gridiron plan can, over a long time, decompose into a more organic pattern, as can be seen with the many cities in Europe that started as a Roman colony and then became more organic during the middle ages. Conversely, a pattern that started off more organic can become regularized and formalized to form a more grid-like plan. This can be seen in Lower Manhattan, where the ghost of the original grid can be seen in the curing streets, but intersections have become regularized over time and streets are fairly evenly spaced, despite their curves.

Radial Grid

The radial grid is a gridiron plan on steroids. It is strictly geometric, regardless of existing topography, and in some cases changes the topography to better match the geometry. If the gridiron represents power, the radial grid represents power without subtlety: streets radiate from churches, palaces, state buildings, and other emblems of authority.

The radial grid takes much more skill to design and implement than the standard grid, and as such is much more rare. It is often seen in the palatial estates of Europe, as at Versailles and Karlsruhe, and in capitals both democratic and colonial, as in Washington, DC and New Delhi.

Rarely implementable on the scale of an entire city, many cities have sections with radial grids. Paris, an organic city, had parts of it wholly demolished in the 19th century to be redeveloped in grand radial style. Though it retains its overall organic pattern, grand boulevards such as the Champs Elysees link powerful monuments such as the Tuileries and the Arc de Triumph across the organic fabric.


When I say the suburban pattern is less common, I mean in the center of cities or towns. Overall, the suburban pattern is probably the dominant one in Anglo-America, but rarely do cities of this pattern ever grow to considerable size.

Suburban streets are built for cars, and they are built hierarchically: local streets, built for few cars, connect to collector streets with more cars, which further connect to arterial streets which carry even more cars. Blocks, if they exist at all, are exceptionally large. Higher level streets may form loose grids, or in some cases even a strict gridiron, but local streets, in an effort to discourage through traffic, are made of loops and cul-de-sacs. These streets curve, sometimes following topography, but more often than not simply to create a faux-organic feel, but developed quickly and on extremely large scales, these places are anything but.

I am doing my best to control my anti-suburban rants, but they are in many ways toxic places. Rather than explaining why here, I would refer you to the book Suburban Nation.

These are the street patterns I found looking at the top 50 cities in the US and Canada. And what pattern did I find most common?

US and Canada:


I looked at the top 50 cities in the US and Canada, and overwhelmingly they are gridiron cities. of the 50, 38 had this pattern.

This probably has to do with the fact that American cities are colonial cities. Many of them were designed to expand quickly and accept a large volume of immigrants in a short amount of time, and the unsophisticated, unnatural, yet highly effective gridiron facilitated that development.

The next largest group, at 5, were loose grids. Of these, New York and Montreal seemed to be formalizations of previous organic street systems, while the other three were gridiron plans adapted, minimally, to topography.

Three cities on the list actually had suburban patterns at their centers. In all three cases, however, these cities were not the center of their relative metropolises; rather, they just happened to be particularly large suburbs of even larger cities.

Radial grids and organic street patterns each had two. The radials included Washington, DC’s baroque avenues, as well as Detroit, which was originally platted with triangular blocks that came to six-way intersections with streets every 60 degrees. However, this plan was barely implemented beyond the Campus Martius.

The only organic cities were Boston and Quebec City. I’m not sure what makes these two unique, beyond possibly their initially constrained footprint. Boston 350 years ago was nearly an island, with today’s Back Bay and South Boston being built almost entirely on fill. Quebec City was one of a very few walled cities in the Americas, and the original core within the wall retains an organic pattern. It may be that other cities in America, where such constraints did not exist, felt a need to plan for quick expansion, which is easily accomplished by a gridiron pattern.

So America really isn’t the place to look for organic cities. But the general consensus is that Europe is chock full of them. So I looked at the top 50 cities in the European Union and found the following.



Sure enough, 35 out of the top 50 are organic.

It is interesting reading Kostof’s history of urban deveopment, where among other things he discusses how the gridiron plans of Greek and Roman colonies decayed into organic patterns over thousands of years and even more small transactions of property. Who knows, in a thousand years, and possibly with the decay of existing power structures, Kansas City may look like Vilnius.

