W. H. Dorsey

Engineering News 26 (August 29, 1891):192-93.

In this letter to an American journal of engineering, a Kentucky correspondent--identifying himself as an engineer--advocated the gridiron street plan for an ideal new town on a level site. Avenues 70 to 80 feet wide and streets 60 to 66 feet wide would define the city blocks. Ideally, they should be 220 feet wide and 400 feet long, each bisected by a 20-foot alley to provide garbage and trash collection and as the location of sewers and poles for overhead wires.
Middlesborough, Ky., Aug. 19, 1891.

To the Editor of Engineering News:

Sir: One of the standard daily papers, the Baltimore Sun, of Aug.8, 1891, publishes a communication on "The Size of City Lots," which, in consideration of the extension of the limits of many of our large cities, and the building of so many new towns throughout the country, seems to be worthy of some notice. There are two plans, under one of which most towns are built. First, Those which start with a house or two, and slowly grow to a sufficient population to be incorporated. Second Those incorporated by a town company, and the population drawn in by manufactories.

In the first class we find the land owned by many people, and as the town grows each may [i.e., man] has his land laid out to his best advantage, without regard to a uniform and settled plan. This almost invariably results in streets running at various angles and of many widths, with blocks of many different sizes--it is the plan on which most of our older towns and many of the younger are built. In the second class the land is all owned by a syndicate or town company, who have it plotted and staked out after a definite plan. In this case the engineer in charge has the chance of adopting the best plan the topography of the land will admit of.

What is the best plan ? There is only one character of country that will admit of a uniform plan being used, the level or that where the changes in elevation are not beyond the maximum grades to be adopted for the streets to any great extent. As most towns have more or less of this kind of territory, we will consider it.

The width of the streets is governed by the amount of traffic to be passed over them, the value of the land, the character of building to be erected, or the effect aimed at.

Choosing the direction in which the greatest traffic will be, and the position most suitable for the principal street, we would lay off an avenue 100 ft. wide and parallel to it avenues 70 or 80 ft. wide, as circumstances would best determine; with cross streets 60 or 66 ft. wide.

What shall be the distance of these avenues and streets apart, or in other words, the size of the blocks? Shall we, have alleys or not? Looking over the maps of the different cities, we find rectangular blocks of many sizes, without noticing the irregular blocks. New York and Brooklyn have blocks 200 x 400 ft. In some of the newer parts of Boston the blocks are 550 x 100 ft. In Baltimore 320 x 150 ft.

As the size of the lots determines the size of the block, we will consider that. The first object is to get the greatest number of front feet out of a given area without making the lots so small as to make them unsuitable for the use they are intended. Judging from the size of lots in the different cities, the depth needed generally for business property, the most valuable and also that required for the average dwelling, where it is not necessary to have a stable, is about 100 ft. This would make the blocks 200 ft. wide. But shall there be alleys or not? In New York we find lots 100 ft. deep running back to a division fence. But land in New York is extremely valuable. Hemmed in by the narrow limits of a long island, with people ever crowding for admittance satisfied to put up with discomfort if they can only get a place to live, it hardly offers a suitable example for other less crowded places. In the newer parts of Boston and most other cities we find alleys more plentiful than in the older sections of these cities, which shows they have come to feel the need of them. Why should they need them? Pass along the streets that have no alleys in the rear of the houses, and what do we see? The front pavement decorated with every conceivable kind of receptacle, empty or filled with garbage and ashes, which every puff of wind whisks over the pavements and in the doors and windows of the houses and the eyes of the passing pedestrian.

Then the sewerage system not being complete, which is about the case in every town, the O.E.A. man has to be called in. How is he going to get back with a solid brick wall running from street corner to street corner, the only openings on the street being the front doors and windows? Through one or the other of these he must go with his not overly-clean pipe. In the town from which I write, Middlesborough, Ky., we feel the want of alleys in the blocks even at this early date.

With the separate system of sewerage, what a fine place to lay the pipes where they are needed, in the rear of the buildings, away from the water mains, and doing away with those ever-undesirable sewer connections through cellars, always liable to leak sewer gas if nothing more. Telegraph poles can also be placed there, removing them from the main streets, and the wires would be less in the way of firemen. To get the best results out of an alley it should be from 12 to 20 ft. wide, the greater width if practicable. This would make the blocks from 212 to 220 ft. wide from avenue to avenue.

There is one objection to the alley plan that is often brought forward: that people with deep lots, say 150 ft., finding that they have more land than they need for their private use, build a house in the rear of the lot, fronting the alley, In Philadelphia we find an ordinance against fronting houses on alleys less than 30 ft. wide. But this is due to the depth of the lot, not simply because the alley is there. The narrower the lots the more need of alleys. In residence property, with lots of 50 or more feet front, there is room for a road to the rear; but even there the convenience of alleys is felt.

The width of the blocks being fixed, what shall be their length? The location and amount of travel will best determine this. Four hundred feet seems to be a good length.

Shall the wide or narrower streets run with the length of the blocks? We find both conditions to exist.

Houses fronting on the broader streets have more air and light. The streets themselves have a better appearance, Here people and teams use the streets on which the houses front rather than the side streets. There is one condition that might be considered where it would be an advantage to have the wider streets at the side of the houses: The street car tracks could be placed on then, giving more room to passing teams and relieving the fronts of the houses of the noise and dust, but they would not be so convenient to the people. This is hardly sufficient to outbalance the other conditions.

To sum up, we would have the blocks 220 x 400 ft,, with alleys 20 ft., bounded by avenues 70 to 80 ft. on the long sides and streets 60 to 66 ft. on the short sides.

Yours truly, W. H. Dorsey,

Asst. Engr. M.T.Co. . 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: