DIAGONAL AVENUES IN CITIES

Anonymous

Engineering News 26 (October 10, 1891):334-35.

In this contribution to what may have been the most important engineering journal published in the United States, the unidentified writer firmly endorsed the creation of radial thoroughfares. At least on this issue most engineers and nearly all architects could agree, although for different reasons. Engineers emphasized the improvements in transportation that would result, while architects tended to favor them more for the opportunities they afforded for civic embellishment through the creation of axial vistas terminating at important buildings or monuments. This article notes the efforts being made in Philadelphia to overcome the rigidity imposed by the vast grid of streets planned in 1682 by William Penn and his engineer, Thomas Holme. Like many other statements favoring creation of radial avenues or boulevards, this also refers to Washington as the one American city with a street plan that meets "modern" requirements. The writer, as others were to do in America, points to the need of a modern Haussmann to do for American cities what he did for Paris in the third quarter of the last century. In referring to Paris, the author expressed an idea that Daniel Burnham more than a decade later would use in arguing that American cities must be made as attractive as the French capital: "The present beauty of Paris, a beauty which is recognized by all nations, and attracts the traveler and his dollars to that city, is due entirely to its wide tree planted boulevards, its fine public and private buildings that are displayed to the best advantage, and to the studied irregularity of its streets." Burnham's contention that only by beautifying and otherwise improving American cities would the dollars then spent in foreign travel be kept at home may have had its origin in this article.
A proposition is again before the Councils of Philadelphia that will undoubtedly shock the conservative local element accustomed to the gridiron street formation of that city. This is the revival of the proposition of three years ago to cut a boulevard, 160 ft. wide and one mile long, diagonally across the section of the city lying between the new public buildings and Fairmount Park. The primary object is to obtain a more fitting entrance to a magnificent park that, as someone once said, is a paradise of a park, but can only be reached through a purgatory of narrow streets lined with the poorer class of houses and small shops. The estimated cost is set down at $3,000,000, based upon the present assessed valuation of the property to be taken. But as a boulevard of the kind proposed would entirely change the character of the part of the city intersected by it, and would soon be lined with handsome and costly buildings, the cost is little more than nominal when compared with the increased revenue to the city, from the "betterments" and gain in taxes. Philadelphia, like other of our older cities, has adhered too rigidly to the original plan of its founder, and with the exception of two ancient country roads, which have been built upon and gradually assimilated as main avenues of diagonal travel, the citizen must always go around the two sides of a triangle in passing between points diagonally opposite.

The rectangular formation of streets is well enough for a beginning, and is perhaps the easiest for original settlement and apportionment of property. It has its marked advantages in the systematic numbering of houses, naming of streets and disposal of certain classes of pipes under the streets, and in the early stages of municipal development the distance between given points is not a question worthy of any special remark. But as the city grows in area the gridiron plan more and more fails to meet the requirements of rapid traffic, and the want of diagonal streets is more keenly felt. When these latter do exist, sometimes accidentally as in the case of the two country roads transformed into avenues and mentioned above. the great traffic upon them proves the necessity for their being, and they were only allowed "to mar" the symmetry of the older plan by reason of this necessity and their constant use.

The city of Washington is our one notable example of a city well planned before building was commenced, and in which some thought was taken of the demands and convenience of a population yet to come. In this city, while the general plan for the smaller streets is rectangular, these streets are intersected by a primary system of wide diagonal avenues radiating from fixed centers. The resultant effect is a number of handsome smaller parks, a very marked addition to the appearance of the city and above all streets which lead in the direction of main threads of travel, which usually radiate from centers of business or resort to the residence portions of a city. The streets of some other cities, like Boston for example, simply grew with the population and go to the other extreme, as compared with the rectangular plan. They are very irregular, running in all directions and totally without system, and as a rule are narrow and unsuited to the demands of modern civilization. Buffalo presents an example of the radiating plan, which, though in great part the result of accident and the extension of country roads leading to an original settlement on the lake shore, is yet fairly well adapted for the circulation of a large population. In the West the rectangle is the rule in street formation, with the difference that, as these cities are comparatively modern, the value of a liberal width of street was recognized while land was still cheap. New York, thanks only to the attenuated form of Manhattan Island, is better off than many of the older cities; though the present search after increased rapid transit facilities proves to us very conclusively that one central thoroughfare fails to meet the requirements of present conditions.

In fact, in all the older cities of the United States, there is a constant effort to improve upon faulty original location and width of streets. Boston took advantage of a disastrous fire to eliminate some of the crooked and narrow lanes that city inherited from colonial days, and other towns are cutting wider and straighter avenues whenever opportunity offers. But the time is not far distant when more radical measures will have to be adopted, and among these the most useful and in the end the most economical will be the creation of highways cutting diagonally the existing network of rectangular city blocks. In some cases modern structures of great mass and value will either make such improvement practically impossible or of enormous cost. But as a rule, such thoroughfares would simply remove antiquated and comparatively cheap buildings which would soon be replaced by others more in keeping with modern progress and yielding a correspondingly increased revenue to the owner and to the city.

