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.

May 2015 Update: Oceania

As I said above, Australia only has 16 cities with over 100,000 people, so I had passed over it before. But this post ended up on Reddit and several commentators mentioned that, even if Australia didn’t have enough for a larger sample, I should have expanded it to Oceania.

The question becomes how one defines Oceania. Generally, it is made up of the small island nations of the Pacific. It often (but not always) includes Australia and New Zealand, and less regularly includes Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. When I looked up lists of population figures for Oceania, I could only find lists for Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. Since Indonesia could be Oceanic or not, I decided to take a look at both options, just to be sure.

So, with Indonesia:


Of the top 50 cities in Oceania with Indonesia included, 33 of them are organic. Of those 33, every single one of them is in Indonesia. Since none of them are in any of the other countries, and since Indonesia is not by all definitions considered a part of Oceania, I thought I’d take take them out and see what we had. With only the 25 cities from the other three nations with over 100,000 people, it was barely enough for a good sample, but here’s what you get:

Loose-01Of the 25 cities, 13 have loose grids. In a lot of cases, some of these cities might have a very small gridiron area that quickly has to adapt to steeper topography, as is the case in Brisbane and many of the cities in New Zealand. Other cities, like Sydney, are almost more of a hodgepodge of grid types from neighborhood to neighborhood. Eight cities had gridiron plans, although they were often limited to their downtowns and fell apart into one of the less regimented systems further out. Two cities in Australia, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, are unusual in that they are essentially just very very large suburbs. Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea has an organic plan, and Canberra is well known for it’s modern interpretation of the Baroque radial grid plan.


Latest trend in house design: “A home within a home” : TreeHugger

New floorplan from suburban builder Lennar Homes featuring a secondary unit. From treehugger.com.

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger posted this earlier this afternoon and Twitter exploded. He shows a number of floorplans, including the one above, from Lennar Homes which include secondary units for “homeowners with adult children or elderly parents who want to live in the same household as their relatives without sacrificing privacy or convenience.” This is an interesting adaptation to changing conditions; this caters to the fact that a lot of college graduates are having trouble finding jobs and are moving home, but also to the fact that the multi-generational family, once common but not so much today, is coming back, partially through immigrants who are used to living that way and partially through financial necessity. This is exactly something that Christopher Alexander advocated in A Pattern Language. He encouraged homes to develop different units, or “cottages,” for both teenagers and the elderly within a family, with the express idea that they could be rented out when not in use by a needy family member. These sort of “mother-in-law apartments” are fairly rare in many suburban areas, but have been a part of New Urbanist developments since their inception. Alter questions whether cities will regulate these sort of houses to make sure that only family members live in the second unit, but it is a step in densifying the suburbs, and potentially bringing them towards urbanity.

A Matrix of Settlement Types

While in undergrad, we had an assignment in a certain class where we had to ride public transit in Provo for a mile and describe the surroundings we saw. I asked my professor if, instead of riding in Provo, I could ride in Salt Lake City so that I could write about an urban place. “What, Provo isn’t urban?” he said. I was somewhat taken aback. Of course Provo isn’t an urban place, if you think of major cities as urban places. The problem that my professor exemplified is the Boolean division of spaces as either urban or rural, with nothing in between.

The urban transect. From thinkorthwim.com.

Some headway has been made with the New Urbanist transect, which introduces the suburbs as a distinctly non-rural and yet non-urban place, and introduces the idea of an urban gradient. However, this does not address the different types of settlements based on size and amount of services. What I propose is more of a matrix, where the rural to urban gradient will cross with a gradient from small settlements with few services to megalopoli. I will illustrate this matrix with examples from areas that I am familiar with.

The Rural to Urban Gradient

Rural Settlements

Rural areas are characterized by an extremely low density of both populations and buildings. Homes are almost exclusively single family on parcels made up of multiple acres, with parcels in the hundreds of acres or more not being uncommon. Industries in these areas are primarily focused on extraction, whether they be agriculture, mining, energy, etc. People in these areas tend to be more self sufficient. They may grow their own food, or they may buy in bulk and store it for longer, since it is a long trip into town for supplies. People generally work close to home, however they would require some sort of transportation other than walking to make trips into town, whether to purchase supplies or to take resources into market. Very few services are offered in these areas. While a store might locate itself at a strategic intersection, most rural residents have to go into a larger settlement for services.

