PLANNING THE SITE FOR A CITY.

Lewis M. Haupt, C. E.

The Engineering Magazine 8 (January 1895): 626­637.

The author of this and many other papers read at meetings of the Franklin Institute was Professor of Civil Engineering, Towne Scientific School, University of Pennsylvania, a post he held for twenty years beginning in 1872. Haupt (1844-1937) was a native of Gettysburg, the son of General Herman Haupt, then a professor of mathematics at Pennsylvania College, later chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad, brigadier-general in the Civil War, and--among many other later activities--general manager of the Northern Pacific Railroad. After the younger Haupt's initial schooling in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Haupt studied for a time at the University of Pennsylvania before accepting an appointment to West Point. He graduated as a second lieutenant in 1867, served with the engineers on surveys of the Great Lakes and in Texas. He resigned his military rank in 1869 to become chief of the survey of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, followed by an appointment as Assistant Examiner in the U.S. Patent Office on engineering and architectural applications. He soon left that position to begin his academic career.

Throughout his later career Haupt was active in many engineering surveys and construction projects. These included service as one of the commissioners of the Lake Erie and Ohio River ship canal in 1892, as one of three members of the Nicaragua canal commission in 1897, and two years later as a member of the Isthmian canal commission. At a period not yet determined Haupt was said to have made "topographical surveys of town sites in Dakota, and on other works" as an Assistant Engineer on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Perhaps it was this exposure to the numerous grid towns planned by the land subsidiary that line that turned his thinking to how urban settlements might be better planned and led to his two statements on the subject represented in this collection. These were not the only papers on urban betterment that Haupt wrote. At meetings of the Engineers Club of Philadelphia in 1881 and 1884 he presented three papers: "Intercommunications in Cities," "Rapid Transit," and "The Growth of Cities, As Exemplified in Philadelphia."

Professor Haupt was also an inventor, and his system of harbor improvements earned him the gold medal of the American Philosophical Society. The Franklin Institute in 1901 awarded him the Cresson gold medal for his studies of reaction breakwaters, and he also received similar recognition for his engineering achievements at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. The University of Pennsylvania, Muhlenberg College, and the Pennsylvania College all conferred honorary degrees on Haupt. He contributed many papers to engineering and scientific publications and wrote several books. Haupt became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Philosophical Society, the National Geographic Society, the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and the American Association for the Advancements of Science. In 1877 the newly-formed Engineers Club of Philadelphia elected Haupt its first president.

So long as new territory remains to be developed, new centers of industry must spring up which may ultimately attain to the dignity of cities. But the projector of a town cannot always forecast the ultimate needs of the community with sufficient prescience to adapt his plans to them, nor is it often that he cares to do so, his main purpose being to realize quickly upon his resources.

New "town­sites" are not generally laid out by engineers or philanthropists who desire to secure the best possible results for all time, but by speculators who may never have seen the site--much less have had a topographic survey of it upon which to base the most economic plans for streets, grades, drainage, water­supply, sewerage, and the many other requirements of a large community. Often these elaborate paper projects cover marshes, dunes, terraces, or even inaccessible escarpments, but, so long as the demand for lots exists and the investor is willing to take the chances, it matters little to the "boomers" how serious the errors of location or design may be, or how greatly the cost of maintenance may be augmented by physical obstacles to habitation, transportation, or sanitation, the three principal elements of a site. These mushroom cities are handicapped from the start, and it is not until some great fire or desolating pestilence teaches its lesson, that proper measures are taken to render the locality suitable for habitation.

A comparative study of the plans of existing cities, considered each with reference to the local topography, would prove interesting and instructive. The old fortified cities of continental Europe, with their walls of circumvallation, radial highways, moats, canals, and ditches present many and varied features of interest. Their location was often selected with reference to the strategic requirements of the times and the current methods of defense, but these considerations are not pertinent to the selection of suitable sites for and the proper planning of large cities in America to­day.

It should be considered, first of all, that certain sites can never be expected to support relatively large cities, while others, from the nature of their environments, can scarcely avoid having greatness thrust upon them. The presence of extensive mineral deposits is not in itself sufficient, but if there be a natural source of power, and, still more important, cheap, available transportation facilities, the prospects for a city are very good. But the best conditions exist where a large tonnage of any kind, especially of agricultural products, is transshipped and stored. Such conditions are presented where land and water systems of transportation meet, or at the head of navigation.