We want a Baron HAUSSMANN in many of our cities of early origin; and while we fortunately have few of the huddles of old houses and labyrinthine streets that the third NAPOLEON caused to be removed from Paris, the example he set is well worthy of imitation, to the extent of our power and means of execution. NAPOLEON III., between 1852 and 1870, brought about the reconstruction of about two-thirds of ancient Paris, and no one will now deny that the enormous outlay then made necessary was one of the best investments ever made by the French people, whether it is viewed from an aesthetical, a sanitary or a commercial standpoint.

The advantages to be gained from a studied and intelligent departure from the rectangular street formation may be stated as follows: First, ease and directness of access to points remote from a business center, and situated diagonally as regards that center and the rectangular block system. Valuable time is lost and business is made to suffer by forcing traffic to take the two sides of a right angled triangle, when the hypothenuse[sic] could be opened to it. Then bordering property is improved and not destroyed as some would believe, by making it easier of access and placing it on a thoroughfare that is bound to attract traffic and trade. And finally every expenditure that enhances the beauty of a city and makes it more attractive to the resident and to the stranger is a solid investment that can be measured in cash returns. The present beauty of Paris, a beauty which is recognized by all nations, and attracts the traveler and his dollars to that city, is due entirely to its wide tree planted boulevards, its fine public and private buildings that are displayed to the best advantage, and to the studied irregularity of its streets. A clump of trees, a small park, a group of statuary or even a simple patch of green grass, at the intersection of streets, is worth all the money it costs and is worth much more to the whole community than the mere space for bricks and mortar which it supplants. These openings combined with broad thoroughfares, are the lungs of a city; they give breathing room, and their creation in modern times often removes a plague-spot that in the nurture of disease costs more than the improvement suggested. Diagonal streets thus not only add greatly to the convenience of traffic and its circulation, but they relieve the city from the dull monotony of the rectangular street formation and give abundant opportunity for civic adornment, which latter is almost as important.

The constant tendency in our large cities is to greatly increase the density of population, crowd more and more people on a given unit of area, and to do this by erecting enormously high and enormously costly structures for business and resident purposes. Much of this tendency is due to a want of proper facilities for the rapid circulation of the population, and to the enhanced value of property in business centers resulting in this desire to concentrate interests. The value of real estate is measured directly by the means of communication furnished, just as the construction of elevated roads between the Battery and Harlem, in this city, converted non-remunerative areas of rock-covered soil into valuable building lots, and has covered this soil with a dense population in a few years. Rapid transit includes not only the means for comparatively fast travel, but it means also the most direct route between given points, and it is here again that diagonal avenues often become a practical necessity.

Give people the means of rapidly traveling about, both by elevated or underground structures and on the street surface, and permit commerce to move on wide and direct avenues to points of distribution, and the result will be a broadening of the area of business territory, and a corresponding reduction in the necessity for piling four or five business houses one on top of the other. If we take the whole area of any city and compare the portion that is crowded with trade and enormously valuable per unit of area, with the other parts where land is comparatively cheap, we find that any means of more nearly equalizing these values will be profitable to all concerned. It is just here that street formation comes into play, and if our remote ancestors failed to realize, through no especial fault of theirs, the enormous growth and traffic of American cities, it is our duty and our profit to correct these blunders as rapidly as we can. For a newly started town almost any plan will do that fairly fits the natural topography; but with the experience of the past before us, it is only wise to pay much more attention to this original location or to the extension of street lines than is now usual.

In many cases the better plan costs no more at the beginning than one that will sometimes give trouble, and we noticed a case of this kind lately in a newly founded New Jersey seacoast resort. The builder of this town of Como commenced with an aggregation of sandhills bordering the seashore. The only existing road ran parallel to the beach, and most men would simply have used this is road as a base line and have started the streets of the new town accordingly, with all lines parallel and at right-angles to the beach. But this builder stopped to think about it, with the result that he twisted all of his streets so that they struck the beach at an angle of 45, though the general rectangular block system was maintained. As a consequence a view of the ocean is obtained on looking down any street, and the back streets are almost as desirable in this respect as would have been the one facing upon the water. on the parallel plan. By a little thought he increased the general value of his property by more equally distributing a desirable feature of the location. This is only one instance among many showing the material advantage of intelligent care and forethought in laying out new streets; and while each individual case will demand its especial treatment, the engineer must stop to think whether the plan that is easiest to start with and gives him the least trouble, is the best plan for the future. He will find that it pays to study and to think over the solution of the problem laid down. 



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: jwr2@cornell.edu