Suburban Settlements

Suburbs tend to be higher density than rural areas, but are still fairly low, with the single family house on .25-5 acre lots being the dominant housing type. However, with more of these houses closer together, the populations in suburbs begin to be higher than in rural areas. One of the defining features of suburban areas is the extreme separation of uses. Work places, shopping and entertainment places, and homes are all strictly segregated, often making public transit or walking infeasible and requiring the use of a car for transportation. Another common characteristic of suburban areas is that they rarely are self-sufficient as far as workplaces. Most workers in suburban areas commute to more dominant areas, whether they be suburban office parks or edge cities, or more traditional urban areas. All in all, suburbs are rarely self sufficient, and must exist in a dynamic relationship with other development types.

Urban Settlements

Urban settlements have much higher population densities than their rural or suburban counterparts, and in many of them multifamily and attached units outnumber single family detached houses. Instead of being separated, compatible uses are mixed, with apartments and offices over retail and stores integrated in working areas. This higher density and mix of uses makes public transit feasible, as well as making it reasonable to walk to destinations rather than driving. Although there is of course some reverse commuting, most urban residents work in the municipality they live in, and unless there is a lack of affordable housing near work spaces, they should be able to live and work in the same neighborhood. Many from surrounding suburbs commute into the urban area for work. Urban areas, of course, are dependent on their rural hinterlands and on each other for materials, but the manufacture of goods and provision of services happens within the city, making it more self sufficient than the suburb.

The Small to Large Gradient

There is a problem with referring to all settlement types as “cities.” Cities are large, generally urban places, although many demonstrate some suburban characteristics. Small settlements made up mostly of residences are not cities. In the English tradition, there has been a gradient of human settlements. Hamlets, villages, and towns all describe these smaller settlements. There is not, however, a similar gradient of types once we reach the “city” level, and here are just referred to by their size. In contemporary society, we have come to see larger settlement types made up of multiple, smaller settlements: the metropolis, with one major, influential city and its suburbs and hinterland; and the megalopolis, a collection of major metropoli that grow into each other. I have collected examples of each of these types and explain how they could be either rural, suburban, or urban. There are probably better examples out there, and I would invite anyone to submit their examples in the comments section, but I can only comment on those areas I am most familiar with.


A hamlet is a very small community which may be simply a cluster of houses. It is overwhelmingly if not entirely residential, but can have a few services, such as a general store or service station, or maybe a school or post office. Homes are virtually all single family. These settlements may be somewhat informal and unimproved, rarely with curbs and gutters if the streets ave even paved. Hamlets are generally on the more rural side of the gradient, and as such, I couldn’t think of an example of an urban hamlet. If you can, please leave a comment.

A Rural Hamlet: King Hill, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

King Hill is a hamlet that sits on the north bank of the Snake River near the eastern border of Elmore County, Idaho. Some people work in the fairly close village of Glenns Ferry or other communities, but most either work from home or on the surrounding farms. The community boasts a post office, a church, and not much else. The roads don’t have curbs, and landscaping is generally informal.

A Suburban Hamlet: Leeds, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Leeds shares some similarities to King Hill. It is small, virtually all single family, and has few services (a church, a school, and a general store). However, Leeds has shrunk somewhat, since it used to be a mill village. The mill buildings still exist, but they sit vacant, and virtually everyone in the hamlet works in nearby Northampton or other surrounding municipalities. This commute pattern and closer relation to other municipalities makes Leeds more suburban than the rural King Hill.


Villages are distinguished from hamlets from a generally greater intensity of development. There is more variety in housing types, which may just be a greater variety of single family lot sizes, but may include townhomes or some apartments. More services are provided, such as restaurants or a small grocery, but most services beyond someone’s daily needs must be found somewhere else. Development may become slightly more formalized, possibly with a commercial main street, formalized tree plantings or park space, and fully improved streets. While villages may exist in rural, suburban or urban locations, the characteristics of a village are similar to those of a neighborhood, which forms a small, defined section of a larger municipality.

A Rural Village: Nyssa, Oregon

From maps.google.com.