It should be noted that in the United States the great cities have followed the course of the Star of Empire and are on the western side of the waterways, as centers of distribution from the landings on the rivers and lakes. The area of the tributary territory accessible by water is also an important factor in determining the prospective size of a commercial center. Thus the phenomenal growth of Chicago is readily understood, and she has not yet attained the zenith of her glory, for the magnificent waterway now under construction connecting her port on Lake Michigan with the Illinois and Mississippi rivers will greatly stimulate her manufactures and increase her population. New York city, situated at the reëntrant angle of the Middle Bay on the Atlantic, has three­fourths of the circle of tributary (land) territory from which to draw her tonnage, and is therefore more favorably situated than any other tidewater point on the Atlantic coast. The Erie canal was the determining factor in raising her to the proud distinction of the American metropolis. She still needs increased interior deep­water communications to the south for coal and lumber and to the north for cereals and dairy products. If transportation facilities were equal, the "Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas" would have as good a raison d'être as Chicago, having the same water distance to traverse via the lakes to eastern ports, and an immensely productive territory from which to draw supplies; but the Chicago drainage canal will forever turn the scales in favor of the latter city, where, despite the marshes and lack of even sufficient slope for drainage, the imperative demands of commerce have determined the location of our western emporium.

It is not difficult therefore to determine in advance whether the location proposed must be planned for a large, medium, or small population, and the designs may be modified accordingly by giving due weight to the geographical, topographical, geological, meteorological, and physical elements in the selection of a site. In this respect, while the northern latitudes have many favorable features, the ports on the Great Lakes are closed more than one­third of the year. On the other hand, while the southern ports on the Gulf of Mexico are open all the year, the high temperatures have hitherto prevented the storage of perishable freights, but the rapid increase of cold­storage warehouses is in a measure eliminating this objection. Taking all the conditions for the existence of a great city into consideration, it is believed that there is no locality better adapted to the development of a commercial metropolis than the northwestern angle of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. With the removal of the bar which separates the harbor from the commerce of the world, there will be a magical city springing up by the sea which should rival Venice in her palmiest days. The eastern cities are limited in their territory by the long­rail haul over numerous chains of mountains, so that the lines of least resistance for the trans­Mississippi region are either gulfward or lakeward. The early construction of the Nicaragua canal or the Tehuantepec ship railway, or both, will add weight to these suggestions as to the future of our gulf cities.

But it is not only the probable size of the city that should be considered in the nucleus of the plan. Its principal characteristic, as determined by the occupation of its inhabitants, is also an important element in the distribution of its population, and in the provision to be made for all kinds of service. Thus, for a commercial center, the greatest stress must be laid upon ample terminal facilities, warehouses, piers, elevators, and yardage, with convenient markets, exchanges, and chandlers, and accessible residence quarters. The conditions in a manufacturing town will be materially changed as to the character of the service and distribution of population, while for a capital or legislative center other plans are more suitable. All plans are largely influenced, however, by the local topography, and the prevailing mistake is made of placing the first highway parallel to some line of communication, be it common road, railroad, or water­course, and using this as a base from which to lay off a rectangular system of streets. This error requires grades which sometimes exceed 20 per cent. from the water frontage back to the plateau, and greatly restricts the commerce by adding to the terminal expenses as well as to the difficulties of laying and maintaining service­mains for the city.

Probably one of the earliest and best­considered attempts to plan for the future of a great city was that of William Penn in founding his colony on the Delaware. Although, in the two centuries which have elapsed, Philadelphia has far surpassed the most sanguine expectations of its projector, it still deservedly retains the distinction of being, par excellence, "The City of Homes." The wisdom and foresight of its founder are illustrated by these extracts from his instructions to his commissioners, William Crispin, John Bezar, and Nathaniel Allen:
The creeks should be sounded on my side of Delaware river, especially Upland, in order to settle a great towne, and be sure to make your choice where it is most navigable, high, dry, and healthy. That is, where most ships may best ride, of deepest draught of water, if possible to load or unload at ye Bank or key side, without boating or littering it....

Such a place being found out for navigation, healthy scituation, and good soyle for provision, lay out ten thousand acres contiguous to it in the best manner you can, as the bounds and extent of the libertyes of the said towne. .

