Manhattan's Street Grid Plan

You either love it or hate it, but nothing says New York like the street grid of Manhattan. We look at how and why it came about.

What was New York like before the grid plan?

New York was first 'officially' discovered in 1626 by Dutch colonists, and originally named New Amsterdam. In 1664 the city came under British control and was renamed New York after King Charles II of England.

The city's advantageous position at the mouth of the Hudson River, which feeds onto the Atlantic, helped it grow as a significant trading port and it by 1890 it was the largest city in the USA, and has been ever since. It even served briefly as the capital of the USA from 1785 until 1790.

The landscape of New York in those early years was rough and rich, home to hills and valleys, streams and ponds, forests and swamps. It was known as the 'Island of Hills' by those initial landowners who settled in the city. They built roads and property in an ad-hoc way to accommodate the terrain. See image to right from 1770.

By 1807, a team was hired to create a master plan to shape of the city and help structure its chaotic, sprawling evolution. It was this plan that became the iconic grid of streets that we know today.




Exactly what is New York's grid plan?

Unlike cities like London and Paris whose roads are planned in a spoke and wheel layout, New York's streets and avenues follow a mostly horizontal and vertical criss-cross direction.

The three-man team who designed the street plan in 1807-1811 chose a neat system full of parallel avenues and streets crossing at right angles in an unbroken grid. The original rough landscape of the city was totally disregarded and would in fact completely disappear as the grid overspread the island. It was designed to be a totally new skeleton for the land, created with the idea of being conducive to future building and housing in the city. See image to left of the Commissioners Map plan for the city, 1807.

new york city 1811 grid plan

How was the restructuring of the city achieved?

The job of surveying Manhattan was left to a man named John Randel. A precise man, Randel fashioned his own handcrafted measuring tools that didn't expand or contract in response to the weather. Over the next several years he and his small army of surveyors took these instruments to every corner of the island. Property owners didn't welcome these intrusions — Randel himself was arrested more than once for trespassing — and the state had to pass new laws to assert the rights of the surveyors to fulfil their task.

Once the survey was complete, the previous terrane was flattened and replaced with strict straight streets, housing blocks and right angled buildings. At first many land owners contested the loss of their expansive country estates though over time, they recognised how much money they would make by subdividing their land.

The Manhattan grid has split opinon, being called both "a disaster" of urban planning - there were several attempts to reform the grid in the late 19th Century - and "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilisation." However you feel about it, the grid continues to define daily life in the city. It creates the structural bones of Manhattan and is central to its workings as a living city. Indeed, it's strict design is believed by many to have had a lasting and hugely beneficial impact on the success New York.

View the grid system, and see this stunning city up close in our stunning map of contemporary New York.