As you can already see, Nyssa is significantly larger and more complex than the previously mentioned hamlets. Nyssa was founded as a company town on the Oregon side of the Snake River. It has been slowly losing population since I-84 was routed through the town of Ontario to the north, and so Nyssa in some ways has too many services for its population of just under 4,000. There are a number of churches, two formal parks, a school, and commercial uses along Thunderegg Boulevard and Main Street, and industrial uses fronting the railroad tracks. Although many locals work in these industries or other local services, many still work in the sugar beet and potato farms that surround the village. Nyssa’s Main Street is fairly well designed, but the declining population has taken its toll, and many storefronts are empty. While Nyssa does have its own grocery, a handful of restaurants, a tractor supply store, and other services, many residents travel to nearby Ontario for shopping.

A Suburban Village: Salem, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salem shares many characteristics with Nyssa. They have similar populations (Salem is just over 5,000). Salem also has a grocery store, restaurants, service stations, and other services. It has less industry, but it does have some. It has some formal green space, especially around Salem Pond. The biggest difference is that while Nyssa is fairly self sufficient as far as jobs, most people in Salem commute to either the nearby town of Spanish Fork or farther north to the city of Provo. Salem also has had more growth in the last few decades where they have abandoned the traditional Mormon grid pattern and have created leapfrog, suburban-style developments. If Salem is able to implement the General Plan that I worked on for them with Long Pine Consulting, they will eventually become more of a town with distinct neighborhoods, but that will take a long time to be fully realized.

An Urban Village: Beaver, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Part of what makes Beaver urban is its context. Rather than being among fields, it is among other villages, including Rochester, Bridgewater, Monaca, and Vanport. Another is its highly formal nature, which can partially be attributed to its designation as a county seat.

From wikipedia.org

Beaver has a very formal green featuring war memorials and a lovely main street (3rd Street) with a grocery, restaurants, a world-class bakery, and other services. The dense blocks and small streets make it extremely walkable. Most people who live in Beaver also work there, with people from nearby villages commuting in as well. In addition to county facilities, there are a few schools and many beautiful churches.

A Neighborhood Village: East Falls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

East Falls, if anything, pushes the upper population bound of what can be called a village, at just over 10,000 people, but its organization and service structure is definitely that of a village. East Falls is a well-defined area bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the southeast, the Schuylkill River on the Southwest, the Wissahickon Creek on the northwest and Wissahickon Avenue on the northeast. The high population is concentrated closer to the river and Ridge Avenue, but quickly disperses as you head uphill, away from the river, into large lot, single family homes. This transition can be seen with a few images of the path along Midvale Avenue.

The giant pepper at Midvale Avenue and Ridge Avenue. From maps.google.com.

Further up Midvale Avenue, at the townhouses that my mom said she wants to retire in. From maps.google.com.

Single family houses on top of the hill. From maps.google.com.

Commercial uses are concentrated in a mixed use corridor along Ridge Avenue, with churches, schools and other uses spread out throughout the community. East Falls does not have a lot of employment uses and most residents work elsewhere in Philadelphia, but the higher density allows for both buses and heavy rail to be feasible options for transportation.


Towns are the next step up in development intensity. Towns contain all major housing types, including apartments, townhouses, and single family homes. All of a person’s regular needs can be found in a town, including food, government services, repair shops, and many others. In addition, more special or limited services are provided, such as clothing, entertainment, or others. Development becomes more sophisticated, where almost all streets are improved, and in some cases unified “branding” of the town may be employed. One of the defining characteristics of a town is that it is the smallest development type that can be made up of multiple neighborhoods, with varying degrees of independence or interdependence. Like villages, towns can be either rural, suburban (in fact, while suburban examples of hamlets and villages may be more “exurban,” many modern suburbs, including bedroom communities and edge cities, fit into this category), or urban, and can also be part of larger cities, as urban districts.

A Rural Town: Carson City, Nevada

From maps.google.com.