Thirteen of the remaining cities showed loose grid patterns. These cities were located all over Europe, but were strongly concentrated in the east, especially Poland. Many of Poland’s major cities took a lot of damage in World War II and were rebuilt under Soviet control, so old patterns could easily have been regularized in the new regime.

Only two of the top 50 showed gridiron plans: Turin and Glasgow. Both of these are much younger cities than the others on this list, having really come into their own as factory towns of the early industrial era. With the emphasis on mechanization in that era, it is not terribly surprising that these cities would look like their parts were mass-produced.

If the difference between Anglo-American cities and European cities is simple grids that facilitate fast development versus millennia of organic development, then what do the cities of colonial Latin America look like?

Latin America:


43 out of 50 cities in Latin America featured a loose grid.

This is largely due to the rule that governed colonial Spanish development in the Americas: the Law of the Indies. This law proscribed how to lay out the main plaza, major buildings such as the cathedral and the palace, and a grid of a few streets. In many Latin American cities, there is a fairly strict grid at the very center, but it quickly relaxes only a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor.

Four of the top 50 cities in Latin America feature gridiron plans. The three of these settled by the Spanish, Guadalajara, Puebla and Asuncion, could theoretically just have been a lot better about implementing the Law of the Indies. The fourth, Belo Horizonte, has an interesting and unique city plan. It is based on a regular gridiron plan with square blocks, but radials at 45 degrees overlay that base to form a supergrid. Although this plan looks very interesting from above, I wonder if this city experiences the same issues that Washington, DC faces with the difficulty of developing triangular blocks and difficult intersections with as many as eight legs at a juncture.

Of the final three cities, two were organic and one was radial. I don’t know enough about the history of Sao Paulo to explain why it has an organic street pattern, and would invite anyone who knows more than me to explain why in the comments section. La Paz is a little easier to read. It is located high in the Andes Mountains, where the topography makes it difficult to implement a more geometric grid pattern. Goiania, the only radial city in the group, has a series of public spaces from which streets radiate and ripple.

Well, I’ve done three continents already, so I might as well finish the bunch. Asia, what have you got?



I only did the top 30 cities in Asia, because that list was easier to find on Wikipedia. Of these 30, 22 had organic street patterns.

Although many of these are ancient cities, it’s not like they never experienced colonialism. But what you see in many of these cases is an organic core, and then a region of more geometric development, which is a colonial or foreign quarter.

Five of these cities showed a loose grid pattern. These grids tell a variety of stories. For instance, in Shenzhen and Shenyang, a supergrid of highways is filled in with slightly looser development, but still oriented toward the supergrid. This is a Modernist grid system, and in some ways is just a higher density version of places like Irvine, California. Osaka and Taipei are a bit more like Lower Manhattan, where it looks like an organic pattern was modernized (and in some places entirely demolished) to make way for a more regular, modern city. Beijing is unique, in that it’s grid is very much a show of power, demonstrated initially by the godlike emperor, and now has been co-opted to a degree as a symbol of the power of the state.

Three cities showed gridiron plans. Of these, Delhi and Hong Kong can be explained as colonial intervention. Nagoya, on the other hand, is laid out in its grid as a form of cosmic or religious significance.

On to Africa.



But just barely.

Africa was the only continent without a landslide winner, with 25 of the top 50 cities being loose grids. However, this can largely be explained by the differences between North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

All of the loose grid cities are located south of the Sahara Desert. It may be that these cities were built on African foundations, but were regularized through European colonialism.

Seventeen of the remaining cities feature an organic pattern at their center. Although a handful of these are in West Africa, and one in Madagascar, most are in North Africa. This dense organic pattern is the Medina, the old quarter of the Islamic world. These narrow, winding, and often dead-end streets are the result of Muslim teachings related to the family and privacy. Even in these cases, however, there is often a more formalized colonial quarter outside of the center, as is very well illustrated at Algiers.