Be sure to settle the figure of the Towne so as yt the streets hereafter may be uniforme downe to the Water from the Country bounds lett ye place for the store house from the middle of the Key, wch will yet serve for market and State houses too . . . let the Houses be built in a line, or upon a line as much as may be.... The Distance of each House from the Creek or Harbor should in my judgt a measured quarter of a Mile, at least two hundred paces, because of building hereafter, streets downwards to ye Harbor.

Let every House be placed if the Person pleases in ye middle of its plat as to the breadth way of it so that there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or fields, yt it may be a greened Country Towne, wch will never be burnt and alwayes be wholesome. I Judge yt you must be guided in yore breadth of Land by wt you can get yt is unplanted and will not be parted wth, but so far as I can guesse at this Distance me thinks in a Citty, each share to have fifty Poles (855 ft) upon ye Front to ye River, and ye rest Backward will be sufficient.

It would appear that Philadelphia was designed to be a commercial city, and that ample provision was made in Penn's plans for a comprehensive frontage. Unfortunately this rule has not been observed, and, now that it is proposed to expend about $8,000,000 in removing the obstructions to commerce and reconstructing the harbor front, the city is embarrassed by innumerable legal and physical obstacles, brought to bear by riparian owners. In reply to a question as to the rights of freeholders to build vaults in the high banks along the river front, William Penn wrote in 1684:

The bank is a top common, from end to end. The rest next the water, belongs to front lot men no more than back lot men. The way bounds them. They may build stairs, and at the top of the bank, a common exchange, or walk, and against the street common wharfs may be built freely; but into the water, and the shore, is no purchasers.

In consequence, Philadelphia soon became the most prosperous commercial city of the continent, and maintained her supremacy until the opening of the waterways to the west, via the Erie canal, (in 1826) transferred it to New York.

As this river frontage was acquired by Stephen Girard, it will be of interest to note that in his will, dated February 16, 1830, he sets apart $500,000 for many public purposes and, inter alia, "to lay out, regulate, curb, light and pave a passage­way or street . . . fronting the river Delaware, not less than twenty­one feet wide, . . . to keep clean all docks, . . . to pull down all platforms carried out from the east part of the city over the river Delaware on piles or pillars." Yet this is the part of the frontage where the avenue is now to be widened to 150 feet and where "open" or pile piers are to be built over 500 feet in length. Such are the exigencies of commerce. Penn's plan, if followed, would have enabled the city to retain control of this magnificent franchise, to her great benefit and profit.

Another illustration from the history of our American cities is the carefully­matured plan that was prepared for the national capital. It was laid out by Andrew Ellicott, C. E., after the plans of Major Pierre L'Enfant,(1) and one of the original prints may be seen among the relics filed in the Washington manor at Mount Vernon. The title reads: "Plan of the City of Washington, in the territory Of Columbia, ceded by the States of Virginia and Maryland to the U. S. of America, and by them established as the seat of Government after the year MDCCC. Engraved by Thackara and Vallance, Phila., 1792." This plan was the nucleus of the present city. The notes on its face read as follows:

The grand avenues and such streets as lead immediately to public places are from 130 to 160 feet wide, and may be conveniently divided into footways, walks of trees, and carriage­way. The other streets are from 90 to 110 feet wide. In order to execute this plan Mr. Ellicott drew a true meridional line by celestial observation, which passes through the area intended for the Capitol; these lines he crossed by another, due east and west, which passes through the same area. These lines were accurately measured and made the basis on which the whole plan was executed. He ran all the lines by a transit instrument . . . and left nothing to the uncertain", of the compass.

OBSERVATIONS EXPLANATORY OF THE PLAN.

I. The positions for the different edifices, and for the several squares or areas of different shapes, as they are laid down, were first determined on the most advantageous ground, commanding the most extensive prospects and the better susceptible of such improvements as either use or ornament may hereafter call for.

II. Lines or avenues of direct communication have been devised to connect the separate and most distant objects with the principal. Attention has been paid to the passing of those leading avenues over the most favorable ground for prospect and convenience.

III. North and south lines intersected by those running due east and west make the distribution of the city into streets, squares, etc., and those lines have been so combined as to meet at certain given points with those divergent avenues so as to form on the spaces "first determined" the different squares or areas.