Carson City was originally a mining town of some importance and, as such, was made the state capitol of Nevada when it was granted statehood. Though the mines are no longer a significant part of Carson City’s economy, the fact that it is the state capitol has not only kept it from declining, but has allowed it to grow significantly, and the town now boasts a population of over 55,000. Many residents are government employees of one sort or another, including forest rangers and employees of the BLM. Some residents commute to Reno, but it is a long commute and occasionally the road closes due to snow, so most people who live in Carson City also work there. Though being a town of some size, it has little in the way of suburbs, mostly due to inhospitable building conditions, and much of the surrounding developable land is already a part of Carson City. Neighborhoods are clearly evident, if only by being able to differentiate the old gridded areas from the newer neighborhoods with dendritic street patterns. Services include all day to day uses, along with a few strip shopping centers and, as anywhere in Nevada, a few casinos.

The Nugget, which has a great breakfast, and Cactus Jack’s casinos on the main drag of Carson City. From maps.google.com.

A Suburban Town: Rocklin, California

From maps.google.com.

Rocklin was little more than a train stop and a gravel pit before it got sucked into the suburban sprawl that extends northeastward from Sacramento. As such, it has very little traditional infrastructure to build off of, and is an archetypal American suburb.

Pacific Street, Rocklin’s sad little main street: one-story buildings, vacant lots, lots of parking, and expensive branding and improvements that did little to reverse the downward trend. From maps.google.com.

Virtually all of Rocklin’s retail uses are car-dependent strip-style retail. The few office and industrial uses it has are also suburban-style, although most residents commute out of Rocklin, either to its powerhouse neighbor Roseville or to Sacramento. Although apartment housing exists, it is surrounded by parking and often by some sort of wall, cutting them off from surroundings and forcing people to drive. The overwhelming housing type is the single family home, and many of the houses are built on the exact same floor plan thanks to much of them being built at the same time in the massive Stanford Ranch subdivision. Although uses are strictly segregated, when I lived there I was able to walk a reasonable distance to school, to a grocery store and to a few restaurants. It was possible, but certainly wasn’t as enjoyable as a walk in Beaver, Carson City or many of the places to follow.

An Urban Town: Northampton, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Northampton, at just shy of 30,000 people, is just over half the population of both Carson City and Rocklin, yet it feels much more urban. This 350-year-old town not only had good urban fabric, but preserved it even during the suburban era, and now stands as a model urban town.

Downtown Northampton on a beautiful fall day. From panoramio.com.

Although Northampton does have some strip retail, especially along north King Street, it is centered on a traditional mixed use downtown which provides a wide array of shopping opportunities, possibly even more than an equally urban town because of Northampton’s strong association with various counterculture movements. This, along with smaller lot sizes and a dense network of streets, makes Northampton extremely walkable. Although the population is not high enough to justify rail transit, the town does operate a bus system, along with the other towns and villages of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Northampton’s main economic driver is Smith College, which not only employs most residents of Northampton, but also brings in commuters from other nearby municipalities. Distinct neighborhoods can be identified throughout Northampton, from Smith College to Downtown to Bay State and other principally residential areas.

A District Town: University City, Philadelphia

From maps.google.com.

University City, bounded roughly by 52nd Street, Spring Garden Street, and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, covers a large area and a large population, although much of it is fairly transient. A large part of the population is made up of students who attend Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of the Sciences, which give the district its name. Although there are certainly a number of apartment complexes, University City is a part of Philadelphia, where the rowhouse has always been the dominant housing type. However, it is not unusual for those rowhouses to them be subdivided into various apartments.

Row houses near Clark Park in University City. From panoramio.com.

There are a number of mixed use corridors throughout the area, from Lancaster Avenue to the north, to the three main central streets of Market, Chestnut and Walnut, to Baltimore Avenue in the south. These are just the main corridors, and there are a number of smaller scale mixed use areas between them. SEPTA has buses, trolleys, subway, elevated rail and commuter rail in the area. University City, and particularly the Science Center along Market Street along with the universities, are also major workplaces, and more people commute to University City than to any other area in the Philadelphia metro area with the exception of Center City, Philadelphia. The area has distinct neighborhoods, including each of the universities, as well as Powelton Village, Cedar Park, Clark Park, and others.