The last eight cities all have gridiron plans. Of these, half of them are in South Africa, arguably the part of Africa most heavily colonized by Europeans. No wonder it looks the most like the US.

I decided not to do Australia, because they only have 16 cities with over 100,000 people so it wouldn’t really be on the same scale as everything else I’ve been looking at.

Looking at the grid of a city can tell you a lot about its history, and looking at the grids of many cities can tell you about a larger culture. I think many people in the Americas value the organic cities we find in Europe, which is one of the reasons so many of us with means choose to visit them. But while we could see that sort of urbanism at home, our governmental and development structures don’t support it. But who knows; as governments and cultures evolve, and given enough time to properly age and grow, cities may be able to overcome the power structure of the grid for a more free and natural organic pattern.

Remember Where You Come From

Behold my progeny!

DSC_2366-webLars Arthur Munson joined Holly and I just over a month ago, and as you might expect, it has been an enormous change and a bit of an adjustment. In addition to trying to figure out how you can go through over 200 diapers in just a few weeks and learning how to get by on four hours of sleep a night, Holly and I both wanted to do a special project for our little guy. Holly, being an editor, has discussed framing the section from the Chicago Manual of style on how to make words ending in “S” (such as Lars) possessive. I, being a planner/urban designer/geography nerd, decided to make a map.Lars Birth MapI previously mapped where my ancestors were born and where they eventually died, but for this one I wanted to incorporate Holly’s ancestors so that Lars would know about both of them, and to clean it up a bit I only showed where they were born. I used FamilySearch to do the research, then used Google Earth to create a map file and try and determine how to group the data before designing the map in Illustrator and InDesign. It was fun to take a look at the patterns and find a tool that hopefully will help Lasse Lille (Little Lars) know where he came from. I’m working on another related project, which hopefully I can report on soon.

TOD Without the T?

In this post from a few days ago, Eric Jaffe discusses a discovery made by Daniel Chatman at UC-Berkeley: that effective TOD (by his definition, development that reduces car trips) has very little to do with access to rail transit. A number of factors are more important, including “lower on- and off-street parking availability; better bus service; smaller and rental housing; more jobs, residents, and stores within walking distance; proximity to downtown; and higher subregional employment density.”

Jaffe calls this TOD without the T. I’m inclined to call it traditional development, or small towns, or simply urbanism, regardless of the size of settlement. By the same token, there can be T without the OD, in the form of park and rides or other underutilized transit opportunities. You can find both, as well as the entire TOD package, in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

Ridley Park Station. T without OD. From

I ride SEPTA’s Wilmington Line to work every day, and on this line, you see a lot of the T without the OD. Most of the stations, while within the boundaries of first-ring suburbs, or even satellite towns such as Marcus Hook, these rail stations are largely divorced from high-density housing, retail, or other marks of TOD. Of all the stops on the line, only Chester and Wilmington feature anything more than parking lots and small sheds for stations (and a number of stops don’t even have these amenities).

Gay and High Streets in West Chester. From

North of this line, you can find West Chester, a great example of the OD without the T. West Chester is an interesting example of a place with a large population (college students) that is poor enough that many can’t afford cars, yet aren’t reliant on manufacturing or similar large land uses for basic sustenance. Since students have small families, if any at all, they can use smaller, denser housing. And since West Chester is an old, traditional community, it has retail uses mixed within its residences, and residences within its commercial core.

Plaza in Ardmore, on the Main Line. From

Further north, the older (and more well-off) communities of the Main Line are great examples of the whole TOD package. Though there are some glorified park and rides, the mainline has a string of small towns–Narberth, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Radnor, Paoli, Malvern, Downingtown–with a full mix of uses and range of densities centered on their train stations.