Here then is a typical plan based upon topographic sites for the principal buildings, connected by "air" lines of ample width, and a street system oriented on the true meridians, yet with a distinct purpose and no serious obstructions to the execution of the plan. Washington has ever been known as the city of "magnificent distances." Its reputed beauty is due largely to the complete revision of its grades and pavements under the régime of Alexander R. Shepherd, a quarter of a century ago, and its systematic prosecution by the District commission since that date. But while admirably adapted to the purposes of a national capital, the plan would be an unwarranted extravagance under ordinary municipal management. Few cities could afford to sacrifice 43 per cent. of their total area to street uses with the heavy expenses of maintenance. Great widths are not required for traffic or even for sanitation, the tendency being to neglect the untraveled portions, which in consequence become obnoxious. The "lungs" of the city had better be concentrated in squares or parks at frequent intervals and off the thoroughfares, leaving the streets to be designed only for their legitimate uses of traffic. Even for a large business, the best width for streets will be found to approximate to the four rods (66 feet) so common in our large western cities, although this is wider than is necessary for all streets. On the other hand, the boulevards, of which there may be a limited number, should exceed 100 feet.

The streets 50 feet wide as designed for Philadelphia by the proprietor are now found to be too narrow for the purposes of traffic since the city is gridironed by street­car tracks. These occupy the crown of each street, leaving less than nine feet clearance on either side between track and curbs and causing frequent obstructions. Yet in laying out new towns and villages in suburban districts fifty feet is thought to be a liberal width, while country roads are more frequently either two rods or thirty feet, with no provision for widening near cities.

The relative directions of the streets with reference to each other and to the meridian also merit consideration. The effort is too frequently made to locate the lines of travel on the cardinal points of the compass. The result is too great exposure to the sun in some quarters and not enough in others. The diagonal orientation, on the other hand, would provide a more equable distribution of the solar influences with better sanitary results.

Whether the blocks should be square or rectangular will depend upon the unit or size of the lot. Ordinarily the rectangle is considered the better plan, with a ratio of about 1 to 4 or 1 to 5 for the lot and 1 to 2 for the block; that is, the lots may average 25 x 100 or 125 feet, while the blocks may run 250 x 500 feet.

But these matters of detail are usually determined by the whim of the property­owner whose interest it is to cut up the farm so as to produce the greatest revenue irrespective of adjacent requirements. Hence many new cities are mere aggregations of ill­conditioned and discordant suburbs, which, like "Topsy," had no training, but "just growed" to a congested maturity, burdensome either to endure or to remove. To prevent these labyrinthian appendages, in some western States, legal enactments now require each addition to be submitted to some central authority which must first approve of the plan and see that it accords with the adjacent plats in its general features. The full bearing of this point may be seen from an inspection of an atlas of almost any rapidly­growing suburban town in one of the older States, the several land­owners having been at liberty to divide up their properties at will. It will be noted that the streets are short disconnected passage­ways, and that their total length is greater than would be required for a much better service on a preconceived general design. The maintenance of this abortion imposes unnecessary expense upon the town for all time, and, although the original owner may secure a few more dollars for his tract, he has in the aggregate to construct and maintain a greater length of streets. This is generally done in the cheapest and most primitive way and with little or no provision for drainage or water­supply, until these heterogeneous plats are incorporated into a borough or town, when the taxpayer must pay a higher rate to maintain or correct the errors of grade alignment, drainage, and other municipal service.

Concerning the distribution of the population, where it is homogeneous and does not exceed the sanitary limit of 100 per acre, there is no necessity for any other than a rectangular system of streets, if the town is always to remain limited in size, to, say, one square mile or 64,000 population. But when it runs up to the hundreds of thousands, it is evident that numerous convergent avenues must be provided from different centers to meet the enlarged requirements of travel. Upon this sanitary basis, with five to a family, and but one family to a residence, there would result twenty lots to the acre, and, if 33 per cent. be taken for street areas, there will be left 29,040 square feet for the twenty lots, giving an average of 1452 square feet, or lots 15 x 96.7 feet, a size small enough for the most avaricious. This, however, is for the greatest permissible density of population, and is a limit which is seldom adopted. Under this limitation a city of 1,000,000 inhabitants would require 10,000 acres, or 15.6 square miles--a tract nearly four miles square--with diagonals of 5.6 miles. Unless such diagonals were provided in the original plan, it would require a space of eight miles to be paved in moving from one corner to the opposite diagonal. Such divergent or radial lines would increase the available assessable frontages more than they would diminish the available building area, and are therefore fully warranted public improvements, for which provision should be made on the best topographic lines in the location and orientation of a large city.