A city is the next step up in the scale of size and development intensity. Cities are made up of various districts, with various neighborhoods within them. These neighborhoods vary in density and building type, allowing people to have a large variety of choices in where and how they want to live. Cities contain all sorts of services, with larger cities providing more unique, specialized and elite services. This is one of the major distinctions between large and small cities. We don’t really have a word to distinguish between large and small cities, but their size and access to services are very different, as will be discussed below. When you reach this scale of settlements, it is rare that cities exist in a rural environment. There may be a few examples (I was thinking of considering Lincoln, Nebraska, but couldn’t think of any other examples), and if you can think of any, please leave it in the comments section. However, there are many cities that follow a suburban pattern, as well as more urban cities.

A Small Suburban City: Provo, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Provo is a city of about 112,000 people about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. It is home to Brigham Young University and the roughly 35,000 students who go there. As such, there are a lot of apartments in Provo, but is is still overwhelmingly single-family, and high parking requirements and low density limits keep the density fairly low, despite many apartments. Although Provo does have a small, mixed use center, the city is mostly made up of large, single-use districts, and even the center has been hollowed out and few apartments exist there, with mostly offices above the stores and little nightlife. While Provo’s single family housing and single use districts contribute to its suburban nature, it is capped off by its car dependence. Like many Mormon settlements, Provo has very wide roads, which in the automobile era make it unsafe and undesirable to cross them. In addition, Provo requires pedestrians to press a button to cross streets, and the crossing times are very short. Provo participates in the Utah Transit Authority and will soon have a heavy rail connection to Salt Lake, but the buses don’t have great coverage and run infrequently. A Bus Rapid Transit system, which would run from Provo’s new rail station to BYU to Utah Valley University and finally to the new rail station in Orem, has been proposed, but it is not likely to be approved due to funding constraints and the general conservative politics of the city. Provo has a number of districts, including the Bench, the campus area, the East Bay, and others, each with their own neighborhoods.

Provo’s wide University Avenue and two of the tallest buildings in the city. From panoramio.com.

A Small Urban City: Allentown, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Compare the above picture of some of Provo’s tallest buildings with this picture of Allentown:

Center City Allentown. From wikipedia.org.

Dominated by the 332-foot PPL Building, Allentown’s downtown dwarfs Provo’s in both height and area. It has significant mixed use corridors running along both Hamilton Street and 7th Street, as well as a thriving area around 19th Street just north of the fairgrounds. Although Allentown looks like a bigger city than Provo, its population is only 118,000, barely larger. In fact, the land area of Allentown is only 18 square miles, compared to Provo’s 42, making it much denser. This density and mix of use make Allentown much more walkable. Allentown is also served by the Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority, which has very dense coverage in Center City, although it does get much lighter in the outlying districts. It is the largest municipality in the Lehigh Valley, and as such is where most residents of the area work. It can be divided into a number of districts, including Center City, the Wards, and the West End.

A Medium Suburban City: Boise, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

Many people don’t realize how large Boise actually is. I know that when I went there as a missionary in 2005 I though I would be spending all my time milking cows and picking potatoes. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I entered the city and saw that this would be the area I would begin my missionary service in:

Downtown Boise. From wikipedia.org.

Boise’s population is well over 200,000, making it bigger than it’s “major city” neighbor, Salt Lake City. Its downtown is actually fairly dense, and has done a good job of preserving the good bones it was built on, unlike Provo. Although it doesn’t boast any major sports teams, it does have a huge sports entertainment industry based around Boise State University, as well as a few minor league sports teams. It also boasts the only dance club I’ve ever been to (after I was done being a missionary), one among many nightlife spots. Though it does offer urban services, and although the downtown is certainly a dense, walkable area, the city on the whole is much more suburban. Boise, like many western cities, grew immensely in the last century, partially do to an aggressive annexation policy that has added much low density, sparsely developed land to the city. The single family home is the dominant housing type. Outside of the downtown, uses are largely divided rather than mixed. The city is very car dependent with a weak bus system, and I can say from experience that riding a bike in many parts of the city involves taking your life into your hands. Boise is the largest city in Idaho and in the Treasure Valley and as such brings in many commuters. There are a number of distinct districts in the area owing to the topography as well as to man-made barriers such as I-184.