An area can be very nice without access to rail transit, but they are out on their own and not part of a larger regional entity. West Chester, for instance, feels very cut off from Philadelphia when compared to the Main Line. This is the problem with many New Urbanist developments, where they are internally very walkable but if you want to go anywhere else you have to drive. TOD allows you to have walkable urbanism in the suburbs while still being linked to the advantages of the large city. Transit without the development allows you to access the city, but doesn’t give anyone a reason to come out to your town, so the relationship is very one-way. While walkable urbanism should be a goal regardless of regional issues, the TOD form is the best in regions where connectivity between cities is a major goal.

Breaking Up Big Blocks in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City’s SixtyNine Seventy project is the latest in a long line of efforts trying to answer the question: what do we do with these enormous blocks?

The Second Century Plan. From

Pretty much every major plan for Salt Lake since its initial founding, including the Second Century Plan above, has been about breaking the blocks up into smaller, more manageable chunks. The 660 feet square blocks are the result of generations of Mormon city planning, and there are a number of ways they could be updated. I’ll discuss one idea I stumbled upon.

Salt Lake’s big blocks are based on Joseph Smith’s Plat of Zion, which also had 660 square foot blocks. Despite its intention as a guide for the development of future cities, Smith himself didn’t feel tied to the dimensions of the plan, and diverged from it both in the plat of Far West and in the most significant urban development he undertook at Nauvoo, Illinois. These large blocks were actually realized in Salt Lake and some of the other early Mormon settlements in Utah, led by Brigham Young. However, after the first generation of Utah settlements, the pioneers realized these blocks were too big, and later Mormon towns all have smaller blocks.


You can do a lot with 660 square feet. For comparison, I combed through cities with similar climates to Salt Lake, since climate can and should be a significant factor in urban design. Compare these:

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I was thinking about how to densify these networks while still relating to the original network. Salt Lake’s blocks are large enough that you could straight up divide them into four and still have a reasonably sized block. But while I was playing around, I experimented with connecting blocks diagonally.Nest 3-01

This nesting of a smaller block diagonally within a larger one allows the nested area to relate to the original grid while making blocks smaller. It maintains connectivity while creating smaller, more walkable blocks, and discouraging high-speed through traffic.

Taken to the extreme, you can nest numerous grids within each other, like Russian dolls. This can allow you to gradually transition from a large rural grid, such as the US Township and Range system, to a small walkable grid, with blocks as short as 200-300 feet.

Nest 2-01At more complex levels, smaller town grids could be nested within a larger regional grid that is nested within a national grid. This is one way to transition a large-block area to smaller blocks while continuing the grid and giving a new district a distinct character.

A Planner’s Commitment: Designed to Fail the Small Scale

Images of stores in the UK and US. From

I don’t think it would be going to far to call this post from Ryan Wozniak a rant. That being said, it is a good rant that explains why Tesco, a British business focusing on quick, healthy meals, failed in the US (as Fresh & Easy): the British owners didn’t understand American urban design. Tesco has survived in walkable, mixed-use areas, and wasn’t able to adapt to American drivable sub-urbanism. Wozniak lists why it failed, and what could be done to prevent it from happening to someone else in the future.

Urban design in Ljubljana | Journal

Ljubljana’s Triple Bridge. From

The first time I really ever heard anything about Ljubljana was when my parents went there for a conference in 2004. They were expecting a soviet-style Khrushchyovka city, drab and gray. And on the outskirts of the city, that’s what they found; but in the center they found Ljubljana’s ancient center, well preserved despite earthquakes, redevelopment, and simple age. I’ve since read about Ljubljana’s redevelopment after the 1895 earthquake and the works of Jose Plecnik, including the Triple Bridge pictured above.

I would love to visit the city someday, but for now, I would check out this post on Node Urban Design’s blog. In addition to the ancient narrow streets, which have lent themselves very well to biking and pedestrian transit, Ljubljana has a number of programs that are at the cutting edge of urban life, including extensive bikeshare and public recycling campaigns. they even detail some more contemporary design happening beyond the Khrushchyovkas. Ljubljana may not be on the tip of your tongue when thinking of Europes great cities, but is definitely worth a look.


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