The ideal design of Gonzalez City, on the bay of Topolobampo, Gulf of California, furnishes an illustration of variations in width and directions of streets with numerous plazas, Alamedas, and rondos, but laid out with a geometric regularity which can scarcely adapt itself economically to an extended terrane.[sic] The parks also are too numerous and extensive, and interrupt the continuity of some of the principal avenues.

In the old portion of the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, will be seen an abnormal outgrowth of circumstances, where near the "Seven Corners" the street named Second runs into Third, while Third intersects and extends across Fourth, cuts Fifth at its terminus, and is parallel to part of Sixth. So in one place the numbers of the streets taken consecutively read Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth, with no Eighth street.

The topography of the site is peculiar, as it rises in three terraces from the flats and is intersected by a ravine which enables the railroads to pass from the river bank to the plateau. The variations in lots and blocks of the numerous additions are shown on the small section of the map selected as a type.

It is impossible to enter here upon a minute analysis of the numerous types of city development, or to elaborate upon the enormous expenditures required to overcome their original defects. It is a matter of more moment to a city that her plan should be carefully adapted to the topography, and the physical obstructions to urban traffic be removed, than that similar care and skill be bestowed upon the location of a railroad or other communication with outlying districts. Hence we are forced to the conclusion that, the size and location having been determined, the form or direction of growth must be governed largely by local physical conditions. The presence of a commercial frontage will manifest itself by a prolongation along the water. Thus Chicago has a length of twenty­four miles and a depth of only eight miles. Manhattan Island is about 13 1/2 miles long and two wide, giving about twenty­eight miles of frontage.

It will be seen that no absolute rules can be laid down, but that the topography must exercise the predominating influence and suggest the plan. If the site selected does not lend itself naturally to a rectilinear plan with occasional diagonal thoroughfares, then the curvilinear or angular, divergent or serpentine may be adopted, if, by so doing, distances may be reduced and grades (except for drainage) be avoided. By all means the formation of towns and cities by the aggregations of individual plats laid out to suit the owner should be avoided even by prohibitory legislation.

There exists to day in all civilized countries a strong tendency towards concentration in social and business centers, and the effect is manifest in the rapid growth of cities by the removal thereto of the rural population. Wherever favorable conditions exist, there will be found springing up a hamlet, borough, village, or town which in a few decades may expand to the dimensions of a city.

In any event, provision should be made both in the selection of the site and in the preparation of the plan of such a nucleus for its ultimate expansion, and much will be saved if the advice of some competent engineer be solicited in advance as to both these points. Even the character of the soil upon which a town may be built plays an important part in the sanitary condition of its inhabitants.

The purity and cost of its water supply as well as the facilities for sewage disposal are also functions of the site which should be selected so that these may be provided for, to a large extent, at least, by gravity, and without contamination of the streams serving other localities. Hence the desirability of professional advice.

1. The history of L'enfant's plan becomes almost pathetic. Leaving France on the outbreak of the American revolution, he joined the Federal army and soon won the confidence of the Commander-in-chief for his courage and ability. After the close of the war he took up his abode in Philadelphia, and upon the cession of the District of Columbia to the United States as the seat of government, in 1791, General Washington appointed Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant to design the plan for the future capital. This he did with his usual skill, but on being requested to surrender his plan to the commissioners for publication, he declined on the ground that, if they were made public, speculators would select the best sites and build rookeries thereon, thus marring his ideal. He was accordingly relieved from the duty on March 1, 1792, and Andrew Ellicott, afterward geographer general of the United States, was appointed in his stead. Before the close of the year 1792 a new plan was prepared following as closely as might be the suggestions of L'Enfant, and the commission, at the President's suggestion, sent to the latter 500 guineas and a choice lot of ground for his former services. These he insolently declined, and the last years of his life he spent in haunting the lobbies of Congress, trying to secure compensation. He died in poverty about 1825 at a manor overlooking the site of the city, and was buried under a solitary cypress which marks his unhonored grave. (See "The Story of the City of Washington." by Todd published by Putnam 1889. For these notes acknowledgment is due to Harrison H. Dodge, superintendent of Mount Vernon. 


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 
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