A Medium Urban City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

I wondered if some of my local Pittsburghers would be unhappy with me putting Pittsburgh in the medium city category. At one point it was one of the largest in the country and even today enjoys many big-city amenities. However, with a population barely over 300,000 and still in decline as of the last census, it is hard to put Pittsburgh in the same category as New York and Los Angeles. It is a very unique city. It has a number of very dense districts such as Downtown, the Strip and Oakland, while many of the outlying neighborhoods include small single family homes as well as small apartment complexes and attached units. Pittsburgh’s extreme topography allows for high density development in valleys and on flat hilltops while keeping steeper slopes in a natural condition, which makes it feel very green even in densely populated areas.

Pittsburgh’s dense downtown as seen from the green slopes of Mount Washington. From wikipedia.org.

Pittsburgh enjoys a major sports entertainment industry, and is home to a number of growing industries, including banking, medical, and educational campuses. Many neighborhoods are walkable despite extreme elevation thanks to almost 45,000 steps which often run parallel to or in some instances replace sidewalks or even streets.

A Pittsburgh “paper street” (i.e. labeled as a street on paper, or on a map, but a stairwell in real life) connects two areas of extreme topography. From city-data.com.

Pittsburgh has an extensive bus system, and a light rail system currently serves the South Hills and is being expanded to the stadium area on the north of the Allegheny River. As can be seen from my last post, Pittsburgh is very much the center for commuters in the region.

A Large Suburban City: Los Angeles, California

From maps.google.com.

Los Angeles is America’s second largest city, at almost 4 million people. However, it’s not even in the top 100 cities in America for population density. Although downtown Los Angeles is a high density, mixed use area, and there are others to be found in the city, it is not the general character of this city. While there is a transit system, it is less than comprehensive. Los Angeles, at one time, had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the world; but it was all torn out, and replaced by the transportation infrastructure that is most characteristic of Los Angeles: the freeway.

The Four Level (Bill Keene Memorial) Interchange. Los Angeles is the only place that I have noticed caring enough about their interchanges to name them. From wikipedia.org.

Los Angeles’ car dependency is well known, leading to its familiar smog and congestion, the worst in the country. 708,000 people commute into Los Angeles, but 695,000 commute out, making it almost commute-neutral. The city hosts many services, but first and foremost is the entertainment industry. Los Angeles has sports teams in most major sports, but much more important is the fact that most major film studios call LA home, especially in the Hollywood district.

A Large Urban City: New York City, New York

From maps.google.com.

It is interesting to me that New York City has just over 60% of the land area of Los Angeles, yet has over twice the population, at just over 8 million. And considering the extremely low densities of Staten Island and eastern Queens, this means an even greater concentration in the rest of the city. I didn’t think it would say much for me to include pictures of New York, because pretty much everyone knows what it looks like. I can just say Empire State Building, Times Square, Wall Street, and you’ve already got the image in your mind. And that’s only Manhattan; most people outside of the city have no idea what sort of interesting stuff can be found in the other boroughs. New York is the most densely populated major city in America, and while there are a few single family areas, it is overwhelmingly attached housing, especially apartments. New York’s neighborhoods are overwhelmingly mixed use and the most walkable in the country. Its train and bus system is nearly comprehensive. It is the center for stage and television entertainment. It is the world financial capitol. In fact, as the home of the United Nations, it is the closest thing we have to a world capitol. In many ways, New York defines what it means to be a city.


Much like a town can be considered a collection of neighborhoods/villages and a city a collection of districts/towns, a metropolis is a collection of cities. It generally has one major city at the center (although there are of course exceptions such as Minneapolis/St. Paul), where most people commute to and where major cultural or social institutions are based, surrounded by suburbs or smaller urban areas. Many services, such as local news and radio, are organized on a metropolitan scale. Metropolitan transportation systems, whether they be transit or automobile oriented, allow for people throughout the region to enjoy the services of the central city. In many metropoli, however, these suburbanites do not pay an equal share for the services they enjoy; they flee central cities to escape crime or dense living conditions, and as such don’t pay the taxes that the city needs to survive, leading to a downward spiral of decay at the center. Portland is the only city in America that has established a metropolitan government so that this burden can be more equally shared. Metropolitan areas, like cities, generally are more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Metropolis: Salt Lake City, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salt Lake City, as mentioned above, is a medium city at best, with a population of about 190,000. However, it is the principal city of the Wasatch Front, a developed area leading from above the Idaho border to central Utah. Much of this area is unbuildable because of steep terrain or bad soils, but the developed area features few areas of concentrated density; even downtown Salt Lake is not terribly dense. Many of the surrounding municipalities are suburban towns where most of the residents work either in Salt Lake City or in the lesser cities of Provo and Ogden. This area is really the heartland of the Mormon religion, and the church administration, as well as the iconic Salt Lake Temple, are both based here.

From front to back: the Salt Lake Tabernacle; the Salt Lake Temple; and the Church Administration Building, the tallest building in Salt Lake City. From wikipedia.org.

Although the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is currently very car dependent, it has been taking strides in a good direction; a light rail system, TRAX, serves the Salt Lake Valley, and a heavy rail system FrontRunner, has been built north to Ogden and is currently being expanded south to Provo and beyond.

An Urban Metropolis: Boston, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Boston itself is a fairly large city, but it sits immediately across the Charles River from two smaller cities: Cambridge and Somerville. The cities of Quincy and Newton are on its other sides. This central amalgamation is encircled by a series of satellite cities and towns: Barnstable, New Bedford, Worcester, Lowell, Nashua, Manchester, Portland, and many others in between. Though some of these areas have developed in a more suburban pattern, many of them are old cities with good bones, and are denser and more mixed use than their counterparts in Salt Lake City. Despite the Mass Pike, Route 128 and other highways in the area, the Boston metro area is still quite transit-friendly, with an extensive heavy rail network connecting many of these satellite cities to the center.

Boston’s commuter rail network. From mbta.com.

Boston is widely considered the capitol of New England, and as such holds influence over all of that region except western Connecticut, which is largely made up of the suburbs of New York City.


Following the established pattern, a megalopolis is a group of metropoli. The idea of a megalopolis is a fairly new one and came about as the suburbs and spheres of influence of the metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States began to grow into each other and eventually overlap, leading to greater interdependence of these areas. A megalopolis often has a certain metropolis that is more dominant than the others, but it is theoretically possible to have a megalopolis without a single dominant city, and various metropoli may have equal power within the megalopolis. Referred to as “megaregions” by some authors, megalopoli are, as the last few types have been, more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Megalopolis: The American Southwest

From maps.google.com.

When I say the Southwest, I particularly mean the area that America 2050 suggests is within the sphere of influence of Los Angeles: California south of Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo; the Las Vegas area in Nevada; Arizona south of Flagstaff; and the Mexican border region from Tijuana to Nogales. While Los Angeles is by far the principal metropolis, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix also fit within this category. Each of these areas has a dense core that is surrounded by suburbs that can sprawl hundreds of miles away from the metropolitan center, and are therefore very low density. Although each metropolis does have some form of public transit, they generally pay a subservient role to highway transportation. The central cities of these metropolitan areas are not terribly strong employment centers, and although there is plenty of central commuting, much of it is also suburb to suburb, bypassing the central city. There are rail connections between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the state of California has been wanting to create a statewide rail system for years, but at least in the near term, there are not many connections between the various metropoli of the Southwest Megalopolis.

An Urban Megalopolis: The American Northeast

From maps.google.com.

 The original megalopolis covers all of New England, New Jersey and Delaware, and the portions east of the Appalachian Mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This string of metropoli includes Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. This corridor, like Boston above, is made up not only of large, dense cities, but of older cities and towns with good bones that are higher density than in the Southwest. This area has many business and government links between its cities, and as such, travel between metros is very important. Although I-95 does serve this area, commuters also have the option of using Amtrak, which runs its fastest train, the Acela, between Washington and Boston; or a number of private bus carriers that, although not as classy as the train, allow competitive rates for inter-metro travel. The Northeast was planned as the first area in the nation for new high-speed rail because its population density makes it the most feasible; however, unless the Democrats make a big comeback in 2012, it is unlikely that this project will happen any time soon.


We can’t view the world as just urban and rural. There is a gradient of settlement characters from rural to suburban to urban, and the lines between them are blurry. By the same token, a municipality of 20,000 people should not be referred to with the same word as a municipality of 8 million. They are very different animals, and our vocabulary should reflect that difference. As such, I have proposed this matrix of settlement types. If I missed something, if I’m somehow off base, or if you have anything that you think should be added to this discussion, please leave a comment below.

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